Every day, the world loses someone who not only remembers World War II, but fought bravely and triumphed over the evil that gave rise to it.
According to the National World War II museum, some 348 veterans who served in that war die every day. In roughly 10 years, none will be left. Hudson County recently lost one of its own.
On May 11, North Bergen veteran Hank Perkowski died.
He’d survived the infamous ambush in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp.
Perkowski was born in Jersey City in 1916 to Walter Perkowski and Frances Wisnewski, and was one of six children. He worked as a mechanic-turned-electrician in Hoboken’s Hudson Tea factory.
In 1942, at 26, Perkowski was drafted by the army. He took basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before he was deployed on a campaign in the European front from February 1944 to September 1945. During that time, he fought, and drove a tanker truck, in Ardennes, Belgium; Normandy, France, and in other areas of northern Europe.
Remembering army buddies
During his extensive tour liberating Europe from Nazi occupation, Perkowski lost the majority of his wartime friends. He was in one of the battalions ambushed in the Nazi offensive at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, and was the only member of his battalion to survive the assault. Perkowski was an eye witness to the atrocities committed at Buchenwald concentration camp, where he liberated survivors who were held captive by SS officers until he and fellow soldiers arrived.
His daughter, Adrienne A. LaGuardia Perkowski, said he saw the liberation of Europe as his crowning achievement, but also “carried the war with him,” as many soldiers who’ve been on active duty do.
“Like many of those who served in World War II, he was very reserved about everything he’d experienced during that time,” LaGuardia Perkowski said. “He was awarded the Bronze Star, but it was a conflicted moment for him because so many of his buddies were lost. He just escaped death by fate.”
She said he was grateful to have been able to contribute toward the liberation of Buchenwald, and considered it a defining moment in his life.
Perkowski earned five medals, including the Bronze Star upon his discharge. President Barack Obama wrote him a congratulatory letter on his hundredth birthday. In 2001, former Governor Jon Corzine awarded him a New Jersey Distinguished Service medal.
On the home front
He married Norma Laguardia in 1952 and bought a house in North Bergen, and had Adriene, their only child. He worked as an electrician for 38 years.
LaGuardia Perkowski said that her father was a kind parent and good-natured in his elder years.
Throughout his life, Perkowski took long walks along the Hudson River, walking about four miles to work every day.
He continued that habit for the rest of his days, including those he spent at a retirement community in Edgewater. On one of those walks, he befriended a feral cat he named Henrietta, who became his daily walking companion.
“His big thing was letting people know what he did to stay healthy,” LaGuardia Perkowski said. “He never stopped moving, and was always busy. He was disciplined about that.”
Perkowski maintained his interest in music, a passion he passed on to his daughter, who plays upright bass with jazz ensembles. He was a keyboardist and chromatic harmonica player.
Active ’til the end
He started a daily newsletter for residents in his retirement facility.
“On the back of daily activity sheets, he’d write down what the news was going to be, what was happening in the area, and all of the other happenings here and there, and slip it under the executive director’s door,” LaGuardia Perkowski said.
Perkowski was up and active well into his 102nd year, but suddenly, his health took a turn for the worse. He wanted to continue playing music while receiving care at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, but he wasn’t able to hold his harmonica.
The night before he died, he was able to belt out a few tunes with help from his daughter, who held the harmonica for him.
A patriot through and through, Perkowski played “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
LaGuardia Perkowski has a pocket-sized journal, filled with Perkowski’s handwritten entries from his wartime deployment, but has yet to open it.
“Maybe one day, there can be a part two to this story,” she said.