George Sampson died this past November, 2007, at the age of
eighty-nine. A lifelong resident of Allentown, PA, he was a steelworker
in his youth, an operator of a vending machine business later
on, a husband and a father. But there was also a time when George
was a soldier, which is how I remember him best.
Our paths first crossed in Germany in late 1944, where the 36th
Armored Infantry Regiment was then replenishing its depleted
ranks following five months of combat. George was among a group
of fresh replacements who were promptly trucked to a nearby quarry
for additional weapons training, including test firing of the
bazooka, after which he was assigned to 2nd Platoon, D Company.
I had rejoined the platoon in September after recovering from
wounds received in France, and George and I -- a replacement
and a combat veteran -- were designated as the bazooka team for
the newly reconstituted 3rd Rifle Squad. George was twenty-six,
I was nineteen, and we were both PFC's.
Replacements typically met with a frosty reception for the
simple reason that their inexperience usually resulted in a disproportionate
number of casualties soon after they entered action. Few of us
made an effort to get to know them until they had survived a
few weeks at least. We went easier on newcomers to the war who
showed confidence and personality, which described George exactly.
Wiry and strong from his days at Bethlehem Steel, he combined
physical presence with a workingman's relaxed sense of humor
and a gift for story telling, often ribald tales accompanied
by tortured melodies from his harmonica. In my case acceptance
came when I learned he was from Pennsylvania, just up the road
from my hometown of Emmaus, and in fact had dated the sister
of my best friend back home. It quickly seemed that I had known
George got his first taste of combat in the Battle of the
Bulge, three weeks after he arrived, when 2nd Platoon walked
straight into an ambush against elements of the 1st SS Panzer
Division. Engulfed in a withering crossfire and commanded to
withdraw, what was left of our platoon managed to crawl back
down the hill and across an ice-cold stream under a blizzard
of machine gun, grenade and mortar fire. What I recall from the
incident is that George appeared unfazed by the torrential fire
we had just escaped, but he was furious that we had been given
so little information about the enemy's location and strength.
It only made him madder when I told him that was how it was in
combat, which he dismissed in unprintable language as simply
not good enough. It was a telling moment, as it marked George
as both brave and a thinker, the very qualities soldiers look
to in a leader.
The Bulge campaign was waged in hundreds of villages and towns
across the Ardennes, and at times it seemed that D Company had
fought in all of them. It was also bitterly cold. At night, we
looked for any building that would shelter us from the biting
wind, but, as the bazooka team, George and I were often deployed
ahead of the company, outside, where we dug-in along the road
to intercept enemy tanks. Digging through the frozen earth was
like chipping at concrete; when we had gone just deep enough
and wide enough for both of us to sit down, we would lay our
raincoats in the bottom of the hole for insulation, then climb
in using my full-length overcoat to cover us. We took turns on
watch, and though it was too cold to ever really sleep, we nonetheless
were grateful for the hole.
One morning, about a month into the battle, we had emerged
from yet another wretched hole and I was pounding on the overcoat,
which had frozen like a plank overnight. I had propped my M-1
rifle against a tree while I attempted to loosen it up, when
George whispered that an enemy patrol was approaching our position.
He didnt have a rifle since he hauled the bazooka, but did carry
a .45 caliber pistol, which, unbeknownst to George, had slipped
from his holster during the night and was in the hole under the
raincoats. Grabbing my rifle I pulled back on the bolt, but it
too had frozen solid. By now the patrol was nearly on top of
us. Seeing what was happening with me, unable to locate his .45,
and with no time to load the bazooka, George raised the empty
tube and shouldered it, daylight streaming from both ends. "Halt!"
he hollered at the patrol with all his voice. "Halt!"
Amazingly their hands flew into the air, and with my worthless
rifle pointing at their chests, they were persuaded to drop their
weapons. To this day I am convinced that George's quick thinking
saved our lives.
That night we got split up while clearing some houses, and
I was wounded for the second time. Shipped out to England the
next day, I did not rejoin 2nd Platoon until after Germany's
surrender. I immediately went looking for George, who now was
Staff Sergeant Sampson in charge of 2nd Squad. He was the same
cheerful and uncomplicated man he was before, still spinning
stories about this or that back home. Only later would I hear,
and not from George, other stories that in my absence had earned
him both the Silver and a Bronze Star for Valor.
We went home to Pennsylvania after the war, lived five miles
from each other and got on with our lives. When his health began
to fail in the last years of his life, we would meet for breakfast
every other week, where the conversation invariably drifted back
to that long ago time when we were soldiers. "You know,"
he said once, characteristically poking me on the arm as he spoke,
"you and I are closer than brothers because of those days."
He was right about that, and I've never received a finer compliment.
In life as in war there are those who just naturally stand
out, men and women conspicuous for their actions and character
regardless of what they do. George Sampson was one such person.
As I watched him lowered into the ground on that cool November
day, I could not help thinking that I belonged there with him,
the two of us dug-in together one last time. A strange thought
perhaps, but George would have understood it completely.