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101-year-old former Fort Knox commander dies

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No battle has ever defined an army as did the heroic stand made by the U.S. Army during the last major German counteroffensive of World War II — what became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” Launched over a 60-mile front spearheaded initially by 410,000 German troops who were armed with the latest and heaviest German tanks, the offensive was meant to split American and British forces and drive on to the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The German High Command believed the allied drive into Ger-many would be halted, giving them time to field more jet fighters and V-1 and V-2 rockets to force the western allies into a separate peace and thus enable Germany to turn its attention toward the advancing Russians.

Indeed, the weight of the German attack was such that it disrupted Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group and, more importantly, Lt. Gen. George Patton Jr.’s III Army drive into Germany. More important, the assault cut off a number of American divisions and surrounded and laid siege to 101st Airborne Division, which was positioned in Bastogne.

One Soldier played a critical role in the relief of Bastogne; one leader stood out for his steadfastness and astute leadership — then Maj. Albin Irzyk, commander of 8th Armored Battalion, 4th Armored Division. The battalion was credited with spearheading Patton’s efforts to liberate Bastogne and driving the Germans back to their original starting positions — credited to Irzyk’s leadership.

Irzyk was born Jan. 2, 1917, in Salem, Massachusetts, and grew up there attending the local schools. It was there the future Army general developed discipline and a drive for achievement.

After graduating high school at the height of the Great Depression, Irzyk hoped to attend college. His parents could not afford his tuition. In order to earn enough money for the first semester of school, Irzyk went to work in a men’s clothing store.

While working as a salesman, he became familiar with Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the possibilities for a scholarship. Irzyk applied. Massachusetts State College in Amherst accepted him and soon he was enrolled in ROTC there, earning a full scholarship.

While at Massachusetts State College, Irzyk majored in English and was elected president of
the honor society. He also became head of his fraternity and was elected to the student government.

An avid baseball and football player, Irzyk excelled in sports, becoming a three-time letterman.

While at school, he was awarded the Allan Leon Pond Memorial Award for his outstanding feats on the gridiron as both a quarterback and defensive back. In 1964, Sports Illustrated would award him their Silver Anniversary All America Award. In the spring of 1940, however, Irzyk quietly graduated with a bachelor of arts in English, earning distinguished military graduate, and received his regular Army commission in the cavalry. Second Lt. Irzyk then began his military career July 1, 1940, with 3rd U.S. Cavalry (Horse) Regiment at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont.

Irzyk’s regimental commander was Col. Patton.

After the United States declared war on Germany and Japan in 1941, the Army assigned Irzyk to 4th Armored Division. In January 1944, 4th left from New York and headed for England. Irzyk’s battalion made its base at Devizes, where it continued to train for the forthcoming D-Day landings. During this time, Irzyk served as the operations officer.

While his unit continued to train in England, Irzyk used baseball as a means to maintain morale and competitiveness, even starting a baseball league within the battalion.

Although not part of the original landing force, 4th Armored Division arrived on the continent of France in July 1944 just in time to participate in war with 6th Armored Battalion on the Cotentin Peninsula and the seizure of Avranches, “a city” that Irzyk later wrote was of the “utmost importance … as it opened a big wide door that opened up into Brittany, to the Atlantic to the west of whole France to the east.” After the capture of Avranches and assigned to Patton’s III Army, 4th Armored Division began its march across France in mid-July, into the province of Lorraine.

Meeting stiff German resistance, 4th soon earned the nickname “Patton’s Juggernaut,” with 8th Armored Battalion, as part of Combat Command B, leading the way.

During the Battle of Arracourt Sept. 18-29, 1944, Irzyk’s battalion, as well as the tanks and Soldiers of 37th Tank Battalion, beat off a series of German counterattacks spearheaded by the new MK V Panther tank. In early December 1944, Irzyk assumed command of 8th Armored Battalion, just in time to lead it in perhaps its’ most challenging assignment — relief of the encircled town of Bastogne.

Driving to within 10 kilometers of the besieged town, now Maj. Irzyk received word that his battalion was to allow 37th Tank Battalion to “leap frog” over 8th and liberate the city. Disappointed, though not one to dispute an order, Irzyk’s unit went into reserve.

After Bastogne was liberated, 8th resumed the attack with Patton’s III Army.

Despite not having the honor of liberating Bastogne, Irzyk later said he took great pride in his contribution during the Battle of the Bulge.

Later, while advancing into Germany, 8th assisted in the liberation of a German concentration camp and uncovered the horrors of Nazi rule.

After the war, Lt. Col. Irzyk served with the U.S. Constabulary during the post-war occupation of Germany in Bavaria. He returned home in 1948 and served in variety of assignments, including as an instructor of armored tactics and later as assistant commandant at the Armor School at Fort Knox in the mid-1950s.

He commanded 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment along the “Iron Curtain” at maximum alert during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Then Brig. Gen. Irzyk served as the acting commanding general of Fort Knox from November 1965 to January 1966.

Assigned to the Republic of Vietnam for two years, Irzyk served as commanding general of Headquarters Area Command in Saigon, Vietnam, during the TET Offensive of 1968.

After leaving Vietnam, his next assignment was as the assistant division commander of 4th Infantry Division in the central highlands of Vietnam. Irzyk’s last assignment before retiring from active service in 1971 was as commanding general of Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

A Soldier who served under Irzyk later noted that he was “scrappy, passionate in his beliefs, and deeply religious. I sense that part of his longevity is that he is on a mission: to tell the story of WWII from his viewpoint and to set the record straight. He is a family man, a clear communicator, inspirational, and loyal to a fault. The kind of leader you would want to follow into battle.”

His decorations for valor included the Distinguish Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. His other decorations included the Distinguish Service Medal, three Legions of Merit, and 11 Air Medals. Irzyk’s foreign decorations included the French Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, the Czech War Cross and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

On Feb. 18, 2017, Irzyk was awarded the Officer in the Order of the Crown of Belgium for his exploits in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Also In 2017, Irzyk was inducted into the Reserve Officers Training Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Knox with his son, Al Irzyk, Jr., accepting the honor.

Irzyk was a frequent guest speaker at veterans’ meetings, ceremonies, parades and dedications. He was a founding member and continued as the vice chair of the South Florida Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. In addition, he gave numerous talks at schools of all levels to discuss the Holocaust and what he encountered in April 1945 when his battalion liberated the first concentration camp in Germany.

Irzyk authored six books, four of which were about World War II, the TET Offensive in Saigon, Vietnam in 1968, and 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment. His most recent book, Patton’s Juggernaut, was published the year he celebrated his 100th birthday.

Irzyk passed away Sept. 10 at the age of 101, a competitor to the very end.

In his last interview in July with this author and Nathan Jones, curator of the General George Patton, Irzyk vividly recalled those harrowing days as 8th Armored Battalion rolled across France, the ordeal during the Battle of the Bulge, and his times at Fort Knox. He took pride in the role he and his men played in turning back this German onslaught.

A warrior to the very end, Irzyk is survived by his wife Evelyn of 72 years, three children, a nephew, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He will soon be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Daugherty is the U.S. Army Cadet Command historian and is planning to write a book on the life and career of Irzyk. Daugherty said he thanks Irzyk’s son, Al Irzyk Jr.; Matthew Rector, of the Fort Knox Cultural Resources Office; Nathan Jones, curator at the General George Patton Museum; and his supervisor, Charles Wilson, for assisting with this article. n