by James Robbins Jewell
December 16 was bitterly cold; in fact, that December proved to be colder than nearly anyone could remember. It was the kind of day those of us living in the Northwest know should be spent inside, preferably in front of a fire or maybe with a down comforter laid across us while watching the Zags play basketball. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of young Americans, Britons and other allies who found themselves out in those miserable conditions, Dec. 16, 1944, began with a bang, or rather an explosion -- thousands of them.
This Christmas season marks the 60th anniversary of what has been termed Hitler's "last gamble" -- more commonly known in the English-speaking world as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the German military machine's last great offensive, the cost of which actually brought a quicker end to the war in Europe. Desperate to stem the allies' advances since D-Day, it was the Germans' last chance at staving off defeat.
During the years from 1995-98, it was my distinct privilege to interview some 50 military and civilian members of the World War II generation. (Thirty others contributed written memoirs or answered questionnaires.) Many were Battle of the Bulge veterans. This diverse group of interviewees included people from England, Russia, Italy, a Polish Holocaust survivor and of course dozens of Americans. They all told incredible stories, each one historically important. If many described heart-wrenching loss, suffering, or the horrors of war, all spoke of strength, resilience and of the unconquerable human spirit.
Given the tremendous amount of press coverage throughout the 50th anniversaries of the events of World War II, I was surprised at the comparative lack of attention given the Battle of the Bulge on its 50th anniversary in 1994. What I suspected then, and learned over the years of interviewing many people who fought in the Ardennes region of Belgium, was that there were many here in the Pacific Northwest with a story to tell. The reality is that the Battle of the Bulge was not then, and is not today, a distant echo from a long ago war. In fact, given our military commitments all over the world, the experiences of Northwesterners who fought in the Ardennes 60 years ago are especially relevant today. Since there are many solid histories on the subject, this is not intended as a comprehensive retelling of the event, but as the story of how our relatives, friends and neighbors experienced the Battle of the Bulge.
In Harm's Way
At 5:30 am, Dec. 16, 1944, Lt. Earl Knuth, a member of the 422nd Infantry Regiment, and a 1936 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, was eating breakfast when the Germans ended his meal by unleashing thousands of rounds of ordinance on unsuspecting Americans. "With no troop responsibility," Knuth recalls, "I immediately went up to an observation point in a barn hayloft and looked at the ridge above town and could see a squad of Headquarters Company advancing up the hill." Whether targeted or not, it was not long until German artillery fire chased Knuth out of his perch by sending one of their deadly 88mm shells through the barn. What Knuth witnessed that morning was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
Designed to soften up the American lines, the two-hour long barrage left an indelible impression on all those who survived it. Portland native Richard Atiyeh, whose platoon had thus far "spent all of our time in freezing water foxholes with snow on the ground," remembered being on the receiving end of the artillery onslaught. The Germans, he recalled, "had their 88mm guns just sitting on the ground and were shelling into the trees and the fragments were raining down into our foxholes, killing many of our troops."
As bad as Atiyeh's situation was, Pvt. George Strong, of the 423rd Infantry Regiment, could not stay holed up in a foxhole during the shelling. Strong, of Bremerton, was a field lineman, responsible for maintaining the telephone lines, which the artillery fire continuously knocked out. As a result, he and his unit repaired the lines throughout the day, regardless of the "incoming artillery, [which] was damaging and scary." In Strong's estimation, "we did our job the best we could -- I didn't see anything less than 110 percent effort."
The dangers were even more pronounced for (the late) Lu Winsor of Gig Harbor, who belonged to a survey team that set up listening points (microphones) as near the German lines as possible. Sent out to check the posts, the shelling "was getting pretty heavy by the time we started to check our survey. Someone finally decided that there was a war going on and we were not equipped as infantry. So we headed back to St. Vith with more than a few shells bursts helping us along."
As Spokane's Don Head saw, those 88mm guns also wreaked havoc on American tank support: "They called for tank support. We had three tanks that came up." It was not long until "these 88s hit these three tanks -- two of them, the guys escaped," but "the third one they hit, and the guys were burned inside, burned alive inside the tank."
The situation was the same all along the American lines; first the artillery rattled them, then the German infantry and armor smashed headlong into their positions across a roughly 70-mile front. With the Allied high command taken almost completely off guard, the initial results were not surprising, especially given that the 99th and 106th Infantry Divisions were the two most inexperienced in the Ardennes.
Inexperience and surprise, however, were not the only reasons for the early German success. Perhaps the Allies' greatest advantage by this time was complete control of the skies. It was almost suicidal for what remained of the Luftwaffe to take to the skies. However, the horrendous weather conditions over the Ardennes and fog in England kept eager airmen on the ground, unable to help their comrades. As Tekoa's Eugene Fletcher, a B-17 pilot, wrote in his book, Fletcher's Gang, "We were fighting men and we wanted to fight. We had flown in support of the ground troops before ... and we wanted to again. But Mother Nature had us caught in her grasp. In a sense, we were being held captive just as the troops were in the Bulge."
With "Fletch" and the desperately needed Air Corps grounded, the pressure proved too much for many of the surprised American forces. Despite stubborn fighting, by frequently intermixed commands, by Dec. 19 the German advance had forced a bubble, or bulge (hence the name Battle of the Bulge) in the American lines. In the process, thousands of Americans had already been killed, wounded or captured. Among those captured was two-thirds of the 106th Division, including Atiyeh, Knuth, Head and Strong.
The German successes in the first three days were impressive but far from complete. Aware that Anglo-American reinforcements were available if Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower reacted quickly (an eventuality which Hitler scoffed at), achieving their strategic goals rapidly was paramount to the Germans. Eisenhower, to Hitler's surprise and over the objections of his own staff, began concentrating all available reinforcements almost immediately. The problem facing the Americans in those first few days was the dearth of available reinforcements. The cupboard, however, was not entirely bare. Eisenhower threw the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, still depleted and battered from two months of fighting in Holland, as well as the 7th Armored Division into the fray. (The 101st Airborne's experiences in the Ardennes have been memorialized in the book and miniseries Band of Brothers.) All three commands were sent to hold strategic points, thus slowing the Germans' thrust.
Eisenhower ordered his subordinates to use the three divisions to hold the Belgian towns of Bastogne, St. Vith and the area around Webermont and Trois Ponts -- all of which the Germans needed to take as fast as possible. In effect, as the press portrayed it, each place was an Alamo. with the American forces as the Texans.
Eisenhower's orders went out so rapidly that they arrived even before substantiated news of the breakthrough reached all of the airborne personnel, who were enjoying some hard-earned rest and refitting. Tacoma's Sgt. Wally Selden, an artilleryman in the 101st Airborne, proved that you might be able to take the boy out of America, but you cannot take America out of the boy. As he recalled, "we started turning out for football ... we'd practice every afternoon and things were really nice. And we were about ready to pick a team and start playing," but it was not to be. "One night ... the first sergeant blew his whistle and came through our area [yelling] 'Get up!' Well, I thought they're giving us all a furlough to England. Boy we needed it. And we were all excited, but then in a matter of hours we knew it wasn't any furlough to England."
Wishful thinking aside, Selden and the rest of the 101st were destined for a crossroads that had to be held, at all costs -- Bastogne.
Most of the paratroopers did not have time to fully equip, thus many left the refit area with little or no ammunition. When Selden "told the supply sergeant that I didn't have any ammo for my gun. He says, 'Well, there's the ammo truck; it's in there somewhere.' [We] went through the complete truck looking for ammo, and we still didn't find any. So I actually went right in Bastogne without one bullet."
Armed or not, just getting to Bastogne proved difficult. One night, racing toward the town, Selden's convoy passed below another headed in the other direction. "We kept thinking, 'Well, we're going in, how come they're going out?' Well, we found out later [they] were Germans ... they were that close." Until the skies cleared on Christmas Day, the situation as a whole was that close for the encircled paratroopers, who just beat the Germans in a race to the crossroads town.
Ask Wally Selden how desperate life was before they were relieved, and he will put it in easy-to-understand terms: "We had cooks out there, we had everybody out there -- clerks, everybody 'cause we didn't know what to expect." That he is around to tell his story is itself amazing, considering a German artillery shell "lit right in front of me, in fact, it partially caved in my foxhole, but it was a dud ... I just knew I'd had it, but the thing didn't go off."
As an artilleryman, he enjoyed the chance to return the favor once his battery was resupplied. On New Year's Eve, after American armor units opened a corridor to the paratroopers, "every piece in our area went off right at the stroke of midnight and you'd have to have been there to appreciate it. It was amazing, you just couldn't believe it."
For most Americans, the high drama of the siege of Bastogne garnered the greatest attention. This was, in no small part, because the 101st Airborne's acting commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, responded to the German demand he surrender with the one word reply, "Nuts!" (I've been told by paratroopers who were near McAuliffe that the actual reply was something more colorful and unprintable.)
Unaware of the drama about to unfold around Bastogne, the 7th Armored Division rushed southwestward, from just inside the German border, to St. Vith. The division, along with elements of the 9th Armored and remnants of the 106th Infantry Divisions, endured furious attacks for precious days. On Dec. 23, Tacoma's Ken Neher, serving as a forward observer coordinating artillery fire, found himself alone in one of the divisions' battalion command posts when the Germans unleashed a desperate attack to take the vital crossroads. Suddenly, "all hell broke loose, the Germans began firing mortars, 90mm shells, bazookas, screaming meemies [six barreled mortars] and flares into our position on the ridge." Everything "was frightening pandemonium and confusion," as the Germans overran his position. Before he could decide whether to withdraw or not, German soldiers entered the command post and followed the "crackle of the radio ... When I felt they were close enough, I jumped up, pushing the table and the radio in their direction." The surprised enemy did not fire until Neher jumped out a back window. Had he been injured during the drop he might have been captured or killed, but fortuitously for him "my jump 14 feet down was cushioned by a four-foot deep pile of manure."
Neher's experience was typical as the Germans finally forced the Americans holding St. Vith back, though six days later than they'd planned.
The 7th Armored Division was far from the only command desperately fighting to keep the Germans from opening vital roadways. Late on Dec. 19, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division assumed positions to block the center of the German offensive, west of St. Vith, in and around the road junction town of Trois Ponts. Expediency being the primary concern, there was no time to complete the repairs on equipment or distribute a full compliment of ammunition. As a result, Sgt. Earle Wheeler of Saint Maries, Idaho, remembered, "We only had a half-load of ammunition ... Hell, when you got up fighting somewhere if you didn't have much ammunition ... you either stole [a weapon] from the Germans or else you were awful careful with what you had."
As Wheeler's convoy wound its way toward the assigned area, he remembered those with inoperable machine guns. "They worked it over while we were riding that truck. I know the other trucks were the same damn way, because you'd hear a little short burst of machine gun fire ... [and] you knew a guy riding in that truck was working his machine gun over so it would work." Their handiwork paid off over the next few weeks.
After reaching their destination, "the first thing" Wheeler and his comrades came upon "was one dead German, and then pretty quick we came around a point and over here there were some dead Americans, then here was a truck, the driver slumped over the steering wheel ... dead." They found many more.
Christmas in the Ardennes
With troops scattered across the Ardennes trying their best to fend off the increasingly desperate German attacks, compounded by the tremendous number of casualties, Christmas 1944 left an indelible memory on those who survived. Fear of German attacks, the grim daily tasks before the American personnel, the pain of a shattered body and battered spirit, and joyous dumb luck is how some locals recall that Christmas.
While hundreds of thousands spent Christmas 1944 in the thick of the fighting in the bitter cold of the Ardennes, thousands of others were on their way to join them as replacements. Among the replacements was Joe DeLay, now a Spokane attorney who is originally from Sandpoint. DeLay's company was under orders to hurry to the front to join the encircled 101st Airborne in Bastogne. Describing himself and the other replacements as "cannon fodder," DeLay, then 18 years old, spent Christmas Day flying across the U.S. in an unheated C-47 transport plane. Given the altitude, the temperature inside the plane was bitterly cold: "We complained to the pilots that we needed to land to thaw our feet, but that was hardly anything compared to what they were going through in Bastogne." Frozen feet notwithstanding, his plane made it to New York, from where he left -- by ship and then train -- to join the surviving members of the 101st in January.
Women were near the front lines, too. Lt. May Buelow (Alm) and the rest of the 104th Evacuation Hospital personnel were far too busy trying to save lives to give Christmas much thought. Nurses like Buelow were rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Luxembourg City on Christmas Eve. There, the transplanted Spokanite remembered, "We were extremely busy. No one even thought of Christmas. No one said, 'Merry Christmas.' We were just in over our heads ... We ate C-rations, again." There would be no break for the medical personnel for more than a week.
Private Phil Klein, also of Saint Maries, served as part of the support staff of the 12th Field Hospital, in Liege, Belgium, which was further back from the front lines though not out of danger. Klein celebrated Christmas by attending midnight Mass. During Christmas Day, he and a friend were showered by anti-aircraft shell fragments, "which came down like rain, except it was metal."
Far less fortunate was Sgt. Fred Pilkington, now living on Camano Island in Puget Sound. He was badly wounded in the leg and taken prisoner when the 106th Infantry Division struggled unsuccessfully to hold back the initial German onslaught. Demonstrating a wry sense of humor, Pilkington declared, "I'll never forget Christmas Eve 1944 in Daun [Germany]. What a blast! Civilians from the town brought in baskets of fruit, cookies and bottles of wine -- for the German wounded! The Americans looked on in envy." This cavalier retrospective notwithstanding, his leg almost required amputation. That night, with the lights off, he heard a clinking on his bed and "turned in the direction of the sound and in the darkness I was able to discern a hand holding a bottle of wine close to my bed ... The owner whispered to me 'Have some.' It was the wounded German soldier next to him.
The following day, Pilkington encountered far less friendly Germans when the American wounded were moved to a schoolhouse. SS troopers prevented the German orderlies from assisting the wounded, who could not walk, which meant they had to crawl through the snow and into the school. Fifty-four years later, he still "remember[ed] the humiliation of having to crawl past the highly polished jack-boots," which was precisely the point.
If Pilkington's Christmas experience was one of the worst, Ken Neher was one of the luckiest guys in the entire Ardennes, if only for Christmas. After being badly mauled in the St. Vith region, the 7th Armored Division fell back to reorganize. Neher "found an unoccupied house which had a bathtub and running hot water. What a Christmas Day present -- the only bath since leaving Tidwell Barracks back in England in July." Even better, for all the American troops, on Christmas the fog finally lifted and he noticed "that the sky was absolutely full of planes of all descriptions and sizes." There was a lot of fighting left, but Neher's good Christmas fortune was a harbinger of things to come.
Even though German paratroopers never attacked Phil Klein and the 12th Field Hospital, all hospitals were subjected to bombardment, which too often killed and wounded those trying to help the injured from both sides. Klein, in fact, was one of the lucky ones. One morning "just a little bit before we were to get out of bed, a buzz bomb landed 50 feet from the nurses' quarters." Luckily, "the greatest damage it did was to knock a bunch of perfume bottles off the shelf in the tents the nurses were in. So when we got up and got looking around, we could smell all this beautiful perfume." Klein's counterparts at another hospital in Liege were not as fortunate; bombs hit their unit, killing half of them.
Being nearer the front, the 104th Evacuation Hospital was in greater danger. May Buelow recalled one instance when "They shot all around our hospital" and "they hit this laundry unit." This led to screams of 'murderers, murderers' ... because they'd been bringing in casualties all the time." When conducting triage -- selecting who needed immediate attention -- she recognized "this guy laying in water [on the floor]. He was one of our younger guys. I'll never forget the sight. His whole arm had been shot off." Attacks on the hospitals were usually done with V-1 rockets, which were not particularly accurate, and therefore not effective when trying to knock out primary targets, such as airfields.
Fully aware that once the skies cleared, Allied aircraft would unleash a storm on them, the Germans organized one last great air raid to damage the enemy's air commands. Spokane native Capt. Glen Yake, of the 852nd Engineer and Aviation Battalion, was stationed at an airbase at Asch, Belgium. "On New Year's Day," he recalled, "the Germans launched their last big attack. They hit our field, as well as a dozen other fields right up there close to the front lines. They didn't do any damage to ours because they were ready, even though the pilots had been out partying a little more than they should have the night before." Other bases "were clobbered and many of their planes were lost." Before switching to easier targets, "The German air force did some machine-gunning of our encampment area, but we didn't lose a single aircraft."
Failing to do serious damage to the American air command doomed the German offensive. Pinching off the Bulge was only a matter of time, with Gen. George Patton driving up from the south and Anglo-American forces pressing slowly southward from above. Officially, the campaign ended on Jan. 26, 1945. The bold -- some would say, foolish -- gamble had failed, leaving the German military too weak to assume the initiative ever again. The cost was steep. American losses in the Battle of the Bulge tallied more than 80,000; estimates for German losses range from 80,000 to 100,000 -- troops they could not replace. Hitler had misjudged the Allies' ability to respond and their determination. The war in Europe would be over in a couple of months.
Whenever it snows in December, I think about the men who found themselves out in the cold, under heavy fire in December 1944. Even more important, given the extensive deployment of American military personnel today, I think about their families.
Each year, when the clergymen enjoin their flocks to remember all those who passed away during the year, I think about the family and friends no longer with us, but I also think about Don Head and Fred Pilkington. Both were among the "lucky" ones who spent that Christmas 60 years ago in German POW camps, Pilkington fortunate to have survived a serious wound. I think about their friends, the ones who never made it out of the Ardennes Forest, and I wonder how many families spent an anxious Christmas back in 1944, unaware that their son, brother, father or uncle would never sit at the dinner table again.
Some people draw parallels between World War II and our ongoing struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the world is different -- and America is different -- than it was 60 years ago. What is not different is the courage of our military personnel. Six years ago, being entirely ignorant of where we would be today, I asked Pilkington what he thought about America's youth -- so commonly derided for being pampered, video-gaming couch potatoes. His response is worth repeating:
I have every confidence in the youth of today. There is no question in my mind that if the cause is a good one as it was in World War II and later in Korea that today's young people are as good, if not better, than we were ... Each generation may be somewhat more questioning than the previous -- perhaps a little more cynical -- but that's what makes our democracy what it is -- the best in the world.
For each of the 60 years since 1944 -- and for nearly 170 years before that -- American military personnel have spent Christmas far from home and, all too often, in harm's way. This year, as we reflect on those who will not join in the celebrations again, we should think about the families of the more than 1,000 American troops killed in the Middle East. We should never forget their sacrifices.
Photos for this section have been provided by the soldiers interviewed by the author over the years.
Publication date: 12/16/04