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A veteran remembers

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Tonight I had dinner with a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. I'd known him for some time but hadn't realized until tonight quite how old he actually is. So our weekly reading of Le Mariage de Figaro got temporarily shelved while I grilled him on what he remembered.

Ralph had trained in Texas for a tank destroyer unit, and had learned how to use the cypher machine. The unit got broken up while he was still in training, and Ralph was assigned to the infantry, ending up in the 78th infantry division. At the last minute word went out that anybody who knew how to use the cypher machine was to report to headquarters, so Ralph suddenly found himself attached to regimental headquarters as a messenger, complete with jeep and driver.

Ralph remembers arriving in Liverpool around Thanksgiving, and then shipping over to Le Havre and across France and Belgium. [Note: the entered combat table in Closing with the Enemy shows Ralph's division first entering combat on December 13]. Ralph loved the trip across Belgium: people were falling all over themselves to give things to the Americans. When they finally arrived in Belgium and found the local bar, they quickly discovered that the French Francs they had been issued were the wrong currency. But no worries, people bought them drinks anyway. One of the interesting things that Ralph mentioned was that it seemed that most people that they ran into, especially the Belgian Resistance fighters, were extremely red. At the time the Allies were trying to disarm them: when asked in the bar after a few drinks what they would do, most seemed to say that they would hand in a few weapons, but keep a couple of extras, just in case.

Ralph's unit was in Montgomery's command area when the Bulge hit. Ralph has vivid memories of the panic that the infiltration rumors caused: it was a problem for him because he really wasn't into sports. Ralph can also still sing the song that his driver sang over and over, like a mantra. I'm ashamed to say I didn't catch the name of it, but I'll ask him next week and try to include it in a future edition of the Sound of Music mod.

Ralph can't forget the division shoulder patch, because it was connected with the division commander's nickname ("Sparky Parker" from the lightning bolt on the patch). He also remembers the uniform being called khaki (I think everything was called khaki back then) but when pressed he also remembers it as being a kind of olive drab green (his words). He has no recollection of being issued winter coats (of any color) after arrival, and is pretty sure the unit came over already equipped with all of its winter equipment. And bedsheet camouflage drew a complete blank.

But what Ralph really remembers is being incredibly cold. Ralph is from the Northeast US, but he wore four pairs of socks and underwear and still couldn't stay warm. At several points he asked me if I knew if there were any records of how cold it was (I read somewhere that 44/45 was the coldest winter in forty or fifty years). While Ralph certainly spent a lot of time riding around on back roads in a jeep, he probably spent the rest of his time in officer's country. So if he says it was cold, it was cold.

And finally I asked him about the snow. Was it Alaska, or was it a light dusting. He doesn't ever remember anything like a blizzard coming down, but it just seemed to snow constantly. He never remembers a time when there was a light snow dusting, what he remembers is that there was always a lot of snow. It sounds to me like it looked like Alaska. And Ralph's memories of that winter aren't corrupted by interminable January whiteness, because apparently he got to go on leave to Paris for the first time in his life in January (and his buddies provided him with lots of chocolate before he left). And even there it was cold. There was a shortage of heating oil, but women would go to the Opera with serious decolletage, and then have to walk briskly back and forth during the intermission to stay warm...

Anyway, I didn't used to pay much attention to this kind of thing back in the old days, but these guys are starting to die off, and if it doesn't get written down it will be lost.

[ July 16, 2002, 06:48 PM: Message edited by: Philippe ]

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Thanks Phillippe for the post. Interesting reading. I enjoyed it. As far as these X-soldiers go I agree. Gives me goose bumps thinking about what all they saw and experienced back in those times and I'm a Viet Nam Vet. myself but those guys were truely something else. Man, what an experience and time that must have been. They did us all proud!

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I'll ask about pictures when I see him next week, but based on comments that he had made about a friend of his in a photo recon unit, I doubt that he has any.

One thing that I forgot to mention in my post is that one of his other vivid recollections was crossing Remagen bridge. It was done one vehicle at a time, and at full speed, because they were under fire from 88's.

A side effect of his leave in Paris was that when the war ended he apparently didn't have enough points to be sent home and demobilized. So he got to be part of the occupation force in Berlin. He said it was basically the Wild West, and everybody had guns. The city was a field of rubble, with lines of people moving and stacking broken bricks. But at night you would go out on patrol, and for a long time you would see nothing. But then, in the distance, you would see a light, and in the basement of a bombed-out shelter you would find people throwing a party in full evening dress, as if nothing had ever happened outside. He doesn't remember exactly when he went home, but doesn't think he spent the winter: one of his last recollections was lending his German girlfriend his jacket because it was getting chilly at night. He wasn't a war profiteer, but he knew a lot of people who went home owning blocks of houses.

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Thanks, Philippe. You are right about the passing of this knowledge. According to the latest numbers, about 2,000 World War Two veterans are leaving us every month.

On Iwo Jima, a island only 6.5 miles long and two miles wide, a staggering 1,000 Marines died per mile. 19,217 were wounded.

Marine Commandant General James L. Jones, at the 50th anniversary dedication told us that the dead out number the living from that operation today.

Do not lose the opportunity to talk to these men and hold dear what they give you.


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Very good story Philippe. Thanks for giving voice to your friend's service.

A year or so ago I was working in a dead end retail job. One of the only pluses to it was the fact that I ran into many veterans. Carrying heavy objects to their cars for them usually gave me time to hear their stories. And LOL, I lingered in the store with them as much as I could too. It was great customer relations and a benefit for both I and the veterans. I think they were suprised that a man of 31, with longhair even, was interested in the contributions they made during all the different wars.

I always thanked them for their service to the country when I finished and let them know that they were remembered by many of the "younger" generation. Usually I would give a nod to this Board and it's members when expressing that.

I think one day soon I'll post a couple of the stories I was told for you guys. I don't want to hijack the thread, or make this post any longer than it already has become. Thanks again for the post Philippe.


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