I was discharged from the service in December 1945, one year after the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. My family constantly quizzed me on a day-to-day basis.
"Do you remember where you were on Christmas Eve?" "What about New Year's Day?"
There hasn't been a Christmas season over the past 67 years that my mind doesn't wander to those hectic 40 days (Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945).
What made those 40 days of my life so special? I relive them every year. Why has this period left such a profound effect on me, even still at age 91?
We serviced the 33rd Armored Regiment of the 3rd Armored Division in the U.S. Army. The table of organization for an armored regiment consisted of three tank battalions; each tank battalion consisted of four tank companies, each company comprising 17 tank crews, or 204 tanks and crew members. In addition, each regiment had a headquarters company, a maintenance company, a reconnaissance company and a service company. Of the 16 armored divisions in Europe in World War II, only two were considered heavy armored divisions. The second (Hell on Wheels) and the third were the only two armored divisions with regiments.
I was a high-speed radio operator in our company commander's half-track. Our 45 trucks were assigned to the respective companies to supply them with fuel, ammunition, food, clothing and various other duties, such as picking up the dead, supplying the companies with replacements, taking members to R&R and picking up prisoners and taking them to the rear. Some of those duties left a mark on me and my emotions -- for example, picking up our dead and placing their frozen bodies in our trucks. Often these returning trucks were loaded with replacements who had spent Christmas at home on furloughs prior to being sent overseas. On one occasion, when we delivered those fresh troops to their respective companies, they encountered some heavy fighting. In a two-day period, 10 of those replacements were killed.
Can you imagine the emotions of their families? How would you feel using the trucks to pick up our dead soldiers and several hours later taking a load of German prisoners to the rear, assuring their safe passage to the states?
Being on the radio while stationed in Breinig (near Stolberg, Germany), we began getting disturbing news as early as Dec. 14 about the heavy movement of equipment near the German/Belgium/ Luxembourg borders. It was evidence that forebode action was to take place. Our intelligence ignored this information as diversionary distractions. We finally started our retreat Dec. 18 and were part of the main defenses of the northern flank.
I'll never forget as we pulled out of Breinig, the townspeople lined up on the streets and bid us goodbye. Many of them were crying. Keep in mind that period of time in the fall of 1944, from Sept. 15 through Dec. 18. We had been in this area for three months. It was long enough for the Germans to learn that we were not the bad guys the Nazi party had led them to believe. We even shared the churches on weekends, and it was a sobering thought to see the natives fervently praying for their sons', brothers' and husbands' safe return, just as our relatives were doing in the states.
As we left Breinig and headed westward in retreat, it was a nightmare of bitter cold, muddy and slippery roads and heavy fog limiting visibility. On many occasions, we had to stop until vehicles in front of us were winched back onto to the road, or if mired too deep, they were left for the following maintenance crews to handle.
Adding to the fog and pitch-black night, hundreds of German buzz bombs were being sent our way. Several crashed nearby. One narrowly missed our Gen. Rose's jeep and knocked his driver out of his vehicle. There was an icy paralyzing mist over the entire battlefront -- a cloud of fine, driving snow that glazed the roads to slippery ribbons. Snowdrifts covered extensive fields of anti-tank mines, and the hard, frozen ground made digging foxholes impossible. The Ardennes forest looked like a Christmas card, but it was agony all the way. Because of poor weather conditions, our Air Force was grounded until Christmas Eve, thus preventing the one strength we had -- that of bombing the German advancing columns. Fortunately, we had some good weather for a few days, and the tide of battle began to change.
I went through the five major campaigns in Europe: Normandy, Northern France, Central Europe, The Rhineland and the Battle of the Bulge.
Why does the Battle of the Bulge keep popping up more than the other campaigns?
Our unit saw a lot of horror in Normandy -- the armada of planes we witnessed July 26. It was H-Hour -- the airborne assault in Normandy, the greatest combined air/ground operation in the history of modern warfare. This was the "big push," the Saint-Lo breakthrough. Thousands and thousands of B17s, B24s and British Lancasters dropped their bombs on the heavily fortified German headquarters. This was a clear day, and the thousands upon thousands of planes obliterated the sun.
Who could ever forget the slaughter that occurred during the Central Europe campaign in Mons, Belgium, where units of the 3rd Armored and Big Red One had a field day. Two German armies jostled to get through the narrow intersections in Mons. The two American units took more than 50,000 prisoners during the German retreat to their Siegfried line. There were untold enemies who were killed. We got an education when the Belgians, oblivious to the gunfire, were risking their lives to cut up the horses that were shot during the skirmish. The Germans at times used horses to pull their equipment. The Belgians were deprived from meat during the Nazi occupation. Probably never before in the history of warfare has there been so swift a destruction of such a large force.
Who could ever forget what we encountered at the tail end of the Rhineland campaign? As we overtook the Nordhausen concentration camp, hundreds and hundreds of bodies were piled high, waiting to be put into the incinerators. Some of the bodies were still moving, and we could hear an occasional muted groan coming from the heap. Those poor souls were starved to death and left to die on that pile. The stench was terrible, conditions filthy, and the task at hand was monumental. Sorting out those bodies was a ghastly and sickening task. I had no appetite for three days. We were told there were about 2,000 prisoners in this camp.
As I review those campaigns, I come to realize why the Battle of the Bulge left such an impact on me. The Ardennes was one of five battle stars. Even the bitterness of that terrible campaign, the cold, the pain and the horrible weariness of unending combat flowed together and was fused in one vast, foggy recollection. It was like an arctic nightmare in which only the most jagged edges of pain might be recalled.
William B. Ruth, a Worthington resident, served in the 3rd Armored Regiment of the Third Armored Division in the U.S. Army.