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US Army

Christmas 1944 in Luxembourg

Christmas 1944 in Luxembourg
 
A significant number of people have asked me – during spreading of the word of my involvement in infantry combat in Europe – to describe some more of conditions in late fall of 1944 and into Northern Europe’s worst Winter on record up to that time. 
 
Having finally entered and cleared out Metz about November 18, we started to a destination which we passionately dreaded – the German border and the Siegfried Line.  Snow was already falling, an enemy in itself because of ease of observation as well as the difficulty of finding a warm enough place to try to sleep some.  But the big thing was that we knew that the Germans would defend their border more vigorously than they had many of the French places during the late summer. (I think they thought their own border just couldn’t be breached.)
 
Before we ran out of gas in early September there had been much speculation about the war being over by Christmas.  Now we wondered when it would be over for all infantrymen, one by one!
 
On December 16 battalion and regimental senior officers came to the forward positions to find those of us who were company commanders and tell us personally that our intelligence had discovered German Panzer divisions had been amassed, apparently to attack our front or that of the Soviets.  Of course we were all surprised to know they had such capability – and honestly hoped the strike would be to the East! 
 
That very night the Germans launched an attack, which would result in the involvement of a total of 600,000 troops, the largest single battle in history.  We were just inside the German border in the Saar Valley and during the night we got orders to climb on any vehicle headed north, destination somewhere, and see that headlights were turned on, follow the vehicles ahead, bumper to bumper. It was one of Patton’s miracles that we arrived in the middle of Luxembourg not long after dawn, 100 miles away, slipping and sliding in deeper and deeper snow.  Rumors were rampant as we were told that Germans had filtered into our ranks in American uniforms, that a lot of our weapons had been captured and that many atrocities were being committed. 
 
The next few days, cloudy and bitterly cold, were a nightmare of danger in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Casualties from artillery, tanks firing through the trees, and rifle fire, burp guns and trench foot kept depleting our ranks as were trying to push back that part of the “Bulge”. 
 
It was hard to decide which was the #1 enemy – Germans or weather.  Snow and low clouds impeded our movement and had prevented any support from the air. On Christmas Eve, the eighth day of these conditions, the skies became blue, and I stood by a snow laden fir tree and thanked God that I could hear and eventually see a steady line of planes above! (Patton claimed that this was answer to his own prayers. I wonder how God filters profane prayer.) Our planes kept coming the next few days and apparently did enough damage to effectively turn the tide. 
 
Late Christmas Eve, after hearing a company of our folks being overrun by tanks (it just happened that the tanks counterattacked down a little road on the hill above us rather than our road) a few of us crawled into a part of a small barn and found soft hay there.  We stretched out about midnight and immediately a stranger stuck his head inside and asked for me.  He had a few packages for our company and one was for me – a box of cookie crumbs sent weeks before by Merle Croucher, the wife of a fellow officer friend from Indianapolis.  My only package in all that time came at midnight Christmas Eve – and the crumbs lasted about four minutes, as I recall.
 
Christmas Day – weather beautiful and setting idyllic, with snow on every branch of planted fir trees 10 – 15 feet tall in rows with fire break avenues every hundred yards or so.  I was deeply depressed as I tried to offer some encouragement for these weary folks and we approached the forward slope of the mountain, knowing there would be good observation where the trees played out on the approach to the Sauer River, along which there were mostly damaged and abandoned bed and breakfasts houses and small inns.  As I stood at the edge of a little road waiting for the rest of my folks to get oriented and catch up using more than one firebreak, Pfc Castle approached me.  He was a replacement medic who had endeared himself to all of us. He wanted to do anything he could – cheerfully – including trudging back a mile or so to bring 5-gallon cans of water when we got messages that water was available.  This time he asked my permission to go back to where he had seen two wounded Germans, an officer and an enlisted man, and try to “fix up” their wounds.
 
At first I told him I’d rather he not go alone, that I really should not be there alone (we tried to abide by the rule about getting separated).  He indicated the direction. Said it was not far and that he would hurry.  I relented with great appreciation for the compassion of this young “kid” and felt it appropriate act for Christmas.  His commitment was to people, not just friends. I became more anxious for us to proceed (mid-afternoon now and darkness came very early) and one of my platoon leaders found me and asked about Castle.  I told him what had transpired and said I thought I could find him. After searching down a couple of rows, I did find him.
 
His hand was under the wounded arm of one of the two still alive Germans, and he had died from a bullet through his helmet and his head.  My emotions nearly tore me apart!  Of course I would shoot the squirming and begging men – as they expected.  As I cocked my carbine and pointed it at the captain, I still was thinking about the day and my family and the fact there was not much celebration here.  Somehow I thought that if I did survive I would never want to remember that I killed two helpless people on Christmas and would not want my family to know that I had done such a thing.  It was really mostly selfish, with some compassion thrown in.  And I knew it would not be a fitting tribute to the short and beautiful life Castle had lived.  (I did not know where he was from and have never been able to find his family since, though I was finally able to get his serial number.   My request for search of military records had been answered but not successful.  It’s very difficult for strangers to get family information through Army records – rightly so). We never discovered who had killed him, possibly someone hiding nearby even as I stood there beside his body and the terrified Germans.
 
By now we thought the war or winter would never end, troops dwindled to weakened strengths.  But on January 22nd (which turned out to be the official last day of the Bulge battle) it was over for me.  A mortar shell hit a tree limb about 18 inches from my head, killed the two artillery people who had come to discuss the situation after we had spotted enemy movement on the next hill.  We were all wearing hooded white jackets with white trousers.  My face felt numb and I realized I could not hear with my right ear, but I didn’t realize what my situation was until blood, delayed by the bitter cold, began dripping from my neck down onto the white clothing.  I was crouched down trying to see how badly a fourth friend had been wounded in the face.  Soon two people were pulling me up to give me prescribed sulfa tablets and then began dragging me toward a small track in the snow.  Shortly a jeep came, I was helped into a seat and we proceeded down a steep hill.  The jeep slid off the little road and stuck in the snow.  It was about to get dark, and it wasn’t long until they got enough people to push and pull and get us on the way down the hill to an aid station at the little Catholic church in Diekirch.
 
From there I went to Luxembourg City to a convent being used as a hospital, where I had surgery and spent several Days.  Next trip was to Paris in a boxcar with litters stacked three to a side, a wood stove for heat, for more surgery and a few days.  The hospital in Luxembourg gave out of pajamas on the day we were taken down to the rail siding to a tent, so I traveled in bandages and very scratchy captured German blankets.  (I bet none of my readers has traveled to Paris naked!) In the “holding tents” we were placed on the ground where the wind whipped under the ten flaps while the train was being placed for loading.  (Incidentally, this was the first operating train I had seen because the retreating Germans had destroyed as much rail lines as they could.
 
All along the way – from the very first aid station in the little church - there were gentle and caring chaplains and doctors, many times asking “Are you afraid to die?”  I finally learned to say that I wasn’t really afraid, but that didn’t mean I wanted to! – The Germans had one more go at me:  During four months of more surgery and recovery in a hospital in England I developed Scabies! (We knew it in Georgia as 7 year itch)  The doctors said it came from the filthy blankets.
 
This is written to partly explain my gratitude for life, for my faith and for the measure of peace that I have experienced.  One can readily see why I feel that my blessings have been more than any one person could expect.  I was glad to hear Tom Brokaw say that those of us who are survivors feel that our country and its people do NOT owe us anything.  I am a little embarrassed when somebody says Thanks.  I surely want my family and friends to know of my gratitude for them and for live itself.  I know God knows it. 
 
Source: Bulge Bugle February 2011

By Capt Harold I. STOREY

 Company "C"

10th Infantry Regiment

5th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium