Battle of Bulge vets remember epic battle

December 26, 2004November 8, 2007 

It was a scene out of a Christmas card -- evergreens, snowy woods, misty mountains.

Except for the German tanks.

They sat up on a ridge, cannons pointed downward, shelling a Belgian village and American troops.

Pfc. Charles Noel and the rest of Dog Company, 333rd Regiment, 84th Division, received their orders. Christmas Eve of 1944 would be spent assaulting the panzers.

The U.S. troops didn't know how many tanks and machine guns were in the trees above them. Some of the soldiers didn't know much at all. They were just teenagers, green as the pines, replacements from the rear.

Before them lay an open hillside. In the dark, they slogged through knee-deep snow.

The Germans waited until they'd almost made it to the top.

"They suffered heavy casualties," said Noel, now 79 and living in State College. "Some of them never saw the light of Christmas Day."

Sixty years ago, scores of such fights formed the Battle of the Bulge, the largest World War II land battle involving U.S. forces.

On Dec. 16, 1944, German armies launched a massive invasion in the Ardennes forest, hoping to break through the Allied lines in Belgium, reach the port of Antwerp and reverse the course of the war.

It proved to be Hitler's last gasp. The desperate offensive, successful at first over a wide area, stalled. By the end of January, the Allies had closed the bulge and pushed back into Germany.

Half a million Americans, equal to 31 divisions, and about 600,000 Germans fought for weeks in the frigid Ardennes.

There, 800 tanks were destroyed. Nearly 19,000 Americans, out of about 81,000 casualties, died. Almost 100,000 Germans were killed, wounded or captured.

Both sides bled in towns such as Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division made its celebrated stand and an American general replied "Nuts" to an offer to surrender.

But mostly, they clashed in dense forests and rolling fields. They took cover in blizzards, hunkered down in snowbanks, peered through shadowy fog. Their tanks, halftracks and trucks slid off mountain roads.

Winter was the mutual enemy, subzero days and nights that turned feet to ice and brought on pneumonia. Wounded men froze to death where they dropped.

Just carving out a foxhole became an ordeal.

"It was like trying to dig into concrete," said Ferguson Township resident Harlan Hoffa, 79, then a private in the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion, 11th Armored Division. "It was frozen solid."

Making a stand

Nobody imagined a German attack in the Ardennes -- certainly not the members of the 106th Division.

Sent to the quiet region for training, they wound up in a buzz saw.

The division would distinguish itself later defending St. Vith, but in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, its inexperienced troops crumpled under the onslaught of crack German armored units.

Whole companies surrendered. Men retreated in a daze.

Lou Berrena, 81, of Ferguson Township, was a sergeant in charge of an 82nd Airborne Division mortar section. He and others in the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment rushed into action near the villages of Soy and Hotton and clambered out of trucks at night to chaos.

"The first thing we did, we got fired on by our own machine guns," Berrena said. "We said, `What the heck's going on?'"

Germans, it turned out, were using captured weapons. Then Berrena saw a column of American soldiers straggling up the road.

"These guys hardly had any equipment," he said. "The weapons were gone. And they say it's a mess. And all the tanks are coming back."

Berrena took shelter in a nearby barn with an anti-tank gun crew member. The crew member was glad for the reinforcements -- until Berrena told him it was a single battalion.

"He said, `A battalion? Hell, there are divisions out there of Germans,'" Berrena said. "He said, `I'm not kidding you. You'll never stop them.'"

But they did.

Allied resistance delayed, then stymied, the German advance, which drove as far as 50 miles but fell short of its first objective, the Meuse River.

Confusion reigned during the battle's first week. Germans speaking perfect English and wearing American uniforms infiltrated the lines. No real front line existed, just fluid pockets of combat spread across dozens of miles.

The rugged terrain hampered communication among units that were constantly on the go. Reports of German movements were sketchy, and commanders got information any way they could.

Near the town of Marche, Charles Noel patrolled roads in a hastily formed armored reconnaissance group. Encountering a German force, it would fight briefly and withdraw.

"So we would do this five, six, seven times a day, to give the impression that there were more Americans there than there were," Noel said. "Actually, we were the only ones there at the time."

They faced a battle-hardened foe. Camouflaged in white sheets, many of the Germans were Eastern Front veterans. Around them, like monsters, Tiger tanks clanked through the woods, armed with their fearsome 88 mm guns.

Noel watched one, perched on the ridge his outfit tried to take, knock out an American tank destroyer.

"I remember, to this day, that motor on the anti-tank gun running all night," he said. "They had killed the people in it, and then the motor had run all night."

Raining shrapnel

It rained. It snowed. On top of that, there were artillery showers.

As a private in a mortar crew of the 291st Regiment, 75th Division, Herschel Leibowitz, 79, of State College, usually set up back from the lines. But on his first day at the Bulge, a barrage tore up his position for what seemed like an eternity.

"I was scared," he said. "I'm still scared."

Trees could be deadly when shells set for airbursts exploded in the crowns.

"If they hit the tree first and you were down below, it would be like rain," Berrena said. "You couldn't escape it. That's what caused a lot of casualties. We lost more men to artillery than anything."

It hurt the Germans as well. Civilians were caught in the crossfire. Rubble filled once-picturesque streets, and beautiful stone buildings were reduced to shells.

Andrew Tocimak, 86, then a sergeant with the 133rd Ar mored Ordinance Battalion of the 11th Armored Division, re called passing by children begging from ruins.

"We had rations in our vehicle, and we would just toss them out," the Osceola Mills resident said.

Artillery just may have saved John Schell's life.

Schell, 80, of Ferguson Township, was a first lieutenant with the 328th Regiment of the 26th Division, sent to the Bastogne area in southeastern Belgium.

On a starry Christmas Eve, he walked toward the town of Eschdorf as part of a reinforced battalion of 800 men, unaware that a full German regiment waited ahead.

"Which means we were outnumbered three to one," he said.

Once Schell shot a sentry on the moonlit road, the attack began. Stirred, German troops pinned down his platoon in barns, pouring in fire. Wounded men lay on the dirt floors and cried for their mothers.

At one point, a grenade blew out a room and sprayed shrapnel into Schell's side. He would eventually lose half his platoon.

After several hours, officers called back to headquarters in desperation. Fire every artillery piece the division has on the town, they demanded.

"They said it was too dangerous," Schell said. "We said, `It's either that or we're going to be killed.'"

Finally, they got their wish.

The cataclysm drove the Germans back. Under cover of darkness, the Americans retreated. Schell had promised the few severely wounded men that he wouldn't leave without them, but there were no medics, no stretchers. The wounded stayed.

A few miles away, soaked with blood, Schell frantically searched for a jeep to go back for them. He ended up in an aid station, unable to do anything for the wounded soldiers left behind.

He's still haunted by the memory.

"This was the very worst day of my life, bar none," he said. "Christmas Day of 1944."

The weather breaks

When the sun came out, the Bulge began shrinking.

At first, low visibility kept Allied supply planes grounded. German tanks could roam without fear of being bombed.

"Christmas Day was the first day it cleared," Berrena said. "That was the first time we saw a dogfight."

Men on the ground cheered the bombers streaming toward Germany and fighters wheeling in the sky.

With air cover, the Allies counterattacked. It was slow going. Infantrymen would overrun positions, only to find that the Germans had fallen back a few hundred yards to the next ridge.

On one such hill, Harlan Hoffa was captured on New Year's Eve.

The air stung just as much as the day before, when he downed a frozen C ration for dinner.

"It was like eating a Dixie cup of ice cream, spaghetti-flavored," he said.

He and the other soldiers in his company had emerged from a thicket near Margerotte, not far from Bastogne, and were crossing a wheat field when they began taking fire from the village and woods.

The troops dug in. Hoffa scraped a shallow depression out of the snow and wheat stubble.

An explosion rocked him. His friend had been hit. Hoffa dragged the man back to the medics by his coattail, then settled in his buddy's larger hole.

Pressed against the earth, his canteens full of ice, Hoffa waited. Hours went by. He passed out from sheer exhaustion.

When he woke, it was dark and the village was on fire. Silhouetted against the flames were figures.

Hoffa was confused. He suddenly feared the company had left him behind. Then he saw that German soldiers were moving up the hill to his right.

His cold fingers struggled trying to jam a clip into his rifle.

It wasn't long before the Germans made it to him.

"They came up to my foxhole and put a rifle in my ear, and that was it," he said.

Making it out alive

Hoffa returned to the spot in 1978.

Tranquil, hazy in the August sunshine, the field lay still. The trees were there, but nothing indicated that a weary 19-year-old had ever lain there. It was hard to picture the German machine gun that inadvertently opened up on him and other prisoners as they were being led away.

While others chased a spent German army until its surrender in May 1945, Hoffa was strafed by American fighter planes while aboard a prison train. Twice he escaped to no avail. On his third try in March, he succeeded, spotting a U.S. patrol and giving a surprised soldier a bear hug.

Hoffa isn't sure why he made it out alive.

"Dumb luck," he said. "Absolutely dumb luck."

Berrena went back, too, eight years ago.

He walked forest roads where machine-gun ambushes drove Americans into minefields on each side. His feet didn't feel stuck by a million pins from falling through a creek's ice and freezing. He didn't have heartburn from eating congealed grease in his rations.

Buried in leaves, he found German foxholes and bullet casings -- like him, survivors of a terrible winter.

"I get into bed at night," he said, "and I think of that cold outside."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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