To hear his son tell it, Art Mahler of Bellevue kept most of his war stories to himself until he found a local group of fellow veterans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge 70 years ago.
He started wearing ball caps and jackets identifying himself as a World War II veteran. He traveled to Belgium for a memorial to the battle that marked Hitler’s last offensive against the U.S. and its allies in Europe.
And, for six years, Mahler was the Northwest president for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association.
But on Saturday, when the group comes together for its annual lunch in Tacoma, Mahler won’t be a part of the celebration. He fell ill on a March Puget Sound Honor Flight trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and he did not recover.
“He went out in style,” said his son, Steve Mahler. “I’m just really thankful he got to go on that trip. He has no regrets. It was a major blessing and by the grace of God we were able to get him back home” to see his family.
Mahler’s passing will bring a bittersweet feeling to the spring gathering of the Northwest Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association. Its members expect about 70 people to attend, though most are descendants or loved ones of the battle’s veterans.
“We’re all in our 90s and it’s getting a little harder to maneuver,” said Frank Vetere, 91, of Federal Way.
The gathering is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. at the La Quinta Inn in Tacoma. Veterans plan to show off memorabilia from the war, and the group usually musters up some military vehicles to display outside.
“It is an absolute riot to see all those family members there taking pictures of all the vets,” said Beth Pennock of Seattle, who helped organize this year’s lunch. Her father-in-law, Ray Pennock, fought in the battle.
Vetere is expected to receive a special recognition this weekend. He’ll be knighted into the French Legion of Honor during the gathering.
The French government has already approved his admission into the Legion of Honor; Vetere chose the annual Battle of the Bulge event as the place where he wanted to accept it. The medal recognizes his service during World War II in the battle of Normandy just after the D-Day invasion of June 1944.
“I’m very excited,” he said.
He fought across Europe as a combat engineer, building bridges to help U.S. troops cross several rivers. He and his teammates worked unarmed, scattering on the occasions when German attacks broke up the U.S. defenses protecting the engineers.
“Our rifle packs were put up on shore and then we went to work,” he said.
During the Battle of the Bulge from December 1944 to January 1945, Vetere remembered constant streams of American reinforcements rushing to the front.
“We were in tough battle,” he said. “You push forward. You keep pushing forward.”
The battle took place in bitter winter temperatures in the Ardennes Forest along the western front. After about 40 days, U.S. troops had repelled Hitler’s last advance and set the stage for their march into Germany.
Vetere and his wife, Anne, make annual trips to national conferences for the Battle of the Bulge Association. “We save our pennies for those,” he said
He and Mahler had been friends for years through the group.
Mahler’s “actions in the war were just outstanding,” Vetere said.
Mahler died April 3, a week after returning from his trip to the U.S. capital. He was active just before the journey; his son said he spent a day pruning a plum tree before he left town.
“He was never old. He was always young at heart,” said Steve Mahler, who accompanied his dad to Washington, D.C.
Born in Austria, Art Mahler joined the Army in 1944, six years after he and his family had fled the Nazis in their home country. In the war, Mahler would use his fluency in German to supervise prisoners.
Last month, Art Mahler “was a rock star” at the World War II Memorial, his son said.
“He had people running up to him, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service,” Steve Mahler said.
When the veterans group meets in Tacoma on Saturday, the younger Mahler isn’t quite sure what he’ll say about his dad. but he said he’ll be a part of the group for a long time to come.
“I want to carry on that legacy so it’s not lost,” he said.