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Corpses Thawing In Springtime: the Bulge Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1995

I wish that the teacher who assigned me to learn and recite Shelley’s “O wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind,” had been with me that day in early spring 50 years ago when I came up over a hill in the Ardennes region of Belgium in my army jeep and looked down on the lovely little town of Spa. It was dazzling in the bright warm sunlight following the last snowfall of the year. In the foreground two soldiers like me were pulling a sled toward the crest of the hill, and between them strode a beautiful young woman with shiny black hair, red lips, and white teeth, and a jacket open at the throat. Glorious as the scene was to look at, its meaning was even more rewarding. The girl’s smile was completely uninhibited, brazenly revealing her happiness with the Amis without fear of German reprisal. And the two GIs were not wearing the ubiquitous steel helmets or carrying any kind of firearm. I automatically patted my .45 for my own reassurance, but I could still enjoy the rapture of the scene. Now, at last, I knew the Battle of the Bulge was over, the corpses were thawing in the Ardennes, and that gorgeous smile was the final reassurance that we had won, and the Germans weren’t coming back.

It had been a long hard winter. One day in December I scrabbled down out of a box car at a railroad station in Belgium near the German border and blinked in the pale day light. “Everybody out! This is it!” somebody hollered. Up and down the line of funny little cars men were pouring out. It had been three or four days since I climbed into the waist-high opening in the center of the car, stenciled 40 HOMMES 8 CHEVAUX, somewhere northwest of Paris. Forty of us with backpacks and duffel bags jammed ourselves into the empty car. After several hours in a dark, smoke-filled box, most of us generally found somebody reasonably compatible to lean against, back to back. Even jammed up as we were, each of us was alone. We were replacements, unknown to each other, bound for unknown units, unknown locations, under unknown and unseen authority. Sometimes the train would stop, and we would clamber out to relieve ourselves in fields or woods or railroad yards.

So now, here we were out in the open, God knows where. The first thing you do with a group of soldiers anywhere anytime is line them up, so an officer hollered “Fall in!” Some of us questioned the goofy idea of lining a bunch of soldiers up in a war zone, but the word came down that this was a quiet sector.

And then came that sound that I’d first heard on the Normandy beachhead, a sound that I’ve heard in my nightmares for 50 years. An incoming .88, the German artillery shell. It screamed louder, then came the explosion, then the silence, then the cries of the wounded. I was on the ground, trying to dig a hole with my nose, almost before it hit. I looked up to see lines of open-mouthed, white-faced soldiers. Replacements, they didn’t have enough sense to hit the ground. Another shell came in, and somebody, maybe me, hollered “Fall out! Scatter!” We all took off like bugs.

I didn’t know or care what day it was—what difference did it make—but I know now that it was Dec. 16, 1944, the beginning of the most costly battle in American history, the Battle of the Bulge. It’s hardly newsworthy that this military enormity came as a surprise to me, a Technician Fourth Grade in that most ignominious of all army units, a repple depple, but it does seem reasonable that some of our top generals—Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of the 12th Army Group, Omar Bradley, Third Army Commander George S. Patton Jr., First Army Commander Courtney Hodges, and most of all that unabashed military genius, the commander of the British 21st Army Group, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery—should have had some inkling that 15 German divisions had gathered in the woods a few miles away and were ready to pounce.

The history of the Battle of the Bulge actually dated back to one precise instant exactly three months before when, at a meeting of his senior generals, Adolf Hitler announced that he had just made a “momentous decision.” He would attack the allied forces in the Ardennes Forest in eastern Belgium and proceed westward to the major port of Antwerp. If any general present had the urge to remind Der Fuehrer that the German Army had suffered 3.8 million casualties on three fronts by late 1944 and was hardly in a position to hold what it had, he had good reason to suppress it.In July other high-ranking officers had unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Hitler and some had been hung alive on meat hooks.

Hitler’s reasons for the offensive went beyond the military. Of the forces opposing him, he said, Communist Russia on the East and the capitalist nations on the West were unnatural allies who would break up at the first setback. By driving through Belgium, he would separate the forces of the United Kingdom in northern Belgium and Holland from those of their former colony, America, in the south. They would squabble and the U. S.would go home. Then England would join with Germany under Hitler and crush the Communists.

Militarily and historically, the plan was not so far off the wall. The German Army had blitzkrieged through the Ardennes in 1914 and 1940; they’d gotten pretty good at it. The Ardennes, though absolutely lovely in peactime with its picturesque little fir-covered mountains, narrow, winding roads and crossroad villages, is a region particularly difficult to fight in, especially in the zero temperatures of a European winter. Under tall firs and low clouds, munitions, tanks and food, and winter equipment could be assembled with stealth. By raiding other units of men and equipment, by hurriedly training boys as young as 15 and men in their 40’s and 50’s, the Germans put together three separate armies, complete with armor and artillery, as well as a special force of para-troopers and another of English-speaking terrorists wearing captured American uniforms and driving captured vehicles.

In that area the German border runs pretty much north and south from the town of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French, because Charlemagne said he was at his ease there) to the northern boundary of France. The distance is about the same as from Washington Richmond. The first German objective was the Meuse river, about as far west as Charlottesville, and then Antwerp, another 40 miles, or into West Virginia.

Sprawled across the front were two American divisions, newly organized of raw recruits and stunned transfers plucked from non-combat units. On the morning of the 16th these troops received an enormous artillery barrage. Those who lived through it saw, advancing 12 abreast through the fog over snow-covered fields, the giant figures of Wehrmacht soldiers in their greatcoats and white camouflage coverings. They may have been 15-year-old boys under those grotesque wrappings, but nobody hung around for a closer examination. Whether in an orderly rearguard action or frightened flight, the Americans retreated along the entire front. For four days the Germans, men and tanks, sloshed through mud, but on the 21st came freezing temperatures and heavy snow. Tanks could advance smoothly over frozen ground without fear of being seen or attacked by Allied planes. Driving west, they formed a dagger between, roughly, two towns on roads leading to Liège, Malmédy on the north and Bastogne, 35 miles to the south.

In Malmédy, students of the war in Europe will remember, a group of about a hundred members of a field artillery observation battalion were captured. As they stood in a field, hands over their heads, a German non-com, passing by in a half-track, shot into the group. Other soldiers, apparently under orders, began systematically shooting the prisoners. A few feigned death successfully and, at nightfall, which comes early at that latitude, the same as Newfoundland, dragged themselves into the woods bordering the field. Eighty-six Americans were killed in the Malmédy massacre, and their frozen bodies lay stiff and snow-covered for days. Other prisoners and civilians were also killed during the advance.

On the south, elements of the 101st Airborne Division were rushed into Bastogne to hold it. A German army surrounded the town, and a delegation under a flag of truce approached the American commanding officer, General Anthony C. McAuliffe, with a formal demand for his surrender. McAuliffe, in the middle of a battle for survival, brushed the whole thing off with two words, “Aw, nuts.” News of his answer was flashed around the world. Hitler, after some brave messenger translated nuts for him, ordered the complete destruction of Bastogne and everybody in it.

As the German armies drove west, commands from Supreme Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces on down through Army Groups, Armies, Corps and Divisions were scrounging up men to stop them. Cooks and clerks, anybody who could carry a rifle, and, of course, replacements were thrown into the front lines. Men were killed before they learned the names of their sergeants.

I still wonder why I wasn’t one of them. My last duty had been with a medical supply depot in Paris, where I’d foolishly gone to a medical officer about the back I’d injured in the invasion. The medics flew me back to a hospital in England for an operation. Hah. One day I was lounging in a dayroom, the next I was heading back to France in a repple depple with the sorriest bunch of misfits I’ve ever seen. One fellow, who’d been sent back because he had fallen arches and couldn’t walk, was given a pair of shoes with strips of leather tacked on the soles, told to stay off his feet, and returned to France for “limited service.” From the embarkation point to the boat it was a two-mile hike, with full pack and duffel bag, and his strips fell off in the first hundred yards. As for me, I wound up in a six-man tent in a muddy field in northern France. My first night I put on my two wool uniforms, my overcoat, my shoes, and my raincoat, wrapped myself in my two blankets and my shelter half, and settled down for a good night’s sleep. Next morning I was body-deep in the mud. I gave all the money I had, eight pounds, for a piece of 4 ×2 plywood. By assuming the fetal position on my wooden mattress, I could remain at ground level all night.

Looking for something to do, one morning I checked out sick call. One harassed medical officer and one equally harassed medical soldier were standing in a barn with 50 to a hundred GIs lined up outside in the rain. It was not as cold inside the barn as it was outside, and furthermore there was some hay in the loft. I immediately volunteered my services, not burdening the officer with the extraneous information that I’d been trained in medical supply, not first aid, and promptly went to work administering to the sick—and sleeping on the hay in the loft. I even sold my piece of plywood. Days went by. Medical officers came and went; some days I was the sole practitioner for 50 or more men. At least they got to be in the barn for a while, and their body heat and the activity kept me warm.

I received no mail, no money. Gradually it dawned on me that I was lost. One day a clerk stationed there came through sick call and I asked him about it. He looked around at my sheltered working space, at my dry hay loft, and questioned whether I really wanted him to look into it. “You could probably stay here for the rest of the war,” he said.

It was a temptation. Winter was coming, and there was a war on. On the other hand, I’d volunteered for this mess. I was a little curious as to where I was supposed to be going, and maybe even a little patriotic.

“What the hell,” I said, and gave him my number, 33638396. And that’s how I found myself lying on my face at a railroad station somewhere between Liege and the German border when the Battle of the Bulge began. With inexperienced commanders on the front line, and many lines of communication destroyed, it took hours for the higher echelons to determine the attack was for real, and more to figure out what to do about it. In the meantime, here was a trainload of unarmed men under artillery fire. Someone, somewhere, made a decision to send us across the Meuse, west of Liège. I remember climbing out of a truck in the dark and following the man in front of me into a building that turned out to be a Catholic school. Inside was a young monk with a flashlight that shone only when he squeezed a lever on the handle. Tripping over his robes, making a buzzing sound and intermittent light with his hand, he directed us to individual classrooms. We dumped our packs and duffel bags in the rows between desks and slept on the floor.

Next day we choked down our emergency rations and went out in the school yard. It was Sunday, and the townspeople came by to gawk at us. I asked a well-dressed man where we were, in French, and the next thing I knew he was taking me home. I learned that he was a beet farmer, and that the town was Waremme, a good 25 miles east of Liège, and he learned that I had been in a boxcar for a week without hot food or drink or a chance to wash. After I washed some of the grime off, his wife led me to the kitchen table and put three eggs, already broken, in a skillet full of melted butter, then slid them, sunny side up, on a plate with a huge chunk of warm bread with lots more butter and filled a mug with fresh unseparated milk, heavy with cream.

In a couple of days we moved to a shoe factory in a town nearer Liège. I found space under an antiquated machine on the fifth floor. Hardly had I squirmed into position when here came what sounded like an old jalopy backfiring along on one cylinder. Then it stopped. Uh oh. Second of silence, then a heavy swooshing sound and one hell of an explosion. It was a buzz bomb, or V-l—the initial is from a German word meaning revenge—a robot with a huge explosive charge held up by stubby wings and powered with a simple motor. It was pointed toward a target and filled with just enough cheap gas to get it there. As long as you heard the motor you were okay. When it stopped, the bomb would fall. Sometimes it came straight down. Sometimes it circled around for seconds or even minutes. If you liked suspense, you’d love buzz bombs.

Next day I got into a conversation with a little busy-body of a man who said he had worked in the factory. He led me to a tenement building and up two flights to a dark little apartment. His wife gave me a cup of something delicious because it was hot, and a piece of bread with crème à tartinier —sand-wich spread—on it. My first chocolate-flavored sandwich. They hesitantly offered a small settee in the living room to sleep on, and I unhesitatingly accepted. What a deal. I got out from under the shoe machine on the fifth floor, and he probably cadged drinks for the rest of his life on tales of the American sergeant in his living room. I don’t remember how long I stayed with him, but I do remember giving him the ten pounds I’d gotten for my piece of plywood, and asking him to buy something for us on the black market. It may have been Christmas dinner.

By that time, the cloud cover had lifted, and Allied air planes were able to strafe and bomb the German advance. General Patton had turned his entire Third Army around and moved six divisions and 133,000 tanks and trucks to the southern flank of the Bulge and relieved the Battered Bastards of Bastogne. In the center the advance had slowed, but momentum was still pushing it on toward Namur and Liège. On the northern flank Montgomery was helping make Hitler ‘s prediction come true. He told British correspondents that if he’d been in charge the whole thing would never have happened. London newspaper headlines screamed that he should take over the entire counter offensive. Bradley then told Eisenhower that if he placed Monty over him “you can send me home,” and Patton said he’d go with him rather than serve under “that tired little fart.” Good old Ike placated everybody by putting Montgomery in temporary command of only the northern shoulder of the bulge, appealing to Bradley, his West Point classmate, to be reasonable, and covering his rear with a full explanation to Roosevelt and Churchill.

To us grunts on the ground what one general said to another meant nothing even if we’d heard about it, which we didn’t. (The Germans were jamming radio reception, and newspapers were hardly being dropped on our doorsteps.)

What mattered to us was that the Germans were coming. Germans in American uniforms had been dropped behind the lines and were killing people and generally disrupting things. The reaction was even worse. Sentries and roving bands of Military Police, nervous as rabbits but carrying cocked weapons, stopped troops and asked, Who’s Babe Ruth? Who’s Joe Louis? A general named Clark commanding a division on the front lines was thrown in a farmhouse cellar by his own MPs and kept there for five days because he said the Chicago Cubs were in the American League. A few Germans in American uniforms did indeed fail the tests and were shot on the spot.

The weather was another enemy. In the combat zone men lost toes, feet, legs and sometimes their lives to trench foot. They cut up blankets for foot muffs. Two wool shirts proved warmer than one, and a newspaper from home was great under your field jacket. But still, all across Belgium lay bodies of Americans and Germans, frozen stiff, some in the grotesque position in which they had fallen. A signal corps soldier, stretching a line, stumbled over a corpse who’d fallen forward with his hands over his head, stood it up, leaned it against a tree, and ran the line through its fingers.

About the time the Germans reached their deepest penetration, three miles from the Meuse near Namur, I was delivered to the headquarters of Advance Section (AdSec) Communications Zone in a huge facility built for the Belgian Army at Namur. I took a shower—cold, but you can’t have everything—and shaved. Clean uniform, underwear, socks. Money, American money. I knew nobody, so I wandered alone through the living quarters looking through the open doors. Many men had received Christmas packages from home, and cakes, candies, and Christmas wrappings were all over the place. I had nothing, of course—my family still didn’t know whether I was alive or dead, much less where to send a Christmas present—and the Germans may have been across the river, but nevertheless the spirit of Christmas came through to me, standing out in the hall. It was enough to make it a very merry Christmas.

I also had a unit. Long before, in Normandy, I had run across a Town Major team. Whatever they did, it sounded interesting. The Town Major section needed people who could speak French, type, and drive a truck. I’d studied French in prep school and college and spent a penurious fortnight in France as a student, so I could say I spoke French. I’d been a newspaper reporter in New Orleans for five years, so I could also say I could type. And I got the warrant officer in charge of the motor pool to say I could drive a truck. When I was shipped back to the hospital, I’d figured my request for a transfer had been cancelled. But now here I was, off on a new adventure. Driving trucks! Typing! Speaking French!

My new CO, a reserve lieutenant colonel named something like Ryan, explained my new assignment. Under international law it was understood that occupying armies would seize real estate—private homes, hotels, public buildings, anything—for their own use. Before I could be assigned to a team in the field, I must study the procedure with such diligence that I would know it backwards and forwards, in English and French, under the most perilous conditions. He would give me two days. He then reached into his briefcase and dramatically pulled out a document.

It was one piece of paper, titled DEMANDE (REQUEST). It listed subheads for the names of the owner of the requisitioned property and the officer demanding it, and a description of the property, each followed by a lot of blank space. That was it.

In two days I had memorized the mostly blank piece of paper to the colonel’s grudging satisfaction. As a reward, he sent me to:
Liège, buzz bomb capital of the universe.

The driver assigned to deliver me there was scared to death before we started. He wanted to know where my weapon was. Nobody had given me one, I said, and besides, I’d been a medical soldier and didn’t know how to shoot one anyway. He groaned. The road to Liege runs on the east side of the Meuse, where the Germans were, and every few miles we pulled up at a roadblock and answered some trigger-happy sentry’s stupid questions.

Ever try to find an address in a foreign city where the street signs have been taken down lest they guide the enemy, the streets are two feet deep in snow, the residents are cowering in their subcellars, it gets dark at four o’clock and there are no street lights, stormtroopers dressed like nuns are reported to be prowling the streets with knives and the jittery MPs shoot at anything that moves? We finally found a tiny sign, TOWN MAJOR, over what appeared to be a combination residence and professional office, and banged on the door until it was eventually opened by a white-faced major pointing a trembling .45 automatic. As I identified myself sirens suddenly began going. “Follow me,” he croaked, and led us down three flights of narrow stairs to a small candlelit room, the bomb shelter. “When the air defenses pick up a buzz bomb coming in they sound the sirens,” he said. Sure enough, in a couple of minutes here it came, whap-whap-whap. It stopped, and we hunched over. When it went off, blowing up somebody somewhere else, the major said, “One of those things is going to get me one day.” He tried to smile but all his mouth did was twitch. I looked around the cellar. He’d brought a cot and a slop pail down. This was obviously the office of the Town Major.

If any American unit was foolish enough to move into Liège that month, it sure didn’t track us down and tell us about it. I straightened up the office, running down to the shelter to join the major when the sirens sounded. One day a bomb landed in the block, and I went out to see if I could help. It had landed harmlessly in a little park. People from the neighborhood emerged, we started talking, somebody asked if I wanted a drink, and there I was in a friendly little cafe. I remember one drinking companion in particular. He had been arrested and tortured by the Germans to make him identify the other members of his undercover group, the local Rotary club. As a young reporter I had gotten many free meals covering Rotary Club luncheons. This was my first tale of torture by a Rotarian, interrupted by descents to the cellar when the sirens sounded.

One night, huddled in the shelter when a bomb went off nearby, the major asked, “Do you know what time it is, sergeant?” I didn’t know what year it was, for he announced it was 0032, January 1,1945. “Some Nazi bastard fired that at midnight on the dot. . . .”

I thought at the time that the buzz bombs, by just splattering around the landscape, constituted an inefficient means of making war. Today we know that, from June ‘44 through March ‘45, they killed more than 5000 people in London and southern England, and injured another 40,000. They impeded the war effort there, but in Belgium, especially in Liege, which had long since been evacuated by any sensible military unit, there wasn’t much effort to impede.

On into January those of us back in the support area began to feel the panic lessening. The German army had failed to reach Liège or any major objective. It became the Allies’ turn to miss an opportunity. The American high command, schooled in the philosophy of attack, wanted to close the pincers between Malmédy and Bastogne and destroy what was left of several German divisions in the pocket. Montgomery wanted merely to hold pressure on the northern and southern flanks and “spank the monkey in the nose.” Tens of thousands of Germans were able to withdraw, killing Americans as they went.

During the first month of the Bulge censorship was clamped down so heavily—correspondents were herded up in an enclave west of Liège—that few people realized what a huge operation was going on. By the time it was over 36 German divisions had been involved and they lost at least 100,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. Not one German division that fought in the Bulge was ever effective again. It took so many men from the Eastern Front that it helped Germany lose the war to the Russians as well.

As for us, the Americans committed 600,000 men in 29 divisions and other separate units, with casualties of 81,000— 19,000 killed. In no other battle have we lost so many men. Of 55,000 British troops in two divisions and three brigades, casualties totalled 1,400, 200 killed.

As the Germans fell back from the Ardennes, a desperate need developed for someone with forms to fill in. Lord knows what happened to the major, but I was sent forward to Spa. Why, after months of contributing absolutely nothing to anything or anybody while others were fighting, freezing, and dying, I was rewarded with a tour of duty in paradise I do not know, but in war you take what you can get.

Spa, with its warm and bubbling springs, is located in a lovely little valley nestled in picturesque hills. There were luxurious hotels and bathhouses where you could lie in huge copper tubs while water wanned and carbonated by nature bubbled up around you. Springs around the world have been named in its honor. One of the mansions on the outskirts of the town belonged to a Monsieur Martin, the contractor who built the casino. He and his wife, in their seventies, were happy to move into the cozy servants’ quarters with their groaning, drooling little dog, Teddy, and rent the house to the U. S. Town Major.

He was also willing to make another deal. Most evenings after dinner—First Army sent us supplies and we hired a cook and cleaning woman—Monsieur Martin and I would go down into his caves. There, with a candle illuminating the cobwebby bottles lying on their sides, we would stroll among them as he discussed the quality and vintage of each. They had been laid down for him over a half-century of prosperity— he had begun as an uneducated carpenter—by his wine merchant. He would make a selection, usually a Burgundy, then gently slide it off the rack into a panier. The bottom of the panier. was worn out. “C’est plus vieux que le vin,”he explained. We would go back up to the kitchen, where he and Madame Martin would sit in their worn comfortable chairs, and there he would gently open the bottle and lay it on top of the huge kitchen range. When it reached room temperature he would pour a taste for himself, a glass for me. I would then pass on to him two bottles of Coca Cola from the case delivered by the First Army quartermaster corps and the three of us, with Teddy groaning on Madame’s lap, would happily pass a pleasant hour, each content with the exchange. It’s not often you get to trade two Cokes for a bottle of ‘19 Nuits St. George; enjoy it while you can.

The Town Major himself was a cavalry captain, long overage in grade, who neither knew nor cared exactly what we were doing. I hired four nice Belgian girls who had studied English and typing in high school, and kept them busy filling in the blanks in the forms. The other American was a French Canadian from Maine who could actually speak the language. All this left me time for occasional visits to the neighborhood cafe and its always interesting habitues, and sometimes even a warm, bubbly bath.

Spring turned into summer, and I moved on to the east, to Mainz, and Fulda, where we ran a hotel, and Bamberg. Carrying on my duties as interpreter was no real problem in Germany; the Displaced Persons camps provided enterprising young Europeans as interpreters for the interpreter. Considering the comfort scale of the average GI, I was never discontent in the war again. When it ended, someone in personnel, reviewing my record and seeing where I had been but not knowing how little I had done there, rewarded me with five battle stars including one for the Bulge, and sent me home early.

But that was anticlimactic. It was after the Battle of the Bulge was over, 50 years ago in Spa in spring, that the world began to look bright again.


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