WWII veterans remember Hitler's 'last gamble'
At the Battle of the Bulge 75 years ago, the Nazi dictator made a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war.
An American soldier runs for cover after a nearby half-track is hit by German fire. Some 19,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in the fierce Battle of the Bulge—the deadliest single battle for American forces in World War II.
In December 1944 the German Army was on the run. Allied forces had been advancing across Europe ever since the D-Day invasion in June, and now they were poised to push into Germany itself. They had not engaged Hitler’s forces in major combat for weeks.
In Belgium’s Ardennes forest, U.S. infantryman Chris Carawan and some of his buddies captured two German soldiers who seemed to be lost. One of them spoke near-perfect English.
“You guys better clear out of here,” the German warned Carawan. “We’re about to push you back to the sea.”
Carawan and company reported the warning to their superiors, but they were laughed off. Big talk from a beaten foe, the generals said. Sure, there was a lot of machinery rumbling around in the forests beyond the border, but that was the Third Reich in retreat. Hitler was done.
Then came the morning of December 16.
“First there was an artillery attack, really fierce,” Carawan recalls. The 90-minute assault was launched from a staggering 1,900 artillery pieces hidden beyond the tree line.
“It was, perhaps, the single heaviest barrage in all of World War II,” says Alex Kershaw, whose book The Longest Winter chronicles the Battle of the Bulge, which began 75 years ago. “It was earth-shattering. Shocking.”
Sitting on a sofa in the TV room of his home in Columbia, South Carolina, 94-year-old Carawan offers a faint smile to his wife of 74 years, Alma, seated across the room in a plush chair. But in Carawan’s eyes it’s clear that he’s once again a terrified soldier of 20 staring into the face of one of the greatest land battles of modern warfare.
“Then came the machine-gun fire,” he says. “And then it seemed like Hitler’s whole army was coming out of the woods.”
He wasn’t far from wrong: Beyond those trees lurked more than 400,000 men and about 1,400 tanks. Facing almost certain defeat on the Soviet front, Hitler was gambling that he could launch a lightning-fast offensive through the Ardennes that would split the Allied forces and forge a path to the port of Antwerp, from which he could extract desperately needed supplies—especially fuel for his tanks. He hoped ultimately to surround the Allied troops and force negotiation of a peace plan favorable to Germany.
The overconfident Allies were woefully unprepared.
“It was a very long front, stretching from the English Channel to Italy,” says author Kershaw. “It was undersupplied in both manpower and equipment.”
The Germans targeted one length in particular: a sparsely defended, 80-mile stretch of wilderness in Belgium and Luxembourg. There the Allies were no match for the stunning onrush of German soldiers, artillery, and tanks that would in a matter of days push a dangerous bulge in the Allied line.
Almost immediately two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division stationed along the central length of the front were killed or captured—including a young soldier named Kurt Vonnegut, whose brutal experience as a POW would inspire his famous novel Slaughterhouse Five.
The fight continued for more than a month during one of the coldest European winters on record. Pitifully undersupplied, Allied soldiers didn’t have winter coats or proper footwear. Most slept in their boots, knowing that if they removed them, their feet would be too swollen in the morning to get their boots back on. To this day most Battle of the Bulge veterans suffer from the effects of frostbite.
Francis Chesko was fresh from the coalfields of Pennsylvania when he landed in France 24 hours after D-Day. He had moved on to northern Europe when he and his unit were suddenly hustled onto a troop train bound for the Ardennes.
“We thought we were being taken for R & R,” says Chesko, who’s wearing a full Army uniform as he conducts a tour of his home and wealth of war artifacts. “Well, we were wrong about that. We got off that train, and it was as if all hell was raining down on us. That sound! It’s the worst sound in the world. It’s like thunder and lightning right on top of you.”
Besides the sheer force of German military power, Chesko says, the enemy showed a diabolical resourcefulness.
“They dropped in paratroopers wearing Allied uniforms,” he says. “They switched all the road signs to lead us right into a trap, and sometimes they’d stand right there at the intersection pointing us in the wrong direction! Most of them spoke almost perfect English, too. But they’d need to know the password. Early on, we’d say, ‘Little,’ and if they didn’t answer ‘Orphan Annie,’ well, that would be their Waterloo.”
Vernon Brantley, 95, is sipping a glass of orange juice and port—he calls it his concoction—in the kitchen of his home, also in Columbia. In a gentle southern drawl he’s recalling the chaos that ensued as the jeep he was driving was flipped by a German mortar round.
“The three other guys jumped clear,” he says. “The jeep landed on me. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m told that you could name any hole in my body and I was bleeding out of it.”
Brantley was rushed to a field hospital, then to a facility in Paris. He was back with his unit within months.
A knock comes on the kitchen door. It’s Brantley’s old friend and fellow Bulge veteran Gerald White, 93. He sits down at the table, and, as usual, the two pals are soon sharing war stories.
“I wasn’t even shaving yet,” says White, who was 18 when fate hurled him into the Battle of the Bulge. “They had me driving a jeep, pulling a trailer loaded with ammo. I guess if I’d been hit by a mortar, there would’ve been nothing left. I was told I was the second replacement for that job. So there was one guy before me, and another guy before him. They never told me what happened to those two guys.”
Gerald White was on kitchen duty during the battle when he was told to burn some trash. “It blew up in my face—totally blinded me,” he says. The blindness lasted for three days, and his face still bears the scars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STACY PEARSALL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Another young man hauling dangerous cargo across the Ardennes countryside was Joe Watson. He was in charge of a mortar launcher, which meant that as he drove his unit from site to site, he was a prime target.
“We were driving our mortar unit along a road, and the enemy mortars just followed us, each one exploding right behind. It was boom-boom-boom! Just like a movie.
Today Watson, 96, lives at the same 80-acre pecan grove where he grew up in Springfield, South Carolina. Despite difficulty walking—due to frostbite—he's planning a return to Belgium to mark the battle's 75th anniversary.
“The reason young soldiers are the best soldiers is simple,” he says, gazing out on a pond where he has fished most of his life. “They don’t think they’re ever going to die. So when you ask them to do something crazy, they’ll just say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and get going.”
Paratrooper Leif Masing had dropped into France even before the D-Day invasion, so he was used to being behind enemy lines. During the early days of the Battle of the Bulge, the weather was so bad Allied planes couldn’t fly, so he and his buddies were stealthily trucked to their remote positions.
“Paratroopers are trained to act on their own,” says 95-year-old Masing, sitting with his daughter Nancy in his bright living room at an assisted-living home in Columbia. “You don’t always know where your comrades are, and you have to make split-second decisions all by yourself."
Tall, slim, and blue-eyed, Masing still strikes an impressive figure. It’s easy to imagine him slipping through the dark of night on covert operations while a pitched battle rages mere miles away.
“One night around 4 a.m., I was crossing through the backyard of a residence,” he recalls. “The owner came to the window and screamed, ‘Who the hell is out there?’ I had to laugh. After all, there was a war going on out here!”
Chris Carawan, tucked cozily in his TV room, lowers his voice almost to a whisper. “They always told us not to get too emotionally close to the fellas,” he says, “But of course that was impossible."
Carawan recalls walking across an open field with his best friend, Doyle Griffith, and his favorite executive officer, Harry Stone, when suddenly a German tank opened fire.
“It nearly tore Doyle in half,” Carawan says. “He started calling for his mother. I said ‘Hold on,’ and called a medic over. I don’t know how, but he made it. But it killed the officer. He never knew what hit him.
“Why that tank didn’t even nick me, I’ll never know. But I’ll tell you what: I woke up this morning thinking about Harry Stone. Here I am, I’ve had 94 years, and those fellas barely got into their 20s. Sometimes I feel like I’m living my life for them too."
The tide of the Battle of the Bulge had turned by New Year’s Day, but the fighting dragged on until January 24. Some 19,000 Americans were killed. The German advance never amounted to more than a bulge. Allied resistance slowed the Nazis' momentum, starving the enemy of the supplies they’d hoped to get in Antwerp.
Still, author Kershaw says, it was Hitler’s best shot at a last-minute turnaround for a lost cause. (Read: How the Battle of the Bulge got its name.)
“In war you can never predict what’s going to happen,” he says. “But it was a very, very high-risk operation. They would have needed great luck—and their luck ran out.”
When things calmed down, Chris Carawan got an extended leave. “I was walking through Paris when I heard music,” he says, his eyes lost in the memory. “It was really familiar. I followed the sound, around corners and down streets, and came to this open area. And then I heard this.”
With a slightly trembling hand, Carawan lifts a remote control from the arm of the sofa and points at a CD player across the room, near Alma, who is smiling sweetly. The sound of Glenn Miller’s “Slumber Song” drifts through the house.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Carawan says. “Glenn Miller was right there. It was almost like being home. It was almost like being with Alma.”
The saxophones and horns of Miller’s Army Air Force Band waft through the house, enveloping the medals on the wall and the photos of a young soldier and his blushing bride.
Chris and Alma gaze across the room at each other.
It is 1945. And they are dancing.