Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 22, 2010
Stories bring battle closer to home
The winter of 1944-1945 was a bitterly cold one in Europe. The Battle of the Bulge was fought during the worst part of it along an 85-mile stretch of the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg. It began in mid-December when German troops, thought to be in disarray, advanced into Allied lines, creating a "bulge." Many of the American soldiers had spent the previous six months fighting their way across France. Others were fresh out of training, rushed to the front to replace those who had died. By the time it ended in late January, more than 76,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured. Many of those young men who survived experienced severe frostbite.
Last Friday, more than two dozen veterans of the Battle of the Bulge attended a reunion at Manhattan's American Legion. The more than 150 others present included other World War II veterans, Vietnam War veterans, family members, widows of veterans and just ordinary people interested in history.
One by one, they came forward to share their stories.
Horace, the youngest of 15 children, had gone to war because he felt it was his duty to serve his country.
"It was cold in the foxholes and cold out," he said. "My feet, legs and hands were frozen."
Dick, a messenger and machine gunner, said it was difficult to keep up with his fellow soldiers while carrying a 52-pound tripod, a 42-pound gun, and two 20-pound boxes of ammunition.
"You're scared as hell and they're scared as hell," he said, describing his fellow soldiers and the enemy.
Art was a driver for George Patton for a short time..
"Patton was a good general," he said. "Not everyone liked him, but I thought he was OK."
He said Patton walked around with a partially-zipped briefcase under his arm, which meant that papers inevitably fell out.
"I earned my Bronze Star by retrieving some of those papers that he lost in enemy territory," he said, laughing.
Wally, part of a five-man radio crew, had landed on Normandy Beach the day after the D-Day invasion.
Bill was taken prisoner on Dec. 19.
Jim Sharp, chairman of the group that organized the reunion, said the purpose was to become better acquainted with fellow veterans, to remember the ones who didn't return and to inform those interested of some of the events that occurred. He was a Battle of the Bulge veteran himself and had stayed in Europe after the war to serve as a guard at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
Even after the nearly three-hour lunch and program, people continued to talk and to examine memorabilia. There was a Nazi flag autographed by Sharp's fellow soldiers. He had removed it from Wilnsdorf, Germany, one of the cities captured by his company. A shadow box contained autographs of Nazis on trial. Another had "sweetheart jewelry," including Gold Star pins provided to mothers who lost sons in the war.
Eula Mae Hedman was there hoping to connect with someone who had known her late husband Walter, also a Battle of the Bulge veteran. She brought along four telegrams. The first - received in January - reported that Walter had been missing in action since Dec. 18, the second that he had been taken prisoner by the Germans, the third that he was released and was being treated for his injuries and the last - received in June - that he was being sent home.
Representatives of Luxembourg and Belgium thanked the veterans for liberating their nations.
Robert Schaeffer, honorary consul general of Luxembourg, was only 14 when the battle started.
"Thank you from the heart," he said. "Thank you from my people . . . As I look at your faces, I can see that you still have the same spirit you needed when you fought the battle."
David Barber, honorary consul of Belgium, said Belgium was in chaos with food shortages and hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
He said, "The passage of time has not caused us to forget what you did."
And the stories those old soldiers shared brought the experience closer to home.