There are weeks where we set out to entertain and hopefully amuse with some of the tales from our past. On others, we hope to make you thoughtful. Today will be the latter.
While the month of December can be filled with holiday happenings and fond memories which bring joy, at various times in our history there were other stories being played out that were fraught with danger and anguish. The year 1944 was one of these times. World War II was raging and affecting people’s lives in a variety of ways. It is hard for those of us who did not live through it to understand how daily life changed. Our local papers had weekly columns of letters written by our soldiers, and there was a running update of who was where and how they were faring.
On December 16th, 1944, over 200,000 German trucks, escorted by almost 1,000 tanks, struck in the Ardennes with hopes of turning the tides. The D-Day landings six months earlier had driven back the German army. This new offensive was the German attempt to grasp back what they had lost – or at least stop the losses. While Hitler’s trusted advisors warned against this maneuver – one gave it a 10% chance of success – the attack was a complete surprise.
The Battle of the Bulge. Operation Watch on the Rhine. The Battle of the Ardennes, the Ardennes Counteroffensive. Differing names for the worst battle of the war. This surprise attack, which took place in the woods between Belgium and Luxembourg, was intended to surround the Allied forces and cut off access to the port of Antwerp. Approximately 89,500 Americans, 1,400 British, and between 67,000 and 100,000 Germans (their famed record-keeping having begun to fail them by now) were killed, wounded or captured.
While these numbers were driven in part by battlefield injuries, many of the casualties were the result of the extremely harsh winter. Our soldiers were not prepared for the severe cold; many still wore summer uniforms. January was the coldest winter on record. Weapons froze; trucks needed to be started every half an hour to keep the oil from freezing. Tanks were covered in sheets of ice. Fog and snow cut down on visibility – the good news was that the view from the air was very limited. Pup tents, for those who even had them, offered little shelter or warmth. Fox holes even less, if you could even dig one in the frozen ground. Belgians in a small village of the Ardennes donated their white bed sheets so soldiers could mask their dark uniforms and blend in with the snow. In 1948 this act of kindness was repaid when Americans returned with 600 bedsheets for the Bastognards.
“Tree bursts” were a horrific outshoot of the frigid weather. Trees were so brittle from the cold that when shot at, they would shatter, sending shrapnel far and wide.
While we have done oral histories with our brave hamlet dwellers who served in the war, we do not have many facts on who was where or participated in which battle. Our local papers are filled with notes about our men enlisting, attending bootcamps, where they were sent, and when they were on leave. But few details are told of those who were serving in Europe in the midst of the battle. The ubiquitous “somewhere in Europe” was offered, being one of the few phrases that would get by the equally ubiquitous Army censors.
We do know of three men who were in this battle. Two brothers and a classmate. Why only three? It is a common thread that when the soldiers returned, they put those experiences away and didn’t often visit or share them. With age, this seemed to change, which is when we conducted our oral histories. Still, much is lost. Many families never heard of the horror that their loved one endured while serving their country. While the National Archives has a complete list of all veterans, we do not have a list of all our hamlet dwellers, past or present. We are unsure what the American Legion or Veterans of the Foreign War might hold in this regard. We fear that much has been lost to time and the silence of veterans.
What we do know is that, at this same time, two of our Hampton Bays soldiers were POWs. We cannot imagine the dread felt by the families, not knowing where their sons were or how they were managing. We cannot imagine the terror felt by these men.
How about the soldiers in the Bulge? Well the two brothers served in the infantry but in different divisions. The older brother rescued some of his wounded comrades, bringing them back to safety. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroism. The younger brother heard that his sibling was “nearby,” whatever that meant. Unable to recall to us how exactly he knew where his brother was, one day he decided to go find him. He just walked away and kept walking till he got to the town where his brother was said to be. His timing was poor and he was too late. He’s brother’s unit had moved on.
We questioned whether this meant he had gone “AWOL” and if that was a concern. Our soldier simply told us that he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see his brother, perhaps for the last time, and he knew he would come back and most likely no one would miss him in all the confusion of the day. Besides, where exactly would he have gone?
Trenchfoot and frostbite was common during the Battle of the Bulge. The soles of boots just rotted off. Everyone was kept occupied trying to stay alive, never mind changing their shoes, even if there had been any to change into. The younger brother was a victim. He was removed from the front lines when a doctor asked him to remove his shoes and his toes were black.
Off to a hospital he went, while his family at home got a vague telegram saying he was injured, but not many more specifics than that. It was a tense time waiting for details. The family contacted the Red Cross who was finally able to reassure them that his injuries were not likely to be fatal. Details were scarce. A Purple Heart was delivered to his mother.
We wonder how many soldiers received medals that they didn’t live long enough to see.
The third soldier? Not much is known about him. We were never fortunate enough to interview him. What we do know is that he was in the Battle of the Bulge at the same exact time as the younger brother mentioned above. This soldier thought he was seeing things when he saw this familiar face from home crawling across the battlefield in front of him. The two made eye contact, but were too busy dodging bullets to do more than that. After they returned to civilian life and were randomly working together on a job, the conversation referencing this chance encounter during battle, as related to us, was short. Was that you? Yes, that was me…I thought it was you. And back to work they went. Perhaps neither wanted to revisit that day more than was necessary.
Happily, our POWs were also returned to us. These men took up their lives as best they could, ultimately finding a career and building a family, while outwardly the hell of war was put behind them. One can’t help but wonder what memories assaulted them from time to time.
In the end, The Battle of the Bulge was not as consequential as the Germans had hoped, delaying the inevitable invasion of Germany by mere weeks. The battle officially ended January 25th, 1945. For some, on both sides, it never completely ended at all. For some others, it ended on foreign soil.