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Bulge Vets Remember

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A good article in a local Queensbury, NY Newspaper back in 1999 in which my Dad's group was interviewed.

Terrible Memories

"Area veterans share emotional scars from brutal war experience"

By Stacey Morris

Staff Writer

Published in The Post-Star newspaper 7/4/99

"...undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory." -- Sir Winston Churchill.

GLENS FALLS -- The eight men gathered at the foot of Crandall Park's Victory & Peace Monument stood stiffly in a semi-circle, their feet shuffling side to side on the sun-sparkled granite.

Their furrowed expressions had little to do with the unrelenting brightness of a cloudless June sky. They are all veterans of The Battle of The Bulge, one of the most ferocious battles fought during World War II, and they were being asked to remember.

The somber overtones that ran through the semi-circle could be blamed on memories so traumatic most of them still get nightmares as a result.

"To tell you the truth, I really don't like talking about it," said Ray Keech of Hudson Falls. "It was brutal."

The eight area survivors range in age from 73 to 87. They'd agreed to share some of their recollections, but some memories they will never share.

The brutality Keech speaks of took place over 50 years ago, when most of the men were just teen-agers.

They were members of various Army divisions and were sent to push back the German troops who had overrun Europe. Their mission was to liberate as many countries as they possibly could from German oppression.

To keep the Nazi troops at bay, Allied troops, including American and British soldiers, had formed a wall that ran north from Belgium to France.

Hitler had formulated a last-ditch effort to try to break the wall.

On Dec. 16, 1944, 30 German Divisions (nearly 250,000 men) burst across the 85-mile Allied front from southern Belgium to the middle of Luxembourg, causing a bulge in the line, hence the battle's name.

John Wood of Argyle, who is now 73, was well acquainted with the downside of combat: the hunger that often accompanied days without a decent meal, the nonexistent sleeping accommodations, the sight of friends being maimed, constantly aching feet.

But nothing prepared him for what lay ahead that day.

Freezing, Dying

"On the morning of Dec. 16, 1944," he recalled. "Hell came in like a freight train."

The battle would last over a month and take 19,000 American lives.

Queensbury resident Stanley Werner Jr., 73, who was 18 at the time, remembered losing his best friend to an incoming shell the first day of the battle.

"I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was," said Werner. "His legs were blown off ... he bled to death in my arms."

The verbal recap of his friend's grisly death is glib. It is Werner's eyes that become agitated. They flicker from granite floor to monument to waving flag.

To this day, memories of his friend haunt Werner.

"He said he was going to be a doctor," Werner remembered, his voice trailing off.

The memory of a French boy causes Argyle resident Les Bristol's hands to suddenly clasp together.

"He couldn't have been more than eight," said Bristol, 87. "He was playing in a field and found a grenade."

Curiously, the boy pulled the grenade's pin. Minutes later he was discovered in shreds by his hysterical mother.

"She just kept screaming," said Bristol, his eyes suddenly moist.

If the ferocity of the German troops weren't enough, the soldiers had to contend with snow, biting winds and sub-zero temperatures throughout the battle.

Since the fighting took place mostly in the wilderness of the Ardennes mountain range that runs through eastern Belgium and Northern Luxembourg, men often had to carve makeshift shelters out of the frozen ground with pick axes.

For many, the cold proved too much. Injured and unable to move, they froze to death in foxholes.

Those lucky enough to escape injury had to contend with frozen feet and frostbite.

"We wore our uniforms night and day," recalled Bristol. "If they got wet, the material would end up freezing."

"My feet froze on Dec. 26," remembered Wood, who was subsequently hospitalized. "All we had were leather boots and cotton socks."

No Reprieve

The icy harshness of the Ardennes became its own insular world. All thoughts of the outside evaporated as the soldiers became immersed in a kill-or-be-killed atmosphere.

South Glens Falls resident James Hoag remembered a surreal reprieve from the frozen battlefield on Christmas Day, 1944.

"An elderly Belgian couple invited me into their house for cake," said the 80-year-old. "Til my dying day, I'll remember how Silent Night was playing on their radio in the kitchen."

Hoag's face brightened for a moment when he remembered the small sliver of comfort inserted into the battle's panorama of horror.

Hudson Falls resident Bill Chase was a soldier who never got even a moment of reprieve from the bloodshed.

Chase, 75, of Hudson Falls, served as a combat engineer, which meant he lived on the front lines.

He began his European service by landing on Omaha Beach in France. Slowly, he and his division fought their way across Europe.

"We went by truck, by tank, on foot," he remembered. "However the hell we could."

Chase ended up with three Purple Heart medals by the end of the war. After each injury, he was methodically returned to the front lines.

"We just kept fightin'... killin' Germans," he said of his passage through Germany and then Czechoslovakia.

There was an uncomfortable melancholy in his eyes as Chase recalled how, after being home for only three months after the war, he was driven from the bed he shared with his wife.

"There were nightmares galore," he said.

Seeking some emotional refuge from the war's lingering trauma, Chase went to confession at a nearby church.

"Two priests chewed my ass when I told them what I did over there," he said gazing down at his thick hands. "Civilians don't understand."

But fortunately, his fellow veterans do.

Friendships Help

In July of 1996, The Veterans of The Battle of the Bulge, Hudson Valley Chapter 49 was formed.

The group meets four times a year and not, as Keech points out, to reminisce.

"We go because of the friendships," he said. "It's good to have a shoulder to lean on."

Keech just wrapped up a two-year term as treasurer of the organization and Argyle resident Coolidge Copeland was recently installed as president of the chapter, which covers the Hudson Valley Region through the Adirondacks.

At their June meeting, Copeland pointed out Francis Miner, a Troy resident who went to Belgium a soldier and returned a seasoned mortician.

A licensed funeral director, Miner's assistance was called upon following the Malmedy Massacre, an event deemed the worst atrocity against American troops in Europe during the war.

On Dec. 17, 1944, Nazi soldiers lined up 86 American soldiers in a field in Malmedy, Belgium and executed them.

Some, Miner said, were shot at close range. Others were bludgeoned with rifle butts.

The few who had miraculously dodged the hail of bullets had the presence of mind to play dead, lying still for hours face down in the snow.

Later, some of the few who survived were able to escape into the nearby woods but some were shot down while trying to run.

Because of a heavy German presence surrounding the field, Miner and a crew of a dozen other soldier-morticians were not able to identify the bodies until Jan. 13, 1945 -- almost a month after the massacre.

Over 80 bodies were frozen into about two feet of snow. Some were stiffened into grotesque configurations or were still in their stance of surrender

Softspoken and tremulous, Miner began his recollection as gently as a bedtime story

"The bodies were taken to a bombed-out rail station across the field," he said. "Their hands were so shriveled from being dead so long that we had to inject their fingers with fluid so they could be fingerprinted."

As the bodies began to slowly thaw, Miner said the station's floor became a growing pool of blood and slush. The whole process took about a week.

The victims of the Malmedy Massacre were buried in Belgium's Henri Chapple Cemetery until the end of World War II, when they were returned home.

Chase remembered how word of the massacre inflamed the Allied troops.

"After we heard about the Malmedy Massacre," said Chase. "We stopped taking prisoners."

The others nodded silently, some smoothing back thinning hair, others standing with arms crossed, still looking at the granite.

Jubilation

As the battle wore on, Keech said the German troops began losing their resolve.

"It broke Hitler's back when he made the last counterattack at The Bulge," he said. "That was his last stand."

Eventually, the Germans were driven out of all the European countries they had occupied.

Not every moment during the monthlong battle was filled with horror. There were triumphant days when the U.S. soldiers marched through towns they liberated.

Surrounded by jubilant townspeople, the soldiers were showered with gifts of fruit as they moved through downtown districts that had been completely destroyed.

Few Remember

Under the bright June sun in Crandall Park, the eight men struggled to express their sentiments regarding what some soldiers termed "a frozen hell."

Would they do it again?

"I wouldn't want to do it again," said Keech. "But if I was called upon, I'd still pull the trigger."

What bothers Keech more than anything is how little about the battle most people know.

"People think The Battle of the Bulge is a weight-loss term," he said, shaking his head.

"Education is the answer -- they've got to start teaching it in schools."

Keech also hopes that a little knowledge about what was experienced will help generate some understanding -- or at least a little respect -- for the veterans, but especially for the country they defended.

"I don't like seeing people talking or taking a sip of their beer as the flag goes by during a parade," he said. "Why can't they put their hand over their heart and honor their country?"

The others are also disgusted by what they believe is a pervasive lack of patriotism today.

"I say, if you don't like the country you live in, then go someplace else," Wood said.

Werner added that those who regard parade-marching veterans, caps and all, merely as overly zealous old goats clinging to their glory days, are sorely missing the point.

"Why do we feel so strongly?" he asked. "For our country's freedom, we were wounded, we saw friends die, we barely escaped with our lives."

They all remain reluctant to accept verbal bouquets, tossed in the form of labels like "brave" and "hero."

The praise is easier to accept in the guise of a prayer, like the one offered by the chaplain at the June meeting of the Veterans of The Battle of the Bulge:

"... And let us thank these men, for because of them our country is safe today."

All agree, it was a fight worth fighting.

And if it fosters better understanding, it's a memory worth discussing.

One of the eight observed that, he'd talked more about his war experiences during the brief gathering at the monument than he had to his family during the last 50 years.

Did they go home heroes?

"No," said Chase. "The heroes are the ones who didn't come home."

THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE

-- When -- Dec. 16, 1944 -- Jan. 25, 1945

-- Where -- The heavily forested Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and Northern Luxembourg.

-- Who -- More than one million men:

- 600,000 Americans: three U.S. armies and six corps (equivalent to 31 Divisions);

-- 55,000 British: Three British divisions plus contingents of Belgian, Canadian, and French troops;

-- Casualties -- German, 100,000; American, 81,000 including 19,000 killed; British, 1,400, including 200 killed.

atrocity committed against American troops in Europe during the war

-- The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge National Office, Arlington, Va.

Ray Keech and some of his fellow veterans visit area schools to educate students on The Battle of the Bulge and World War II. For more information, call Keech at 747-3831.

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Thanks Joe. I thought that people would like to read it. I'm very proud of my Dad and his service.

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That generation is full of real heros. Thank you for posting the article.

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I agree. But each generation before and after has its heros, too. The more I read and hear about Vietnam, the more I am humbled by the dedication and sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. Same for Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and whereever our military is called on to perform. They are the true professionals. :beer:

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