Warren Leary

Contributed by Warren Leary, Jr.
"Ranks are thinning OUT AMONGST 'EM"
December 15, 2004 Rice Lake, Wisconsin Chronotype

Out of the 18-20 or so dudes who regularly attend our kaffee klatsch at the Milk Pail, only a small handful are old enough to remember Pearl Harbor Day on December 7, 1941, or even the Normandy Invasion into France on June 6, 1944.

Or, to my mind, the most fearsome battle for American troops in World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. It started in the snow-clad mountains of the Schnee Eiffel Range on December 16, 1944 in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. I remember it well, because I was there.

This Thursday will be the 60th anniversary of that historic event. It ended, unofficially, on January 8, 1945, when the Germans were forced to pull back, abandoning their fuel-depleted panzer tanks. Three weeks later, with Hitler's Wehrmacht pushed back nearly to the Rhine River, it was indeed over.

Der Fuehrer's ambitious plan was to drive a wedge between American and British forces and roll on through Belgium to Liege and Bruxelles, seizing ammo dumps and, most importantly, fuel to keep those big Nazi tanks and portable artillery pieces rumbling westward.

It didn't happen, thank heaven, but the Allies, and particularly the Yanks, paid a heavy price in the defense of liberty. Official records list American casualties as 8,000 dead, 47,000 wounded, and 21,000 captured or missing. The Germans sustained nearly 68,000 total casualties, including 17,000 dead. Their dead were more than double ours.

As a Christmas gift last year, Patricia gave me a newly published history of the Battle of the Bulge, by an English author. From it, I learned for the first time, that my division, the 106th infantry division, had been assigned to protect a 26-mile stretch of terrain in the mountainous, heavily wooded territory in eastern Belgium. That, any military man can tell you, is a pretty hefty stretch of territory, close to the distance from here (Rice Lake) to Spooner.

It was, according to our "brass," a quiet area where we could cut our teeth as combat infantrymen. We relieved the Army's seasoned 2nd Division. They pulled back into a rest areasort of to give them a break after months of combat following D-Day, six months earlier.

So the 106th moved eastward from St. Vith, Belgium, and my outfit, Company I, 423 Infantry Regiment, took positions in those wooded mountains.  We were east of Schonberg, close to the German border and the Siegfried Line. After not too many days, our brass proved wrong in their assessment of it being "a quiet zone," and our outfit soon became known as "The Hungry and Six Division," not the 106th.

On December 16, 1944 it was cold, about 20 degrees above, snowy, and sleeping in foxholes was not exactly like camping out with the Boy Scouts in the good ol' summertime. Suddenly, in the predawn darkness it happened: a tremendous German artillery barrage.

For a couple of days across the border, we could hear activityrumbling of trucks and tanks. We sent out patrols to investigate, and one patrol captured about six enemy soldiersthe first German soldiers I'd seen. They admitted their Wehrmacht was moving up sizeable attack forces.

Word was sent back to battalion headquarters, on to regimental headquarters and division headquarters. At some point, our info was discredited as being from green troops with limited combat experience. The fact that several heavily overcast days made aerial observation impossible didn't help.

Anyhow, that artillery barrage, from the famed German 88s, went on for about three hours or so, into the gray December dawn. Unbelievable thunderous explosions, sending showers of snowy dirt flying through the air, as well as branches and limbs from the towering pines overhead in the Ardennes Forest. Wild. And scary.

And as we learned, Germans dressed as American soldiers and speaking English as well, infiltrated our lines somehow and got to the rear of our division to pinpoint where our artillery—mostly 105 millimeter guns, but some 155s—were emplaced. They somehow communicated that data to their German artillery, knocking out a lot of our guns. Thus we had no really effective counter artillery.

When, maybe about 10 a.m., the barrage ended, the German infantry, their uniforms covered with white sheets or some such, began their attack against dug-in lines. Against the snowy background, they weren't too easy to spot as they came stealthily among the trees and ravines. Pat's book for me revealed the Germans threw five divisions against our 26-mile front!

Somehow, I still vividly recall our first fatality, Sammy Pate by name. A nice guy, shot through the head, so he at least died instantly.

We were ordered to fight our way back toward battalion; then regimental headquarters.  As we withdrew, we inflicted our own casualties, but maybe by 4 o'clock or so, we found I Company surrounded by "krauts." Then came the orders, "Destroy your weapons and prepare to surrender." Humiliating, but we'd taken a lot of casualties, and some dead by then, including a couple of Tennessee hillbillies, a friend from Illinois, and a chunky Hispanic from California who didn't speak much English.

So, there you have it. My version of the Battle of the Bulge. Sixty years ago this month. But that is just one memorable fight in World War II.

How about Rice Lake's Company D at Buna in New Guinea in 1942, or Guadalcanal, or Okinawa, D-Day in Normandy, Kasserine Pass in North Africa, the Anzio-Netuno Beachhead in Italy? We could go on and on with battles and memories of World War II. How many friends and acquaintances never made it home? They were among the 292,131 who died in the Big One. Among them, Medal of Honor winner Erik Gunnar Gibson, killed in Italy and buried in our Nora Cemetery.

And special thanks to Bill Appleyard, who has really spearheaded the effort to honor the local vets of World War II. Yes, the ranks are thinning.