Museum shares legacy of local World War II hero


FRANKENMUTH, Mich. (WOOD) — Seventy-five years ago Thursday, Allied forces made a daring beach landing that changed the course of World War II. One of the key players in making it happen was the late Ralph Hauenstein, a West Michigan businessman and philanthropist.

Now, his efforts are being recognized in a museum on the east side of the state. An exhibit honoring Hauenstein at the Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth continues the efforts of a proud grandson who is keeping his grandfather’s story alive.

“The integrity that Ralph had and how he used that throughout his life … you can find examples of it in every stage of his life and through every season,” Museum Executive Director John  Ryder said. “And just an amazing guy. If people can’t draw inspiration from that, they just won’t be able to.”

Hauenstein was typical of the greatest generation: an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. The longtime Grand Rapids entrepreneur, who died in 2016 at the age of 103, was a U.S. Army intelligence officer before and during the war. His work vital to the Allies. He found a code book in a Nazi war plane that was shot down over Iceland in 1940 that helped the Allies stay a step ahead of the Nazis.

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Hauenstein was in London at the side of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Allied supreme commander’s chief of intelligence.

While far away from the French beaches where the fierce battles raged, Brian Hauenstein said D-Day was tough on those who played a key role behind the scenes, like his grandfather.

“It weighed heavily on their souls. It weighed heavy on their minds what they were planning for these young men in most cases, sending many of them to their death,” Hauenstein said.

His grandfather was there for other turning points in the war, including the liberations of Paris and the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

Hauenstein returned to the U.S., raised his family, became a success at business and helped in the rebuilding effort in Europe.  On one trip to Europe, he came across a baker shaping pieces of dough into little fish. That lead to another Hauenstein invention: the goldfish cracker. It’s another legacy that lives on today.

“They are at the bottom of every minivan throughout the world,” Brian Hauenstein said.

As we mark an anniversary of an event several generations removed, Brian Hauenstein hopes his grandfather’s legacy alive.

“I think it’s so important for not just West Michigan — we know and love him here in West Michigan — but for the entire state and possibly even the nation to understand what this man had done,” he said.

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