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A surrogate granddaughter preserves the memory of World War II veteran Arnold Massier

By SUZANNE BAKER | Naperville Sun, Ill. | Published: March 1, 2021

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — For Jennifer Reichert, preserving Arnold Massier's home is her way of preserving the legacy of a war hero and friend.

Massier, who died Feb. 14, 2020, at 97, left his family home to Reichert, who had become his surrogate granddaughter.

Massier never married. For almost his entire life — other than when he was in the military during World War II and his last months spent in a Naperville senior care facility — the house at 321 W. Franklin Ave. was his home.

Reichert said she first met Arnold "Arnie" Massier she was about a year old.

The story goes that her grandfather had recently passed and as a toddler she wandered into her neighbors' yard next door, she said.

Arnie and his brother, Adam Massier Jr., were in their late 50s and early 60s, and because she had only fuzzy memory of her grandfathers, she called out to grandpa, Reichert said.

"These two men were lifelong bachelors who were devout Catholics certainly were so taken aback," she said.

Her mother apologized, and the men brushed off the incident.

But the little girl would frequently sneak into the back yard, drawn by the beautiful rose gardens.

"I loved their roses, and I just wanted to live in their roses," Reichert said.

"They were these amazing men to me. They were like something out of a fairy tale. They always wore matching clothes, and they had just this amazing sense of humor," she said.

"They always had something sweet to give you. They always had a joke or chuckle and a sparkle in their eyes," she said.

Reichert recalled spending time listening to stories about the old days of Naperville and they would show her their mother's things. "They would show me old photographs and tell me all the stories. This went on for decades and decades," she said.

The brothers were always together and often could be seen downtown at night telling stories from the old days.

"They were just very iconic in town," Reichert said. "They had like a signature style. They always had these fedora hats."

When his brother died, Arnold Massier had a difficult time coping but found rebirth talking about a subject that up until then had been off limits: World War II.

Massier served in the U.S. Army starting in November 1943 after being drafted at age 20.

He fought in Africa, Sicily and the European theater before being captured in Salerno, Italy, on Oct. 31, 1943.

For more than a year and a half, Massier was prisoner of war in a German camp. After walking hundreds of miles under German command on April 13, 1945, he and four other prisoners rolled off a hill and escaped.

They were able to find American troops and were brought home. Massier received a Purple Heart for wounds he endured during his capture.

Before heading back to Naperville, Massier needed hernia surgery and was sent to Coral Gables, Florida, where the Biltmore Hotel was serving as an army hospital.

Before going under full anesthesia, Massier was listening to a radio in the operating room when a broadcaster broke in with a newsflash that the U.S.S. Indianapolis had been sunk, Reichert said.

Massier turned white and the doctor asked what was the matter. "He said my brother's on that ship," Reichert said.

When Massier and his brother, who was stationed in England, returned home, they decided to move back with their parents to take care of them. "This has been too hard. We've lost George; let's just take care of each other," Massier recalled telling his brother, Reichert said.

The brothers never left.

Reichert said Massier didn't like talk about his war experiences because he felt so ashamed. The first thing he was told in basic training was not to get captured.

In an interview with Genevieve Towsley, a longtime Naperville Sun and Clarion journalist, Massier told her that he let everybody down. Towsley responded that she hoped someday he'd be celebrated for the hero she knew he was, Reichert said.

That time would come when Reichert was working on a school project on World War II.

"He was gracious enough to come (to school with her)," she said. "Once he realized how much the children actually enjoyed hearing about it and how it was a value, he just kept sharing after that. He became the war hero of the town. He would go to schools and tell them about his experience."

For the next 30 years he spoke to thousands of junior high and high school students about his experiences in the war.

In 2008, Massier shared stories about the brutality as well as some lighthearted moments during his time as a POW when he met with a group of Neuqua Valley High School students.

Not only was Massier wounded by shrapnel, but he survived blood poisoning and malaria. His stories recalled Belgian draft horses kicking German soldiers and the bad-tasting bread he ate for nourishment.

"The day I was captured, I never thought I would ever come back," Massier told students. "War is not nice."

Massier's possessions and those of his family have been donated to Naper Settlement, which is planning a World War II next year and will incorporate others into future programs.

subaker@tribpub.com

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