A great uncle on my mother’s side of the family was Colonel Walter Russell Hensey, Jr. known to the family simply as “Uncle Russ.” Born in Washington, DC in 1900, son to an Army officer, Russ attended West Point as a member of the class of 1920. He spent the early part of his career shuffling from post to post across the United States and Hawaii. He did, however, spend a good amount of time at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, which he eventually made his home. In 1932 when he spent one year at the University of Paris (like his great nephew) so that he could learn the language well enough to be a French instructor at West Point for five years. After a stint at the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, he was serving as an artillery instructor and officer when the war broke out in 1941.
Russ was with the 174th Artillery Group (part of the Third Army) when they left the United States in early 1944 for England. On June 30 their unit, of which Russ was now the executive officer, landed on Utah Beach in Normandy to begin the year-long trek across Europe to the heart of Nazi Germany. The group fought in Normandy, before participating in the capture of St. Malo and the reduction of the fortress of Brest in Brittany. In the fall 1944 they were deployed into Belgium (where they were on the receiving end of several V-1 rocket attacks), and participated in the Battle of the Bulge, including the relief of Bastogne. In February 1945, after Russ became the commanding officer of the 174th, the group began an operation in support of VIII Corps in an assault of the Siegfried Line.
On April 1 the group crossed the Rhine along with the 87th and 89th Infantry and the 6th and 11th Armored Divisions. On April 10, scouting detachments from the 174th came upon the Ohrdruf concentration camp in the central German state of Thuringia. Here, according to the Group history, “Nazi brutality was revealed as a stark fact,” and the men, upon witnessing “the barbarism of the middle ages,” were “jolted into the reality of ‘There are such things.’” Uncle Russ was a taciturn man, but these events no doubt weighed heavily upon him for the rest of his life. The 174th continued their advance across Germany and into Czechoslovakia where they linked up with advance units of the Soviet Red Army. The war was over.
The 174th Artillery Group was a “stout cog” for the U.S. Army, “which in days of blood, and travail, and heroism…fought a war to change the course of history.”
Following the war, Russ served for two years in Japan during the Korean War before retiring with our Aunt Marion (née Ball) in San Antonio.