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US Army

Gloomy Christmas

Gloomy Christmas

 
December 24 and 25, 1944, were for me two of the worse days of my life.  The 101st Airborne Division had been surrounded at Bastogne, Belgium since the night of the 20th, was short of ammunition and supplies, had its hospital captured, and was in danger of being overrun.  I was an NCO rifle platoon leader in Company "C", 401st Glider Infantry Regiment and my company was manning roadblocks on the western perimeter of the encircled city near Flamierge, Belgium.
 
We had repulsed attacks in our sector on the 19th, 20th and 22nd.On the 23rd the Germans came again early in the morning out of a heavy fog which hung over the bitter cold, snow covered hills wearing snowsuits and with tanks painted white.  They were from the 77th Regiment of the 26th Volksgrenadiers Division, 14 tanks with infantry.Although the roadblock had a Sherman, a TD, a half-track and a 37mm antitank gun, a combination of misfortunes prevented their being much use.
 
The Sherman was knocked out in the first burst of shelling, the antitank gun was frozen in the ground and couldn't be traversed to fire on the enemy armor and the crew of the half-track vanished. There was little support from division artillery because of an ammunition shortage, but our 88 mm mortars were a big help.  The division history devoted two short paragraphs to the action, making it sound no more than a patrol incident: nothing about the desperation, hopelessness and drama of the men who fought and died there that day.  I was wounded about 16.00 [4:00 PM] and put in a basement of a house just behind the MLR where the medics had set up an aid station.  The roadblock fell just after dark.  All the wounded and medics, the crews of the armor and a few men from Company "C" were captured, all that remained of the reinforced platoon that held the position.
 
The prisoners were thoroughly searched, threatened with death, and finally marched to trucks which took them into St. Hubert for interrogation.  When that was over they were put in the attic of a nearby house under the guard of young gefreiters with itchy trigger fingers.  We were hustled out of the house early the next morning to a captured American weapons carrier with an attached trailer.  A biting wind blew over the chilling snow, piercing our inadequate clothing like a knife.  We were hungry, cold, and depressed: hungry because we had been living off of one or two K rations a day for nearly a week: cold because many of us did not have overcoats, overshoes, gloves or mufflers: and depressed because after fighting debilitating campaigns in Normandy and Holland with their high casualty rates, this one in Belgium threatened to be the last straw to push us over the edge.
 
The medics and wounded were put in the weapons carrier with a guard and driver, the rest somehow jammed in the trailer and we started down the main street in a northeasterly direction.  The town was flooded with German troops and tanks, all going in the direction of Bastogne.  Perhaps they were the same ones which would overrun Company "C" on that very night, losing all 18 tanks and hundreds of panzer and Volksgrenadiers in a futile attempt to take the city.
 
Once we left the city we could see the carnage left by the German offensive.  Burning villages, wrecked and burning tanks, trucks and smaller vehicles.  Corpses, American and German, bloody, sprawled grotesquely in many instances on the whipped snow, ignored by small bands of refugees which wandered about like lost children.  In the distance toward Bastogne could be heard the dull explosion of crashing shellfire and the rumble of German artillery.   As it was still overcast and foggy, as it had been ever since we got to Belgium, there were no planes in this sector.  The wretched ride took hours with the driver newly becoming lost despite having a map.  The sky began to clear and in the distance could be heard the dull murmur of plane engines.
 
We came to a small village finally, one that had been recently bombed and strafed by our fighter planes.  Houses were ablaze, walls knocked in by bombs, German soldiers with terror-stricken faces still lay in roadside ditches.  Rescuers were going through the houses searching for victims.  The wounded were taken from the weapons carrier and into a field hospital just about the time our planes came back.  The Germans shouted "Ya-boes!  Der Tuefel!  Der Tuefel!"  Every able man rushed outside, firing every weapon available at the screaming, diving, bullet spitting planes.  We in the operating room huddled on the floor as bullets splintered the walls.
 
Happy in one way that the weather had cleared but sad in another that one of those .50 caliber bullets could kill us.  After being treated, the wounded were taken to a nearby barn which held the rest of the POWs plus some other Americans who had been picked up along the way.  The floor was ankle deep in wet, urine soaked straw and cow manure.  Soon more POWs were brought in, air corps men who had just been shot down in supply runs over Bastogne.  Once more everyone was interrogated and returned to the barn which by now was so crowded that it looked like a Tokyo subway train.  The guards took several men to a nearby kitchen and they returned with two kettles of steaming noodle soup.  As only the airborne guys had any eating utensils, the ever present spoon, these were passed around and everyone got something to eat.  Then the guards told us through one of the POWs who spoke a little German that straw was available to put on the floor for sleeping.  That was impossible.  There was hardly room to stand without bumping into someone. Most of us sat or stood all night.
 
Christmas Day was dismal for all of us.  Cold, tired and hungry we were led from the barn and lined up in a column on the road with five German guards toting machine pistols.  We walked all morning on the icy road, frosty breath preceding us.  We passed more wrecked vehicles, one an ambulance full of corpses and still on fire.  Cars sometimes littered the road and the POWs were made to drag them to the ditches.Feeling quite superior, some of the guards made the prisoners carry their bulky rucksacks.  A stocky, middle aged guard with a broad face walked just by my side.  He had gotten a ration of fried chicken and as he walked along he waved pieces under my nose saying: "Das is gut, Ja?"   Then he would take a bite.   His contemptful conduct didn't last long.
 
Suddenly the sound of plane motors came over nearby trees.  "Yarboes," the guards screamed.  We dove for the ditches, all but my taunting guard, as the P-47s skimmed the tree tops on the right and came barreling toward us with guns blazing.  The ditches were shallow, not deep enough to hide our bodies.  Even though I buried myself in the snow, I could follow the paths of the .50 caliber shells as they raced across the field and hit the road, showering us with debris and sparks.  The planes were past in an instant, made a wide arc and were back again.  A brave medic got to his knees and waved his arms as more bullets tore up the road.  It worked.  The planes leveled off and left.  I was shaking all over.  The bullets had barely missed my head as they tracked across the road.  The taunting guard lay in a widening pool of blood, the chicken leg still grasped in his hand.  T/Sgt Bonner, one of the medics who came up to help the wounded at our road block was down, a bullet through his hip.It was serious.  The guards reorganized us, threatening us with their machine pistols.  Bringing the dead and wounded along, we started off once again, but didn't get far.  Another flight of P47's spotted us and came barreling for the road.  We scattered like pins in a bowling alley.  The planes made two passes and left.  Perhaps they recognized our uniforms or were after better targets.
 
We started off again, more wary than ever.  Soon a small village came into sight.  The POWs were taken to a building which must have been the headquarters for a Nazi party unit, it was so filled with photos, flags and other propaganda material.  Our medics immediately tended the wounded, but T/Sgt Bonner was beyond their limited facilities.  They begged the guards to have him removed to a local hospital.  The guards refused at first, but later recanted. We were served a meal, a box of dried up apples, two per man.  We sat quietly on the hardwood flooring, nibbling at the apples and watching Bonner in his agony.
 
It was close to dark when the guards came and took away all the wounded.  The hospital was a makeshift affair, a convent which had been converted to handle wounded until they could be moved to the rear.  Straw pellets on the floor served as beds and there were gray woolen blankets for covers.  I was put in a room with a dozen or so Germans, all of whom had been operated on for frostbite and frozen limbs.  Most were in great pain.  I was put between two Waffen SS troopers who, at first, eyed me with hatred in their eyes.  However, after a while one became friendly and even offered me a stub of a cigarette from a small metal box he carried in a shirt pocket.  He spoke no English and I no German so communication was rough.  I did learn that he was an antitank gunner and destroyed several Ami tanks before a shell hit his gun and killed everyone but him.
 
Catholic sisters acted as nurses, helping the doctors and serving meals.  On Christmas evening everyone got a bowl of steaming stew and later the sister gave everyone a piece of chocolate.  Somewhere down the hall, I could hear feminine voices singing Christmas carols.  Even though they were in German, the music was familiar.  While they sang the beautiful songs, T/Sgt Bonner died.  He came to save us at the road block.  He died in the effort.  Perhaps there was some correlation between his death and the Christmas story.
 
T/Sgt Robert M. BOWEN

"C" Company

401st Glider Infantry Regiment

101st Airborne Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium