Sixty-nine years ago this month, the Battle of the Bulge raged across Europe’s Ardennes Forest as the Allies fought in brutal arctic weather to contain Hitler’s last great counteroffensive.
One veteran–and one of NYC’s oldest homeless men–still battles the elements.
As it snows today, I can’t help but think about Richard Musto, an 89-year old WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran whom I met serendipitously in the early morning hours of a recent Friday at a McDonald’s in New York City.
Lucid and with a voice and personality similar to Burgess Meredith, he turned to me and asked, “Would you like a frankfurter? They are fresh.”
I was touched by his kind offer. “I’m OK, thank you,” I replied as I wolfed down a Big Mac.
“I think I’m going to donate the extra franks to the VA,” Musto said.
Gnats hovered around him, along with a distinct odor, but I sensed a warmth, charm, and sense of dignity.
I also noticed he sported a hat festooned with a US First Army, 6th Armored Division and 2nd Armor Division pin, which said “Hell on Wheels.”
“Were you in the 6th Armored Division in WWII?” I inquired.
“No, I was in a field artillery outfit that supported them–37mm anti-tank guns, pea shooters that didn’t do shit against German Panzers,” he explained. “You know it would take five Shermans to take out a Tiger tank?”
“Yes I did. I’m actually a historian and have written seven books on WWII.”
At that point, the vet introduced himself. “My name is Richard Musto.”
Richard then recounted the vicious hedgerow fighting in Normandy and how he saw the dead bodies of an entire American squad lying dismembered in their foxholes. One image seemed seared in his mind: a dead man’s severed arm still bearing a gleaming gold wedding band.
“I remember thinking about how if only Americans at home could see this,” he said.
He then took me through his life. “I owned my first horse in 1963,” he began. Later, he held a slew of jobs: photographer, private investigator, and even an amateur boxer before the war.
“See this fist?” Musto put his fist about a foot from my face. “It’s about a third the size larger than a normal fist.” It did appear to be larger. “They used to call me the two-fisted, white-lightning motherfucker,” he said with a mischievous smile.
The veteran also came clean about his run-ins with the police. He revealed his record, but also his indomitable optimism.
At that point in the conversation, the manager decided to clean the restaurant. “You need to leave,” he told us.
It was raining outside, and I thought to myself, “You have to be kidding me. If only this young manager knew what this guy went through.” Out loud, I said, “Hey, I’ll be happy to leave but how about letting this veteran stay?”
“No, you have to leave for liability purposes,” the manager explained matter-of-factly. “If someone slips on the floor.”
“Ignorance and no compassion,” I thought to myself. “What’s this country coming to?”
I decided not to protest too much. We went outside to Richard’s favorite coffee stand on the dark, rainy streets of the city.
“This guy has the best coffee. Let me buy you a cup,” the veteran implored as he shot me a grin.
“I got it,” I said.
As we sipped on the warm joe, someone off the street came up to Richard and gave him a Danish and another coffee. Richard gently placed them on his battered suitcase. “I feel rich. That guy used to treat me horribly until he found out who I am, now he’s nice to me,” he said.
The rain drizzled. “Have you ever lived in a penthouse?” Richard asked.
“No,” I responded.
“I lived in a penthouse and a parking lot,” he said. “The distance between the two isn’t that great.”
Ever the optimist, Private Musto shot me a grin as he walked off into the cold night.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is the bestselling author of Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc –Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Lead the Way Across Europe, Beyond Valor and eight other books. He has interviewed over 4,000 American veterans from WWI to Afghanistan. His website is: www.patrickkodonnell.com.