L   eo and Sandra Reaver, 72 and 68, respectively, were cleaning out the basement of their Thomasville home recently -- "If we don't do it," Leo said, "our kids will get stuck doing it when we're gone. We were trying to save them some work."

So you can file this story under "seriously unintended consequences."

The Reavers weren't looking for a newspaper clipping about Sandra's uncle, Henry Emig, but that's what they found. It turned out to be the highlight of their day.

And they decided to share it with me.

In turn, I'll share it with you.

Because it's a neat story. Amazing and true.

The best part is there probably aren't five people living in York County who remember a thing about it.

Which is a shame because it's the kind of thing we should be reminded of every now and again to reinforce in all of us the notion that we're all capable of heroic acts if we happen to find ourselves in the right place at the right time.

This is the story of Henry Emig, if not the greatest war hero ever to be born and raised in York County, certainly one of the greatest.

Until last week, I'd never heard of Henry Emig. And I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that's the case because he was born in the same small York County village -- Bair Station -- in which I was raised.

I feel I should have known him. I did know his older brother, Harvey Emig. In fact, I delivered newspapers to his house every Sunday for about 10 years.

But I don't recall ever hearing about Henry, despite the fact that he apparently was a talented baseball player -- he was signed to a professional contract with the old St. Louis Browns as a pitcher.

Now that I've been made aware of his story, it's amazing I'd never heard of him before.

Given the nature of his heroism, the name "Henry Emig" should fall easily from the lips of all York countians. And with pride.

Henry was the youngest of nine children in the family of Israel and Clara Emig. He was born in Bair Station in 1919, but grew up in the Spring Grove area. Everyone knew him as "Hen."

He died in 1986 at age 67, following a heart attack, and was buried with military honors in Susquehanna Memorial Gardens, near Dallastown.

So that you understand the significance of Emig's act of heroism, you need to be reminded that back in first half of the 20th century, it was fairly common for the Pennsylvania Dutch folks who lived in York County to speak more German than English, especially in their homes, churches and communities.

I know that's true because one of my favorite uncles -- Uncle Charles Bollinger, now deceased -- was raised by his German-immigrant grandparents on a farm in Jefferson. He told me more than once about not having heard even one word of English until he started public school at age 5. Talk about English as a second language -- his grandparents spoke nothing but German in their home.

Henry Emig grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch household. His parents and grandparents all spoke a Pennsylvania German dialect known as "Dutch," so all the children knew it well.

Emig was one of thousands of American soldiers who hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day during World War II. His infantry unit was shot up pretty badly, and he and 18 other men were captured by the Nazis.

As the story goes, all 19 of them were stripped naked and lined up against a wall facing a firing squad of German soldiers. One by one, they were shot. By the time they'd gotten to Emig, five American soldiers had already been killed.

Then it was his turn, but before a trigger was pulled, he shouted, "Haldemol! die gesheoze mir sheeze nein Kriegspefangenen."

Or, in English: "Wait a minute. We (Americans) don't shoot prisoners."

The Germans stopped in their tracks. Emig's words weren't in perfect German, but it was good enough. The Germans understood what he said.

So instead of being shot down, the remaining 14 Americans were saved from the firing squad. Instead, they were made prisoners of war.

The German dialect of his youth served Emig well enough to keep himself and 13 members of his unit alive.

In 1945, while he was in the German prison camp at Christine, near the Polish border, the Russians attacked. The Germans were more focused on the Russians than the prisoners, and it created an opportunity for a couple hundred American prisoners of war to escape. Some were killed; others were rounded up and placed back in the prison camp.

But they were allowed to roam free, looking for food and anything else that might have served their purposes. It was then that Emig found a photograph of himself, taken at the time of his arrival at the prison camp, and mail from home that hadn't been delivered.

Nearly starving -- he weighed 168 pounds when he went into the Army and 87 pounds when he escaped from the prison camp -- Emig left the camp and headed for Moscow, thinking the Russians would be helpful. But due to extreme food shortages there, he wasn't allowed to reach the American Embassy in Moscow. So he went to Poland instead.

From there, he and other liberated American soldiers made their way back to the U.S.

Once home, Emig spent 31 years working as a guard at the former Naval Ordnance Plant and its successor, AMF-York, before retiring in 1979.

Emig was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for having "distinguished himself by heroic or meritorious achievement."

All because he remembered some German words from having grown up in a York County family where Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken.

It's a wonderful story. Many thanks to Leo and Sandra Reaver for sharing it.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.