LeRoy Collins Commentary 117

Commentary #122
23 December 2007

Christmas during the Battle of the Bulge DEC 1944

As the Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, I was invited on 16 DEC to address the Florida southeast coast chapter of Veterans who participated in the Battle of the Bulge during December 1944 thru January 1945. This semi-annual gathering of 240 aging combat-seasoned survivors convened at the Hilton Hotel adjacent to the West Palm Beach Airport.

I was anxious to accept this speaking occasion because.... 1. I was on-site in that area of Europe about 25 years ago, 2. I followed the battle daily in the pages of the Tallahassee Democrat as a 10 yr-old ....as it unfolded, and 3. I had a 2nd cousin and next door neighbor in Tallahassee who was a platoon commander in the same battle. He would never tell me nor his children of his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge, which involved 500,000 U.S. troops, 81,000 U.S. casualties, and 19,000 U.S. troops killed in action.....all in six weeks!

I almost did not arrive in time for my comments, because my car's alternator quit about 30 miles east of Tampa on SR 60. I managed to coax the car back to Brandon, where my wife met me with an alternate car, so I could resume the trip.

The moment I arrived (only about 10 min late after a fast 200 miles!), the Chapter President put me on the platform. First I read a proclamation from Governor Crist commemorating the occasion, then I told my "sea story" about my interest in the Battle. When I got to the part about my cousin.....and his reluctance to tell ANYONE about his personal experience there.....I explained....

Back in the Spring of this year, I was invited to address the Florida annual convention of the Blinded Veterans of America in Daytona Beach. I had been introduced as a native of Tallahassee; after I spoke, one of the attendees asked me "do you know John ____ in Tallahassee?" Yes, I replied, John is my 2nd cousin (whom I mentioned above). "John was my platoon commander for the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-45!" .......TELL ME MORE!!!......I had made a breakthrough in my family history!

My sight-impaired informant was living in Fort Myers. He said John had joined his company as a new platoon commander just days before the massive desperate German offensive, so John was untested. The first day on the battle line, a German artillery shell killed their company commander. One of the other platoon commanders became the company commander. 2-3 weeks later, that new company commander was killed: John became the new-new company commander. "John did a great job, and led us through some very tough conflicts."

By February, the the Bulge was returned to the original battleline. The surrounded U.S. troops at Bastogne had been relieved by the spectacular race northward by General George Patton's armored division. The German Panzers had been enviscerated, albeit at a high cost of U.S. troops and resources. The war in Europe would end less than three months later.....and the remainder of WWII would end in Japan by that September.

I was not in Tallahassee when John came home. My father was in the Navy and had taken our family with him so long as he would remain in the U.S., .....which was the whole duration. Since Dad had not been deployed, he had not accumulated the "points" needed to be discharged when the war was over. He remained in uniform on the West Coast until discharged in the Spring of 1946. By the time I saw John, I greeted him proudly and asked a predictable 11 yr-old question: "John, did you kill anybody?" John did not dignify my very insensitive question for a returning warrior.

John went back to school on the G.I. Bill, got a Law Degree from the University of Florida, settled in Tallahassee, got married to a beautiful Tallahassee girl (I was the acolyte in their wedding), and lived a very normal and productive life. As recently as three years ago, my mother (by then, aged 93) and I visited John and Shirley in their home on very short notice. During that I asked if John had ever returned to the European battlefields to see what had changed. His response was quick, quiet, and unequivocal; he had NOT done so, and he WOULD NOT do so. John did not want to rekindle those memories of his scarred and distant past. And I saw no reminders of his military past in his house.

John died just a few months ago after a full life. As far as I know, he never related any of his war stories to anyone,...... not me, his 2nd cousin, nor his family.

After relating my story to the Battle of the Bulge survivors in West Palm, I implored them to share their stories so that subsequest generations will know the nature of widespread sacrifice by Americans to ensure "long may our land be bright.....with freedom's Holy Light...."

After our lunch together, the group was shown a vivid documentary film on the Battle of the Bulge. Several of those present were in the film with their commentaries. By early afternoon, the meeting was nearing a punctuation point; a few departed, but I remained to listen to perhaps a dozen of the attendees who responded to the question..."where were you and what were you doing @ 0530 the morning of 16 DEC 1944?" Here is one from Bill____


"On that morning 63 years ago today, those of us not on duty were on the top floor of a school building preparing for a Barracks Inspection. We suddenly realized the area was being shelled (by German artillery). We soon got notice 'no inspection' and to get the hell out of the upper floors. Cancelling an inspection? There must be something serious going on!

"I was a 20 year-old radio operator with the 106th Signal Company of the 106th Infantry Division with its headquarters in a road center in eastern Belgium called St. Vith. Our radio teams maintained short-wave radio contact between VIII Corps, our Division Headquarters, and our 422nd, 423rd, and 424th Infantry Divisions. We had taken over from the 2nd Infantry Division less than a week earlier, per VIII Corps instructions, 'man for man and gun for gun'.....along a 22 mile front. 'Just old men and young boys facing us' we were told.

"Our radios were mounted in 3/4 ton weapons carriers parked in adjacent fields. Cables were run into the basement of the school and we operated our radios from there. We had to go out and run the truck engines every so often to keep the radio batteries charged.

"I had always begrudged the big bulky weight of my helmet and now I suddenly wanted to get my entire body underneath that far too flimsy hunk of steel. Coming back to the building the guard had changed, and the new one did not want to let me in. There were rumors of Germans in GI uniforms (infiltrators).

"One of the Message Center guys cut his finger on some broken glass and wondered if he qualified for a Purple Heart (medal). He didn't.

"Fighter planes were mixing it up over St. Vith. Shell casings from their guns were raining down like hail on the street. They were the last planes we saw for over a week (...because of the inclement weather).

"A reconaissance unit of 7th Armored light tanks came into town. They were called up so quickly they had only about half their ammunition. They were sent east of town and were back in less than an hour. 'Big stuff' out there, they said, 'we're going back for help.'

"Got a frantic call from the 14th Cavalry attached to our Division stating there were German tanks rolling through their Command Post. Where did the Panzers come from?

"I'm not sure what terminology you guys use in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in 1944 at this point for us, things went from SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up) to FUBAR! (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition).

"In view of the emphasis upon weather, I'd like to add the following:

"For us, Christmas came on December 23rd. The day dawned clear and cold with a beautiful blue sky. By mid morning the entire sky was white, the result of vapor trails from more than a thousand Allied planes. German anti-aircraft batteries were firing away, and silvery things were fluttering down (German hits?). What we first feared were parts of planes, turned out to be small streamers of metal thrown out by the bombers to confuse radar devices on the anti-aircraft weapons. The streamers looked much like the tinsel used for Christmas trees and hey, what day was this anyway? In short order we collected some of the streamers and decorated a nearby pine tree. That Christmas season, those of us there thanked God for the greatest gift of all.....the gift of life itself." /s/ Bill_____



/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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