Almost 80 years ago, Bill Akers was assigned to his foxhole on the frontline of the Battle of the Bulge; all he was supposed to do was win the war

click to enlarge Almost 80 years ago, Bill Akers was assigned to his foxhole on the frontline of the Battle of the Bulge; all he was supposed to do was win the war
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Last year, Bill Akers died at the age of 98, but the story of his service will live on.

At age 21, on Nov. 10, 1944, William "Bill" Rodney Akers moved into his new place. It was a foxhole on the frontline of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's final, desperate offensive of World War II.

The Allies had been on the continent since June, and the last-gasp plan called for the Germans to drive through the allied lines to Antwerp; the attack came on with terrifying suddenness. It would end five weeks later in a total German defeat. American casualties, including captured and missing, would total upward of 80,000. Germany would lose even more and surrendered three months later.

As Akers settled in that day, fresh off basic training, the Germans were no more than a mile away, sometimes as close as 500 yards: "We could hear them."

Akers' division — the 99th — had a lot to do with stopping the German advance on the critical northern flank.

Akers related his story sitting in the clubhouse at the Fairways Golf Course between rounds, at a spry age of 91 back in 2014. He died at his Spokane home just last year, on Oct. 13, 2021, at the age of 98. Akers and his wife, Jeanne, had 17 grandchildren and, at the time of his passing, 27 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandkids. World War II veterans like Bill Akers are getting harder to find each Veterans Day. Of course, more than 400,000 U.S. service members never came home from the war. And as of Sept. 30, it's estimated the number of WWII veterans still with us is just above 150,000. Preserving their stories and their spirits is left to all of us.

Born on July 22, 1923, in Seattle, Akers graduated from Seattle Prep and went to work in a shipyard; he was drafted in March 1943. Shortly thereafter, he was chosen for the Army Special Training Program. But then came D-Day — replacement troops were needed immediately, and Akers, together with his fellow ASTP students, were called up from their classrooms at Oklahoma State University. The 99th arrived in Le Havre on Nov. 2, 1944. Akers recalls the French city looked as if "it had been stepped on."

The 99th was taken directly to the front, along a sparsely occupied, 20-mile stretch in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. On Nov. 10 — the day before Armistice Day, now called Veterans Day — Akers took his position in a damp, cold foxhole.

Five cold and snowy weeks went by without major action. But on the morning of Dec. 16, at 5:30 am, Akers was jolted awake by a German artillery barrage — the opening salvo of the Battle of the Bulge.

The young, untested college-age kids of the 99th were the very first Americans to confront the German onslaught. An official report puts their dire situation into perspective:

[Field Marshal] Von Rundstedt's plan was simple: to strike a thinly held line of a green, untried division with an overpowering force. Behind the 99th was the highway to Eupen; paratroopers would drop there in strength. Panzers would follow SS troops, hook up with paratroopers, and strike for Liege before the Americans could shift their forces.

"When the barrage ended," Akers remembered, "the Germans charged from the tree line. We were on a reverse slope, in a low draw — a bad place to be."

I asked how close the Germans were when first seen. "About a hundred yards. I can still see that German sergeant waving his troops forward," Akers recalled.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"Well, we held for a short time, then we got the hell out."

Akers' company was about to be overrun. They retreated to company headquarters. "We made it," he said, "and now we had the advantage — the Germans had to come up through that draw."

What happened next might be described as a double massacre. Most of the American soldiers who didn't fall back were killed in their foxholes. But the Germans were the next to be slaughtered. Akers said that after it was over, he counted more than 70 bodies right in front of his line of foxholes. And it got very close, very nasty.

"One German officer made it into our line," Akers recalls. "I saw him machine-gun everyone in the trench, and then... he just dropped his rifle and surrendered. This guy standing next to me had seen enough. He looked at the German, now with his hands raised, and shot him in the head."

The battle raged for three days. The American kids held out. But the U.S. losses were enormous. Akers' company entered battle with 186 men and six officers. Two days later, "only 36 of us were still alive and not wounded."

The 99th — dubbed the "Battle Babies" — eventually did make contact with the 2nd Division (which had landed on Omaha Beach), and together they held two strategic towns, Rocherath and Krinkelt. All would then fall back to the Elsenborn Ridge, which they held until the battle ended. Shortly before midnight on Dec. 20, the battlefield was declared "all quiet." The Germans were stopped.

On Dec. 18, Akers recalled making contact with a forward observer who told him he was calling in artillery support. Akers said he could still smell the cordite from that incoming barrage; it was that close to the American line.

During that dark night, Akers was wounded by friendly fire. "It really wasn't that serious," he said. While examining his wound, doctors discovered that those weeks in the foxholes had left him with trench foot; that's what eventually sent him home.

"I'm still getting 10 percent disability," he joked that day at the Fairways.

A final note: Like so many other members of the Greatest Generation, Akers never wanted to be regarded as a hero.

Here on Veterans Day especially, I think we all know different. ♦

This story was adapted and updated from our Dec. 4, 2014, story, "From College to Chaos." Robert Herold, a retired professor at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University, found some of his best stories out on the golf course.

This article has been changed to accurately reflect the relationship between Armistice Day and Veterans Day.

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Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.