Meet the 100-year-old Hamden man who helped liberate Czechoslovakia in 1945

HAMDEN — Four unusual visitors — two men and two women — came to the door of Robert Muthersbaugh’s Braeside Drive home in Hamden on a recent evening.

Attired in military dress, the men were defense attaches who had traveled with their wives from the Czech embassy in Washington, D.C., to present Muthersbaugh with a medal to honor his role in the liberation of Czechoslovakia during World War II.

Though he turned 100 in October, Muthersbaugh shows no sign of slowing down. His family marvels at how he still has a driver’s license.

A neighbor who attended the award ceremony remarked, amazed, about how he often runs into Muthersbaugh at the local grocery store.

As the Czech officers arrived, Muthersbaugh rose excitedly to greet them. One carried a six-pack of Pilsner Urquell, a famous beer from the city of Pilsen, under his arm.

It wasn’t the first time Muthersbaugh was offered Czech beer. Seventy-six years ago, as a radio operator for the 16th armored division of Gen. George S. Patton’s army, he was among the first troops to arrive in Pilsen to liberate the city from the Germans.

“They were retreating — the (German) soldiers were retreating and shooting at us as they were retreating, and also some snipers stayed behind to kill as many Americans as they could, but eventually we cleared them all out,” Muthersbaugh recalled.

The Pilsen natives then gave the American troops a warm welcome.

“Everybody was all excited,” Muthersbaugh said. “They were the captives of the Germans ... and we freed them.”

One Czech who greeted Muthersbaugh offered him local beer.

“I said, ‘I don’t wanna seem ungrateful, but I’d rather have a glass of milk,’” Muthersbaugh remembered telling the local.

He recounted the story to the visitor’s to his home Monday evening, including the Czech defense attaches as well as family and friends who had gathered for the ceremony.

The liberation of Czechoslovakia took place in May 1945. Every year, Pilsen, a city in the modern-day Czech Republic, holds a festival to celebrate it.

Until six or seven years ago, however, Muthersbaugh was unaware of the festival, and his role in the liberation had been all but forgotten.

Shortly after arriving in Pilsen all those years ago, Muthersbaugh was diagnosed with tuberculosis and whisked between European hospitals until finally making it back to the United States, he said.

He was admitted to a military hospital in New Mexico, where staff brought him ice cream six to eight times a day to help him gain weight, he said.

When asked, he had identified the treat as a favorite food, he said, and before long he earned a new nickname: “Sgt. Ice Cream.”

Muthersbaugh remembered doctors repeatedly telling him he would not survive without a lobectomy, an operation where an entire lobe of the lung is removed. He resisted, finally agreeing to the procedure after he was frightened by the deaths of other admitted servicemen, he said.

Before the operation could take place, however, Muthersbaugh received a visit from a doctor.

“He says, ‘Sgt. Ice Cream, we’re not gonna operate,’” Muthersbaugh recalled. “‘You’re getting better, and we don’t know why.’”

And so the WWII veteran survived tuberculosis — and lived to be 100.

But because he had been separated from his outfit, Muthersbaugh said, he never learned of the annual celebrations honoring the liberation.

That changed roughly seven years ago, when he agreed to drive a neighbor to Yale New Haven Hospital for a medical procedure. The neighbor’s doctor, Martin Plavec, was Czech.

After learning the physician’s nationality, Muthersbaugh shared his memories of Pilsen.

“For 70 years, nobody knew about (Muthersbaugh) until he mentioned this, and I think it’s important to remember the soldiers,” Plavec said. “We should always be thankful for them.”

It was Plavec who revived Muthersbaugh’s decades-old story to make sure it was remembered.

In 2015, Plavec helped raise money for the veteran to take a trip to the Pilsen Liberation Festival, Muthersbaugh said.

Unfortunately, health issues foiled Muthersbaugh’s travel plans, Plavec said, though the veteran did give an interview to a Czech television station.

Held virtually, this year’s festival featured footage of Muthersbaugh describing his experience during the liberation, Muthersbaugh said.

It was Plavec who filmed that video, Muthersbaugh said.

And it was Plavec who, Muthersbaugh said, contacted the mayor of Pilsen ahead of Muthersbaugh’s 100th birthday. The mayor sent Muthersabaugh a medal to honor the occasion, which took place Oct. 13.

Muthersbaugh is glad for Plavec’s efforts.

“It’s so great a feeling to be honored the way I’m being honored,” he said. “In my mind, I’m no hero or anything. … I feel very, very kindly toward (Plavec).”

He considers the doctor a good friend.

Muthersbaugh’s latest award is from the Ministry of Defense of the Czech Republic. An Honorary Commemorative Medal, Muthersbaugh received it “for (his) merits in liberating Czechoslovakia from Nazi Germany (in) May of 1945,” according to a letter he received from the Czech embassy.

Maj. Jan Pekar and Lt. Col. Jiri Klepetko, both attaches in the embassy’s military department, made the trip from D.C. to Hamden to present the award.

Pekar works with a Pilsen-based veterans’ association to identify potential awardees, he said.

“It’s my pleasure to meet such heroes from the Second World War,” he said of what it is like to present the medals.

Muthersbaugh appreciated the visit from the embassy officials.

“I want you officers to know that this is ... the highest honor I ever had,” he told them.