The herosim of an unassuming uncle is revealed with the account of his harrowing experience at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
I’ve known Uncle Dan for as long as I can remember. “Danny” and his wife, Marion, would be around every Sunday when our family gathered in the backyard of my Aunt Jane and Uncle George’s house in Hanover Township, near Wilkes-Barre, PA. I was a very young kid, and Uncle Dan was always a very friendly, gentle guy who I remembered fondly. I would see him at countless family gatherings through the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Fast forward four decades, as my Aunt Jane is preparing to sell her home after the death of her husband, George. She stages a house sale and I drive a few hours to lend a hand. Uncle Dan, 91 at the time, and Aunt Marion show up to help, too. As the day winds down, and all the buyers and lookers are thinning out, I find myself in the basement I remember all too well.
It’s “Mad Men” era wet bar and 1960s decor hadn’t changed a bit. Uncle Dan comes downstairs and sits at one of the mid-century modern bar stools and we start talking. He has been an accountant for decades, and he offers to look at my stock portfolio (yeah, right, like that’s a thing.) We talk for a while and speaks about when he lived on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, relatively near where I’ve lived since 1992. He tells me he was originally from Geneva, NY, a place near where my wife and I vacation at the Finger Lakes. Eventually, he mentions he left Geneva to go in the service.
Doing quick math in my head, I realize he’s the right age to be a World War II vet, and I ask if he ever saw any action over there. Laughing a bit, he says, “Did you ever hear of the Battle of the Bulge?
These days, a lot of younger people might think that’s some kind of diet joke, but I’m a fairly competent student of WWII and I know the famous battle was Hitler’s last push to gain ground in Belgium in late 1944. The German front lines expanded into a geographic bulge. It was one of the most violent battles of the war. Thousands died on both sides. Stunned, I asked, “You were in the Battle of the Bulge?” Impressed that he knew what he was talking about, he told me he was there a few days before the battle got really bad. We continued to talk for a while, and in the following days, it stuck with me the quiet guy I’ve known most my life was in one of the most epic battles of the last century. I gave him a call to get more details for this story.
He faxed a narrative he presented to one of his nieces for a history class a few years earlier. These are his words:
Baptism of Fire (prelude)
Our infantry company of about 1,500 soldiers arrived in trucks and camped a few miles from the German border in neighboring Holland. We pitched small tents on a rainy day in mid-November. We were to sleep in sleeping bags on the gravel. I and another soldier were walking along a fence. A lady came over to her side of the fence and asked us if we wanted to sleep on her attic floor. I told her we had to get our captain’s permission. I found the captain, and he said it was OK if the whole company was allowed to sleep in the homes nearby. We went back to our new friend and explained. He contacted her neighbors and found many who agreed to do the same.
Our boots were muddy and taken off before entering the home and left outside the door. We were loaned wooden shoes for use inside. After a good night’s sleep in the attic, in the early morning we were given our boots which were cleaned and polished by the man of the house. What hospitality!
It was a drizzly morning as we walked from the little town outside a farm of beet plants about knee-high. Our company was assigned to take a small town near the Siegfried Line in Germany. The line consisted or cement-constructed spaced obstacles to prevent German tanks from crossing into France. Quiet, not even the sound of birds, as we began to walk through the plants separated a few yards from each other. We didn’t know how much German resistance there would be on the farther German side of town. I guess about and hour or so later, machine gun fire splatted across the field from the far left and right sides of the farm. The firing came from two or three pillbox fortifications protecting the German town and situated on a hill higher than the flat farm, between the company and the pillboxes. The beet plants were in rows on the ground as flat as a pool table.
The farm was around two miles in length and over one-mile wide. The pillboxes had machine guns and “88” guns were artillery pieces similar to mortars. I carried a radio on my back about 18-inches high, 8-inches wide and 5-inches thick. The radio was a headset with a handset was used to communicate with battalion headquarters. My rifle hung on my left shoulder. After the machine gun fire started, the captains yelled for us to run and fall flat on our stomachs. We were too far from the pillboxes to return rifle or mortar fire, so we had to keep moving forward to the far end of the beet farm. I tried to contact battalion by radio, but couldn’t get through. The rain, mud and repeated contact with the ground probably affected radio workings. We were shielded by the beet plants when we hit the ground. I kept my K-ration in my raincoat side-pocket. The K-ration box was shaped like a Crackerjack box and contained a meal of a few crackers, a slice of cheese and a packet of bouillon to make soup. In my other pocket was a small Bible. My favorite Psalm was No. 23, which I would repeat as I moved forward.
I heard a voice nearby on my way forward and saw a soldier flat on the ground asking for help. I crawled over to him and he told me he was shot in the back. I don’t remember all of the details, but there was a bullet hole in his uniform. I parted his uniform and I took my first aid kit and sprinkled a powdery substance on the wound to prevent infection. I wrapped a bandage around the wound. Specialist medics were supposed to take care of the wounded, but none were around, so I did what was necessary. The soldier was 38, about twice my age, and one of the oldest soldiers in the company. That’s all I remember, except he asked my name when I left him.
The captain was ahead of us. He came back to where we were positioned and told us he found a deep road cut a short way ahead in the beet farm. We kept moving forward and crawled into the road cut, which was about 8-feet wide and 12-feet deep. The captain ordered everyone to dig foxholes, one at the upper side and one at the lower side of the road cut. We kept a few feet between each pair of foxholes. The bottom foxhole was for resting and sleeping. The top was to be used for preventing a German infantry assault. I don’t remember how well we slept the first night but we must have, otherwise we wouldn’t function the next morning.
The Germans did not attack, but they did launch “88” shells at us. I placed my rifle outside the top foxhole as I rested in the lower one.
When I got out of the lower foxhole in the early morning, I found only a portion of he wood butt of my rifle. An “88” shell had landed a short distance from my foxhole on the opposite side of the road cut. It buried a soldier in his foxhole. We didn’t know he was dead until someone checked. My lower foxhole had a foot or so of dirt caved in, up to my knees. Luckily, there weren’t too many direct hits on the road cut. The guns were about two miles away. My survival was a miracle … the 23rd Psalm … “Yea, I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou are wtih me…” message was answered.
Later in the morning, the captain asked me to take two persons back to battalion headquarters where we had begun early Sunday. He told me to request tank and artillery support because of the string fortifications holding us down. We began crawling, hidden in the beet plants. All of a sudden, shells were exploding yards away from where we were crawling. The Germans must have seen us crossing the open ground. I didn’t believe they would waste “88” shells on just three men. As I crawled a few minutes, I felt something landing on my legs. I felt there — no blood. It was only dirt kicked up by an exploding shell nearby. We kept crawling all day to get out of the area. Hours later, it was dark but we finally made it to battalion headquarters. We didn’t know the password and had to be careful when approaching the American soldiers. I relayed the captain’s request for artillery and tank support. It was late at night, and I did get some sleep in a nearby hallway.
I started back alone the next morning, and after hours of crawling, I found the road cut. I was only 19 years old and in good physical condition, and apparently not concerned with the dangerous mission.
Late in the day, it must have been dark. We received turkey sandwiches by jeep in celebration of Thanksgiving. Jeeps could travel at night with small headlights shielded from side view and hidden in the road cut. We were relieved by another company of soldiers at full strength. The battalion had evaluated our situation and decided to give our company needed rest. Our company had incurred casualties having been unable to combat fortified pillboxes without tank or artillery support, too far away from our position. We went back to the read the rear for rest, showers and cooked food. After sleeping in a foxhole, fully clothed with combat boots, we enjoyed sleeping bags which felt like a luxury.
The baptism of fire was over, with nothing accomplished and many casualties.
After reading his story, I was stunned the uncle I had known my entire life was a staff sergeant in one of the most pivotal battles of World War II, which is arguably the most significant event of the last millennium. As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer World War II vets still with us.
I asked Dan if he’s in touch with any of his squad.
“They’re all gone.” he said. After the war, Dan became an accountant and settled in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, and was present at my parents’ wedding in 1966.
Dan is funny. When I told him I wanted to write this story, he was happy but asked if I wouldn’t use his last name. “I don’t want the publicity.” No problem with me, I only knew him as Uncle Dan anyway. I’m happy to say, at 94, he’s still as sharp as a tack and doing well.
It just goes to show you that you may have older relatives in your family who have done amazing things in their youth. You never know what you can learn just by talking to them, in my case sitting on a a mid-century modern bar stool in my aunt’s basement.