SUWANEE -- Hank Freedman has too many valuable things to say. There will be no one else in this story, at least not directly. This 90-year-old Suwanee man might as well be the only person Tom Brokaw envisioned when he coined "The Greatest Generation." He has stories to tell.
Hank (nee Henry) Freedman was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1921. His mother passed away from a brain tumor when he was 8. His father was gassed in the French trenches of World War I and hardly able to raise three children on his own.
Hank and his brother were adopted by their grandmother, who would later faint when Hank called her from New York on May 8, 1945 -- Victory in Europe Day -- to tell her he was back in the States after 98 days as Nazi Prisoner of War No. 23351.
Long before that, Freedman remembers trips to the bakery for yesterday's bread. It was always hard. They had very little.
"She would say, 'Eat it, it's good for your teeth.'"
Dec. 19, 1944. Captured. The Battle of the Bulge was over, at least for Hank Freedman and about 25 comrades from the 106th Infantry.
Now a German sergeant was arguing with a German lieutenant. The German language is littered with Yiddish roots. Freedman was able to ascertain what their disagreement was about, and share with his fellow soldiers.
"I said, 'Well, the German sergeant wants to shoot us, and the lieutenant is letting him know that he's in charge and he'll make the decision."
This was two days after the "Malmedy Massacre," where the Nazis had lined up 84 American prisoners and mowed them down with machine guns. Word had gotten around.
"You can be sure there weren't any atheists in our group. Everybody was praying."
If you were to see Hank Freedman in 2012, you'd peg him for 70, maybe 75 years old. He's about 5-foot-9 with a full head of silver hair, glasses and, according to his doctor, "the nerves of a 16-year-old."
He has a cellphone, uses email.
He's the active, smiling, long-retired national electronics buyer for Rich's department store, the father of two sons, grandfather of four young women, great-grandfather of two young girls. He volunteers at Gwinnett Medical Center's information desk each Wednesday.
The twang he earned growing up in Boston still makes an occasional appearance.
He spent 51 loving years married to wife Betty before she passed in 2004. She's buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of America's heroes, awaiting their reunion.
Hank Freedman kept a journal.
It began three days after the Germans started destroying the forests of Ardennes, with Panzer tanks he and his cohorts from reconnaissance and intelligence had warned their superiors about. Something was afoot, they said, but they didn't know what. They found out at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944.
"It was chaos."
Hank Freedman -- a machine gunner, rank of technician fourth grade, the equivalent of sergeant -- was on one of the easternmost (read: front) lines of the Battle of the Bulge. The strategic context he recites from memory was learned afterward.
"In the course of what was going on, nobody knew what was happening other than we were being shredded to pieces."
Hank Freedman's division suffered 50 percent casualties in what would become the largest land battle in U.S. military history. He was captured. He was given the Bronze Star. Six months ago, he was given the French Legion of Honor.
Hank Freedman has had cancer twice. He's conquered lymphoma and bladder cancer, on separate occasions. He says he has no secrets, but then tells you one.
"I would like to think that my recovery was 50 percent attitude."
Hank Freedman takes care of himself, tries to exercise and stay active. He's always happy. He'll admit he doesn't eat Wheaties.
He sees people as he sits at Gwinnett Medical Center's information desk, and wonders.
"I'm constantly reminded by those people that I see -- young, middle-aged, elderly, who find it so difficult to get around, who need help, who are not mobile -- I sit there and I shake my head. I just say to myself, I could be like that ... Why am I able to do things and these poor people can't do it?"
Back to Hank Freedman's journal.
The small blue book, now ragged and kept together by scotch tape, contains brief entries of the goings on each day Hank Freedman was kept as prisoner in Berga am Elster. Mostly, it contains pages and pages and pages of food -- lists of things like pecan pie, strawberry shortcake, baked beans, corn fritters. It's a treasure trove of "restaurants to visit" in Boston, Chicago, New York.
When a bunch of barely-fed GIs are held captive, the only thing they think about is food.
"The only thing that's not in here is pizzas. Pizzas in that day weren't that popular."
By the time he was liberated on March 30, 1945, Hank Freedman weighed in at 110 pounds. His journal ends like this, a passage that makes him cry when he reads it aloud.
"The few Russians, French and English were overwhelmed at their good fortune. They couldn't praise the Americans enough. Can we blame them? I'll never forget these days as long as I live. America here I come."
Hank Freedman loves speaking to school children, even when one bluntly asks what he did when the bombs started going off (he got out of the way, of course). After he visits, he gets heartfelt thank you notes from the kids. He keeps every single one.
"I'm a great believer that we all need to understand where we came from ... How did we get here? How did we get to enjoy all the things that we have?"
Students hear about his wartime adventures (not too gory), but not about Hank Freedman's post-war rise in the electronics arena, introducing Mitsubishi to the Atlanta market, long trips to the Far East. They don't hear about his cancer or his undying love of family or know enough to realize how spry and sharp he is for a 90-year-old.
They don't hear about growing up eating yesterday's bread. They probably don't understand that Hank Freedman's speeches are also therapy.
Before Hank Freedman was discharged from the Army, he was assigned to Ft. Meade in Maryland. Night after night, day after day, he walked the perimeter of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, rifle loaded.
"I was a very good soldier. You give me an order and I'm going to carry it out to the nth degree."
Until the day his curiosity got the best of him, Hank Freedman had no idea what was inside.
That warehouse was empty. He walked on.
This is what Hank Freedman has to say about life. Listen. He knows.
"Don't abuse yourself. Take care of yourself. Be happy. Live life. Don't try to be infallible. Make your mistakes, learn from your mistakes. If you are a member of a family, let them know you love them. Don't be bashful. It's no crime, it's no shame. Grab your wife and hug her and kiss her and say, 'Honey, I love you.'"