4:50 p.m., Monday, December 15, 2008
Dec. 16, 1944: Even though it has been 64 years, the memories are still vivid and overwhelming.
Unfortunately, relatively few Americans are aware of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Nineteen thousand American soldiers were killed with more than 70,000 casualties. It was the largest combat action in the history of the American military.
On Dec. 12, we were pulled out of the miserable Hurtgen Forest. We had been in constant combat since D-Day. The green, dark hell of Hurtgen was filled with a network of fortified bunkers that no shell could penetrate. It was a horrible place, with dense fir trees. It rained constantly — mud was everywhere. We lived in cold, wet foxholes like animals. We put logs over our holes to protect us from artillery shells bursting above in the trees, showering us with fragments.
Hurtgen was one of the most costly, ill-advised battles we ever fought. Many historians have said it was an awful mistake — and of little strategic value. We could have gone around that dark fortified forest. Thirty-thousand American GIs were killed or wounded.
We left that terrible place completely exhausted and battle weary and headed for the first rest period since Normandy six months earlier.
We went to Spa, Belgium. It was like going to heaven — hot food, new uniforms, a warm place to sleep out of the weather.
While there, our beloved Sgt. Stamborsky, who had been wounded in Normandy, came back to us. He chose to return to his outfit rather than go home. He jokingly said, “I knew you guys couldn’t win the war without me!” He was like a father to us — we were teenagers; he was 30, an old man to us.
Those few days in Spa were wonderful: mail from home, hot showers, a movie.
It all ended on Dec. 16. Out of the fog and snow and bitter cold, three German armies crashed through our lines on a 50-mile front. Nineteen hundred pieces of heavy German artillery bombarded the Ardennes. Two hundred and fifty-thousand German soldiers and 1,000 tanks and associated guns attacked, defended by green American troops with no combat experience. Shells shrieked overhead, mortars and machine guns fired, search lights stabbed through the morning light. V1 buzz bombs dropped to the ground. It was a complete surprise, and we were completely unprepared.
We climbed into trucks and headed for the Ardennes. After a few hours, we could hear the noise of battle, and as we got closer, we saw something we had never seen before — American soldiers streaming to the rear, retreating, full of fear and panic. These were the green troops who had replaced us.
We went into that unbelievable hell. The cold was unbearable. The wind cut like a knife. Our buddies in the sky couldn’t help us. The fog was so thick, there was no chance to fly. We couldn’t dig foxholes. The ground was frozen, the roads like ice.
It was the worst winter in Europe in 20 years. Our 1st Division had fought the Germans in Africa, Sicily and Europe. “No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great — duty first.” We knew what to do.
The Germans were now up against a tough, seasoned, combat-ready division. We made our stand and there was no retreat. On Dec. 17 the word went through the line that Kampfgruppe Peiper (part of the 1st SS Panzer Division) had executed 120 American prisoners in a field in Malmedy, Belgium. That made us even more determined to beat the enemy. We fought like demons.
On Christmas Eve our Sgt. Stamborsky stepped on a mine and was killed. We felt unbelievable grief. We spent the night in an old barn with the sound of battle all around.
On Christmas Day the skies cleared, and our bombers and fighter planes came to help. We saw the first German jet streak across the sky. We all felt we were lucky that plane hadn’t been available to the Germans earlier.
On Dec. 27 I was hit by German shrapnel. The wounds were not life-threatening and I rejoined my platoon in a few days.
The German advance was stopped by the middle of January — the enemy was on the run. The rough, battled-hardened American troops had stopped the German advance. If we hadn’t succeeded, the war could have gone on for years, or we could have been defeated.
As we moved forward in early January 1945, we saw thousands of our buddies lying dead in the snow. That memory will stay with me always. How can we ever forget what they did?
The Battle of the Bulge will always be an heroic, tragic, sad memory. Every Dec. 16 my mind goes back and remembers. The freedom we enjoy today is because of the dedication and sacrifice of the men and women of the second world war, who fought not only in the Battle of the Bulge, but in all the battles around the world.
We owe them so much.
Thomas today is one of the world’s most famous narrators and voice artists on TV and radio programs, commercials and documentaries. The Daily News will present another of Thomas’ 1944 war memoirs on Christmas Eve.