He lived his entire life silent about World War II, never breathed a word of the D-Day landing or the Bulge. Never once uttered the names of the men he led or the men he lost.
Except for one tiny story.
Whenever anyone asked about the war, Pete Hornig would say a few words about a nice Belgian family that housed his U.S. Army unit in the fall of 1944.
He would tell about the three weeks he lived in the family barn and ate three square meals a day and enjoyed a sliver of rest between battles.
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And then Pete would fall silent. That was all he would say. Maybe that's all he could say.
Which is why in June, Tom and Bev Hornig found themselves on a flight to Brussels and then a train to Liege. That's why the Omaha couple found themselves walking toward an 83-year-old stranger who held up an American flag he had made out of red, white and blue construction paper.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Pete Hornig died in 1998. He had worked for decades as a pipe fitter after the war, each morning raising the American flag and saluting it.
Years later, his son, Tom, was cleaning out his parents' basement. He opened an old cedar chest covered in decades of dust.
Inside he found two postcards. One was dated Dec. 25, 1945. The next was from 1946.
They were short notes from a Belgian family with the last name Fox.
They were addressed to Pete Hornig.
“I was shocked,” Tom says. “I had no idea he had ever corresponded with them.”
Tom remembered the story, the brief one his father always told about staying in the barn owned by the nice Belgian family.
That's when Tom and Bev decided: They would try to find this family. They would try to understand Pete Hornig's lone war story.
Tom started on the Internet. He sat in his west Omaha home and Googled the names of the faraway Fox family who had signed the long-ago postcard.
He found an email address, then another. He found a man who identified himself as a cousin of the Fox family that had taken in soldiers, then he found a daughter, and then he received a handwritten letter in the mail.
“I am indeed 'Willy' who signed the letter addressed to your father,” it began.
But the correspondence petered out before Tom learned many details.
Years passed. Tom retired as the vice president of a trucking company.
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He and Bev, an ESL teacher at Rose Hill Elementary, decided to take a trip.
They wrote to Willy.
We're coming to Belgium. Will you show us the barn?
Which is how the Omaha couple stepped off the train at Liege and were greeted by an 83-year-old man holding up a homemade American flag.
Willie had poked holes where the stars should be.
I think I only poked 48, he told the Hornigs apologetically.
The next day they went to the old Fox house, now owned by an Italian who runs an ice cream parlor out of the first floor.
They walked into the barn, which is unlike any that the Hornigs had seen — a three-story brick building in which the family long ago used to store grain.
They climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor.
Willy pointed to a nail hole in the wall.
“This was your dad's room,” he said.
How do you know?
Because, Willy said, this is where your dad nailed up a photo of your mom.
The trip to the barn unlocked the details that Tom and Bev feared had disappeared with Pete Hornig's death.
Willy remembered the 100-odd American troops who poured into this village of Soheit-Tinlot in 1944.
The commanding officers stayed in a nearby castle, leaving the young, married Sgt. Hornig in command of the rest of the soldiers who crashed in the barn.
He had his own room and permission to enter the Fox's house with a skeleton key the family gave him.
He befriended the Fox children, especially 13-year-old Willy and his older brother.
He took them on day trips to run errands and once to investigate the wreckage of a nearby American plane crash.
One Sunday before church, Sgt. Hornig taught Willy how to tie a tie.
And then Hornig and the rest of the Americans were gone, marching toward Germany and the Battle of the Bulge.
And soon enough Peter Hornig came home to Omaha, his wife and his newborn son, Tom's older brother.
He put up his flag every morning. He never talked of the war. But he saved two postcards he got from Belgium in an old cedar chest, and he sent several of his own.
“Let us hope there will be no other war and no need to lay those mines in Belgium or anywhere else!” wrote the Fox family to Pete Hornig in the postcard dated Christmas 1945.
In June, the Hornigs ended up staying in Belgium for several days before a planned train trip into Germany.
Willy, his cousin and a younger woman who translated for the group took the Hornigs to the village's nicest restaurants. They put them up in their houses instead of a hotel. They refused to let them pay a tab.
But the thing that Tom Hornig will remember most is that barn and that nail hole.
Tom still doesn't know what exactly his father did in battle, or even which battles he fought. He probably never will.
But now he knows this: There is an old Belgian man who thinks of his father every Sunday, when he ties his tie before church.
And now he truly knows the one war story his father ever told, can feel something of what it felt like to come in out of the rain and bed in this distant Belgian barn.
It must have felt lucky, Tom thinks.
“It was surreal almost,” Tom says as he and Bev flip through the photo album of their trip. “To see where he stayed, to stand there. It was just ... incredible.”