Among the hallowed Independence Day traditions in the East Valley, members of the William Bloys American Legion Post 2 in Tempe conduct one of the more storied tributes.
They ring a bell.
But it’s not just any bell they will be ringing at 10:30 a.m. Thursday after a brief program that starts at 10 a.m. at the Post headquarters, 2125 S. Industrial Park Ave. Legionnaires will then host the public to a lunch of burgers and brats starting around 11:30 a.m.
Near the end of World War II, U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Max Connolly and some of his buddies snuck into a liberated concentration camp — and stole a bell that symbolized Nazi atrocities.
Every Independence Day since the end of the war, veterans and patriots at American Legion Post No. 2 in Tempe take turns ringing the “freedom bell.”
Connolly in June 1945 had snuck into the Mauthausen concentration camp along the Danube River — the third largest Austrian concentration camp.
Connolly came up with the plan to take the bell while assigned to Horshing Air Base in Germany. While helping care for POWs and former prisoners, he heard about how the bell was used to summon prisoners at the Mauthausen camp.
“The bell was sole communicator between the masters and their captives,” one veteran told the Tribune years ago “The bell told prisoners, who were not allowed to speak, when to get up, work, eat, exercise and retire.”
“They hated that bell,” the veteran said. “(The Germans) treated them badly.”
Over seven years, an estimated 190,000 men and women from across Europe were sent to that camp. Nearly half of them were killed or died from abuse, malnutrition and disease.
Connolly, who died nearly 20 years ago, detailed his exploit for his fellow Legionnaires.
“One day we drove over to the camp, and during the afternoon light we fooled the guards, while one of the former inmates scaled the building,” he said. “High on the side of a quarry he hacked down the 4-by-4 support pole, then lowered by rope the unit composed of pole, bell and tin hood.”
Connolly was able to mail it home to the editor of his family-run business, the Tempe Daily News, to serve as a symbol of freedom and independence.
Connolly donated the bell to Post 2, and asked that they ceremoniously ring it every July 4 — and only then — as a symbol of liberty and freedom.
Post 2 members built a special belfry atop their previous meeting place on East 5th Street in Tempe, but after that building was sold and the group relocated to South Industrial Park Avenue, “it was decided that an appropriate structure should be built to hold ‘Max’s Freedom Bell,’” the post states on its website, adding:
“Today you can drive by the ‘new’ Legion building and view the beautiful bell tower atop of which is mounted Max’s Freedom Bell, which will be run on the future 4th of Julys for many years to come. And as Max so aptly put it, as a symbol of liberty and freedom for all.”
Anyone who attends the ceremony will be offered a chance to ring it.