At dawn on 16 December1944, after a pulverizing artillery
barrage that lasted an hour, the vanguard of three SS Panzer
armies struck in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium on a 60-mile
front. Thus began the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle
fought by Americans on the western front during World War II.
I was 21-years-old that winter, a squad leader in the 486th
Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division. Our unit was one of many
sent in to help plug the hole blasted in the American lines by
Until that morning nobody dreamed Hitler's tanks would storm
through the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountains), the same attack gate
used in 1940 when his blitzkrieg sacked Belgium, France and the
Netherlands, sending the British Expeditionary Force reeling
back to the sands of Dunkirk.
Hitler caught the Allies by complete surprise.
In November and early December, under continuous days of heavy
fog, he had managed to muster 250,000 men and 1,500 tanks. Many
of these tanks were the dreaded 68-ton King Tigers with 88-mm
guns and six inches of frontal armor, or 45-ton Panthers, both
tanks superior to our 34-ton Shermans mounting 75-mm guns with
a scant two inches of frontal armor.
Hitler chose veteran Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt to
head the attack. The battle plan called for the Nazis to punch
through the Schnee Eifel and in three days reach the Meuse River,
a penetration of 50-miles. Once there, they would wheel north
and capture the deep water port of Antwerp, thus cutting supply
lines of the American 1st and 9th armies, as well as the British
2nd and Canadian 1st.
Secretly, von Rundsted thought Hitler's plan too ambitious.
"If we reach the Meuse," he said, "we should get
down on our knees and thank God."
Von Rundstedt played a minor role in the assault of his 5th,
6th and 7th Panzer armies, delegating himself as a conduit to
pass messages down where the fighting was - to his divisional
commanders. One such commander was Colonel Joachim Peiper, a
fearless, aggresive 29-year-old SS veteran with vast experience
and success on the Russian front, who led the strongest Nazi
army - the 6th - with the 1st SS Panzer Division, which numbered
20,000 men and 200 tanks and assault weapons, including 60 of
the dreaded King Tigers.
At noon on 17 December, Peiper reached Malmedy, where his
troops gathered over 100 American prisoners in a snowfield. After
taking their watches, rings and cigarettes, they murdered 86
The following day the Nazis cut through the untried 106th
Infantry Division and bagged 7,000 prisoners.
They were right on schedule.
That same day Gen. Bradley began the Herculean task of immediately
deploying his veteran units to the battle site. One of these
was our 3rd Armored Division, at the time in Stolberg, Germany-many
kilometers north of the hemorrhaging.
Tank commanders and squad leaders were assembled and briefed:
"If one of your men is wounded, give him a shot of morphine,
a blanket, tag him, and leave him along the road. If your vehicle
is disabled, the vehicle behind will push it off the road. We
will be at the battle site at first light."
We left on the afternoon of 18 December.
-- ICY ROADS --
After midnight, in a freezing rain, our column reached the
hilly Ardennes. We had to traverse down an earthen road cut into
the hillside, which was as slippery as wet glass. On one treacherous
turn, through the faint, yellowish mist of night, I saw a tank
and two trucks slide off the road and crash down through the
The vehicles towed artillery pieces or caissons that flopped
crazily against the trees as they fell. I could see some men
Several times our half-track slid toward the edge, and had
it not been for a few pebbles in the center of the road that
caught our rubber track and held, we too would have gone down
through the trees. And that's how we got through the hills that
night: by finding needed traction on pebbles.
At first light we coiled in a field near Eupen to await battle
orders and also to wait for the rest of our task force to come
down out of the icy hills.
Our first assignment was to reach a hamlet where a company
of 1st Infantry (The Big Red One) and a battery of 105-mm howitzers
on mobile mounts were deployed. I was ordered to get there at
once: They needed our guns for protection against strafing aircraft,
skirmishing infantry, or other targets.
My equipment was a White M-15 half-track that mounted an automatic
37-mm cannon flanked by twin .50-caliber machine guns on a rotating
turret. We had a crew of seven and great firepower. We were popular
with the infantry and sometimes sprayed defensive positions before
To get to the hamlet, we had to follow a road beneath a long
hill that the Germans controlled and from which they fired mortars
at us all the way into the hamlet. Shells splashed off the frozen
ground and shrapnel often clanged against the sides of the half-track.
There was a foot of snow on the ground
Halfway in a jeep came toward us and stopped. A major told
me where to set up and said he was going for tanks. Just then
a mortar exploded between our vehicles and the major's head slumped
on his chest. Shrapnel had pierced his helmet. He had no chance.
We continued along the road. It was late afternoon of a freezing,
gray day and it began snowing. At the church I looked in and
saw the townspeople huddled in pews under heavy, dark clothing.
Their dead were lined along the center aisle.
Beyond the church, the road circled down into a large, open
snowfield where we came upon the infantry and howitzers. The
howitzers were lobbing 105s up onto the wooded ridge at short
range. The infantry was deployed in scattered formations across
-- CONSTANT MORTAR FIRE --
The mortar fire was constant coming down from the tree-lined
hills. Every few minutes a dogface slumped over and there would
be blood on the snow. Someone would shout "medics."
That call was heard every few minutes.
Darkness descended on the frozen battlefield. I spotted a
three-sided machine shed across the field, toward the church,
that looked like possible shelter for my crew and began wading
through the snow, drifted waist-high in some places. When I got
10-yards from the shed, a mortar shell blew it up and I had to
dive under the snow to avoid flying debris.
I went back to the gun.
We slept on the snow that night and for over 30-nights during
the Bulge, the temperature often dipping well below zero.
To keep from freezing to death, we slept right on the snow,
using it for insulation. We fashioned our bedrolls with pieces
of waterproof tarpaulins and baby-crib mattresses. We had confiscated
the mattresses from bombed-out homes in Stolberg. My crew considered
them a prized item. They were about an inch thick, efficient
and formed a small bedroll handy since we had to carry
seven on the half-track.
On each mattress we placed our thin, hooded mummy-bag and
a folded GI blanket, and brought the other half of the tarpaulin
We wore our uniforms and combat jackets in the bedroll, pulled
our wool-knit caps over our ears, lay flat on our backs with
a boot tucked under each arm, and made it through the night.
Some of us slept with a pistol on our chest.
Each man had to get up at least once during the night to pull
his two-hour watch. Sometimes it would snow and there would be
small breathing holes in the snow where the men slept.
In the morning we would throw gasoline on tar-soaked shell
cases and start a fire to thaw water in our canteens for coffee.
During the day we wore overshoes several sizes too large and
stuffed hay into them for insulation. Frozen feet were epidemic,
causing thousands of evacuations and subsequent amputations.
But the seven of us made it through okay, in large measure,
due to our "insulated' overshoes and our bedrolls fashioned
with baby-crib mattresses.
-- CHRISTMAS COGNAC, CIGARS --
On Christmas Eve, for the first time in a week, we had a chance
to sleep indoors, in the cellar of a deserted house. We spread
our bedrolls on the concrete floor not much better than
frozen ground, but we were in a house, a real luxury.
We brought in a bottle of confiscated Hennessey 5-star cognac
(which we kept cradled in straw in an ammo well) and a few cigars.
Someone found a scrawny shrub on the front lawn of a deserted
home. Now we even had a Christmas tree.
But our hope to celebrate the Holy Night was short-lived.
At eleven the captain came to the cellar and told us that Peiper
was expected to break through south of the hamlet; we were to
go there on outpost, and radio Battalion Command if he appeared.
We followed the captain's jeep through the deserted hamlet
and came to a farm, where we set up behind a stone barn. Our
field of fire, over a barbed wire fence, was a long, narrow,
undulating snowfield that shone a metallic, yellowish-blue under
a full moon.
We waited for Peiper, staring down the snowfield, listening
all night for the clanking of his Tigers. But Peiper was late.
No one slept. One of our crew griped all night. In the freezing
weather, he stood near the gun, stomping his feet and thrashing
his arms as well as his lips to keep from turning
He asked: "How the hell can we stop Peiper's Tigers anyway
with a 37 millimeter peashooter?" He had a point there,
all right, but I knew it would be useless to mention that our
mission was to radio for help if Peiper showed up.
I didn't blame him much. In over 10-months of combat, he had
proved to be an excellent soldier: He was fearless and could
have qualified for the Dirty Dozen. He just got emotional about
Christmas and upset at the captain for pulling us out of that
Peiper didn't show up and Christmas Day dawned clear and cold
with bitter winds that swept up the snowfield.
-- SMELLING LIKE TOMCATS --
We stayed behind the stone farm Christmas Day, close to the
guns. Our gun loader said he smelled like a tomcat and would
love to take a bath. We all must have smelled badly, but no one
took a bath during the Bulge, not even a whore's bath in a helmet.
Except for an occasional change of socks, we never removed our
clothes in six weeks.
For Christmas dinner we cooked 10-in-1 rations over our one-lung
gas stove. These meals, intended to give 10-men nourishment for
one day, consisted of large cans of processed meats, mixed with
eggs and other ingredients, which we cut into steak-sized slices
We finally moved back through the hamlet. MPs were directing
traffic. We didn't trust MPs, since many English-speaking Germans,
driving American vehicles and wearing our uniforms, had infiltrated
our lines and were switching road signs, directing traffic in
wrong directions and causing chaos. Those who were captured were
shot as spies. General Bradley hadn't forgotten the Malmedy Massacre
of 86 GIs.
Moving past snowfields, we came upon recent battle sites.
There were many frozen bodies in the ditches and fields, partially
buried in drifting snow. A Graves Registration Unit was stacking
bodies in deuce-and-a-half-ton trucks as they would stack logs.
Many had died before the medics could thaw plasma under the hoods
A day after Christmas, Peiper had run out of petrol, had lost
all of his tanks and was retreating back to Germany with 800
To the south, Bastogne was finally cleared after Gen. Anthony
McAuliffe replied "Nuts" to a surrender demand, and
the fighting intensified.
Up north, Baron Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army, after penetrating
nearly 50 miles through the Allied lines, was stopped at Celles,
four miles short of the Meuse River.
The Battle of the Bulge was now checked in all areas. It began
on 16 December and fizzled out on 16 January, when the U.S. 1st
and 3rd armies met at Houffalize, cutting the Germans off at
-- HEAVY GERMAN LOSSES --
Now began the task of pushing the Germans back to the original
starting point. It was completed on 7 February 1945, 54 days
after the initial Nazi breakthrough.
The Germans lost 220,000 men, half of them taken prisoner;
they lost all of their tanks and assault weapons. They also lost
1,600 planes. American casualties were 81,000 (19,000 killed).
The British and Canadians casualties were 1,400 (200 killed).
The great battle was finally over. Soon the spring campaign
into the heartland of Germany would begin.
Note: Dick Goodie lives in Portland, ME. He
is the author of a World War II novel A Bracelet for Lily.