It was supposed to be a little family get-together in honor of family birthdays.
84-year-old Leonard Susalla never expected to see a congressman walk into his daughter’s Wind Lake, Wis., dining room.
He also never expected to receive the military medals he earned more than 60 years ago, when he served in the U.S. Army Infantry during World War II.
He knew he had earned most of the medals, but life got busy and, until recently, he did not think about them a lot.
He did not know he had earned the Bronze Star, which is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the military of the United States after Dec. 6, 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan presented Susalla with the medals.
A houseful of family and friends looked on as Susalla’s bright blue eyes filled with tears.
“We simply want to say thank you for your service to our country,” Ryan said.
“I didn’t know anything was going to happen like this,” Susalla said. “I never expected anything.”
Susalla was 20 years old when he entered the Army on Dec. 9, 1942. He was a private first class (PFC) when he was discharged nearly three years later.
“I turned down a sergeant (position) because I wasn’t a kind of guy to give out orders,” he said.
Susalla participated in the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns, and earned the Combat Infantryman Badge.
His other awards and honors include the Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Sharpshooter Badge with Carbine bar, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button – WWII.
Susalla grew up on the south side of Milwaukee. He now lives in the Kenosha area.
His daughters, Beverly Weber and Janet Wernette, live in Wind Lake and Waterford, respectively.
Weber started the search for her dad’s medals a couple of years ago. She said he never said much about his time in the service, but that she and her sister knew it was an important part of his life.
“He’s patriotic and it rubbed off on us,” Weber said.
She discovered that Susalla’s military records were among those destroyed in a huge warehouse fire in St. Louis in 1973.
Then she enlisted the help of the Congressman.
“The ball got rolling because your daughter called us. You have a family that loves you very, very much,” Ryan said.
Susalla said not a day has gone by that he does not think about his experiences in World War II.
“I see people being shot out from under me, across the road from me,” he said.
His grandson, Dustin, a 15-year-old Union Grove Union High School student, recently interviewed Susalla for a class project.
Weber said she learned more about her dad from Dustin’s paper than she had in a lifetime.
Susalla said he remembered his final trip home from the European front on Nov. 15, 1945.
The ship entered New York Harbor – and all the soldiers hurried to one side of the ship, to catch their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
The ship began listing to one side because of the unequal weight distribution. Susalla said the men in charge told the men to spread out – people would wonder about the military if the ship came into the harbor leaning so far to one side.
Susalla was quiet for a while, taking in the moment and the memories.
“My tears say it all,” he said. “Every time I look at (the medals) I’m going to cry…I’ll never stop doing that,” he said.
“I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud that I served,” he said.