As a young newspaper reporter I had the honor and privilege of interviewing a number of World War II veterans for the 50th anniversary of the epic 1944 battles, including D-Day, the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.
One of my most memorable interviews was a lengthy conversation with a man named Mike, who led a platoon in Pennsylvania’s 28th Division – the Keystone Division – in both the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. As it turns out, this mild, unremarkable-looking man in his early 70s had a remarkable story to tell in his kitchen. It’s a story that, until that day, he had never told before – even to his wife.
You might not have heard about the Hurtgen Forest. This grueling three-month battle between U.S. and German forces near the Belgian border is often overshadowed by its more-famous cousin, the Battle of the Bulge. (For a hint of what it might have been like, check out HBO’s “When Trumpets Fade,” a 1998 movie starring Ron Eldard.)
For those who fought there, the battle left dark memories that lasted a lifetime. Mike was a young lieutenant from a small town in Western Pennsylvania who led a platoon into the Hurtgen in late October of 1944. For days the division’s regiments attacked through rough, thickly wooded terrain against a determined, experienced enemy – sustaining heavy casualties.
By the time the battered 28th was relieved by the 4th Infantry Division, Mike had been taken off the front line due to “battle fatigue,” known today as Post-Traumatic Stress. The remedy: seven days or so of rest in the rear area with hot showers and hot food. Then back to his unit.
The 28th Division was sent to a quiet sector of the line to recuperate and draw replacements; to lick its wounds. That recuperation abruptly ended 70 years ago today when Hitler launched the offensive through the Ardennes now known as the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 16, 1944. The 28th Division was one of four divisions that took the brunt of the surprise attack, and after initial stubborn resistant, the division retreated – with some units disintegrating.
Mike’s was one of them. He told me how survivors from his shattered company split into small groups to avoid the oncoming Germans. His group hid in the woods or in barns during the day – wherever they could find shelter – carefully picking their way toward friendly lines at night. They were hungry, freezing and scared. Eventually, they approached Allied lines and, taking the chance of getting shot by nervous comrades, called out for help. They were brought in without incident. For Mike, the war would continue into 1945.
Mike returned home after the war and began a successful career in manufacturing, eventually rising to the position of plant manager. He got involved in local politics and made a difference in his community. Although Mike never talked about his experiences in World War II, they took a toll. He suffered from nightmares, and his marriage ultimately ended in divorce.
Mike has long since died, as have many of the Greatest Generation. On this 70th anniversary, we like to remember and salute all of the heroes like Mike who quietly endured endless horrendous combat distant continents and islands, fighting for the freedoms of people they never met. We will never forget.