by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & any of us carry images in our heads about the fabled Battle of the Bulge from Ken Burns' recent documentary The War.
Don Head can see the thick forests, the downward sweep of open valley, twisted and grotesque frozen bodies in the snow and he doesn't need a television.
He can see it from his 11th-floor apartment in downtown Spokane. "It was like this -- only with more snow." Head says, peering at the ridges west and south of his apartment.
"It was this afternoon, 63 years ago this afternoon, that I was taken prisoner," he says. It's Dec. 19.
Head was a sergeant and squad leader in the 423rd Infantry Regiment, part of the green 106th Division, the Golden Lions, who had just been sent as replacements into the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.
"We replaced the 2nd Infantry. They said 'Boy, things are quiet here,'" Head remembers, recalling his company settled into shallow one-man foxholes on a bald hillside the night of Dec. 15 with no idea tens of thousands of Germans with tanks and artillery were massed behind that foggy ridge a mile distant. "It was not unlike Eastern Washington with the pine trees," he says.
"The morning of Dec. 16 at the crack of dawn, the Germans opened up their big offensive. The Bulge started. I also thought I was probably the first one shot at 'cause I was standing outside my hole and some sniper must have been shooting at me, missed me, hit the barbed wire fence and it ricocheted off and made a whistle and we all dived in the ground and stayed covered up for about two hours. You couldn't raise a finger up," Head says.
The bald hillside was thundered with relentless artillery shells, rockets, mortars and sniper fire. More than 1 million soldiers fought in these crowded and deadly woods. The American regiments -- although resisting for three days while outnumbered 5 to 1 -- were surrounded and decimated.
So finally on the afternoon of Dec. 19 Col. Charles Cavender, commander of the 423rd Infantry Regiment, tied a T-shirt to a stick and surrendered alongside his men and marched with them into Germany.
"The first German I saw was a lieutenant holding a Luger. He came up with some soldiers," Head says. By the 20th, he was packed into boxcars, divided inside into upper and lower platforms. Nobody could stand up. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, were in this string of boxcars until Christmas.
Nobody remarked upon the holiday.
"All I thought about was getting a drink of water," Head says. "I had a canteen. I passed it around and, of course, that was the last I saw of it."
On Christmas Eve Allied fighters strafed and bombed the train. "You can't blame them. There was a German freight train. They didn't know it was human cargo," Head says. "They hit one car and I hear they killed a lot of guys."
The train pulled into Frankfurt on Christmas Day and Head remembers finding a water pump in the rail yard as the prisoners were waiting to be marched to their first stalag.
"I had a steel helmet. I filled that helmet with water and drank and drank. I must have drank a gallon of water."
It was one of the rare fine moments that winter.
He spent nearly five months in prison camps with tens of thousands of POWs from nearly every country in Europe and even with some
South Africans and Senegalese who were sent into war with swords. Head lost 60 pounds, couldn't walk more than 100 feet, and was afflicted with lice and dysentery.
Here was the menu: In the morning some liquid purported to be coffee or tea. At noon a big container of rutabaga soup to feed 200. In the evening a loaf of black bread to feed 10.
"To this day I don't mind rutabaga. But that bread; if you got hit in the head with that bread, you'd be knocked out," Head says. He later found the official recipe that had been marked top secret in the archives of the Food Providing Ministry:
50 percent bruised rye grain
20 percent sliced sugar beets
20 percent tree flour
10 percent minced leaves and straw
"It was 33 percent sawdust," Head exclaims. "Tree flour. It was sawdust."
There was one moment that could make a Christmas scene. The French prisoners heard the Americans weren't getting any Red Cross parcels so they generously sent over some of their own.
"They were to be shared with four and 20 men," Head remembers. He was sitting in such a group waiting for a master sergeant to open the package that lay before them on the table.
Just then there was an air raid and everything blacked out.
"Mind you now, here we are starving and we've got chocolate, cigarettes, candy, food bars -- and the lights go out."
The master sergeant, fluent in several languages, jumped onto the table -- and with the bombers roaring overhead -- sang La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, at the top of his lungs to thank the French prisoners for their gift.
"I will never forget that moment," Head says.
So in these weeks of solstice darkness, revelry and consumption Don Head bears a different list of gifts.
"I have recently lost my colon. I lost a kidney to cancer. They tell us POWs are dying at 100 a day and that veterans from World War Two are dying at 1,000 a day. So every day I wake up, I feel lucky."