Lest We Forget: Battle of the Bulge remembered
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By Peter Riesz
Sixty-six years ago, the U.S. armies were involved in what became one of our greatest battles of all times. On December 16, 1944 the Germans launched a last, desperate attack known as the Battle of the Bulge. If successful, this effort would have split our forces. It probably would have ended the war with the signing of a truce. This surrender would have been less than unconditional. In effect it would have been a truce leaving the Wehrmacht, or German army, intact.
It all began with the failure of Operation Market Garden. This was an allied effort launched in mid-September 1944. The purpose was to cross the lower Rhine River in Holland and then to quickly advance through the Ruhr industrial zone and on to Berlin. This would have ended the war before Christmas. Everyone had dreamed for the success of this plan. However, through the poor planning of British Gen. Bernard Montgomery alone, the attack was a total failure with many lost lives on our side.
This set the stage for the Bulge attack. Our forces had advanced across Belgium and were entering Germany itself for the first time at Aachen. The weather was horrible, the worst in a century. Our forces were ill equipped and worn out from the D-day attack and advance across France. We were in a defensive posture waiting for springtime to launch the final attack into Germany to end the war.
Our forces were very thin in an area in Belgium called the Ardennes Forest. We should have been wary in this area because this was the very invasion route Germany used at the start of WW I. Conditions in the area were deplorable. Our troops were all in foxholes and trenches and were constantly wet and frozen. There was no fresh food and they had not been issued cold weather gear. Many of them still had the same clothes and boots they had on the Normandy invasion six months earlier. There was constant fog and clouds so our air force could not launch any attacks. Most of the higher rank officers were in comfortable quarters back behind the lines with warm meals including wine. Most never ever visited the front lines.
The attack began on Dec. 16, 1944. Melvin Dusek from Victoria was there. He was assigned to the 99th Division. He had been in a training class to be an officer which was being held at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville. However, after the heavy losses on D-Day, the army needed infantrymen carrying rifles. So his training was cancelled and he was sent to the 99th Infantry Division. They were known as the Battle Babies because most were very young. They had very little basic training. In early October they were shipped to Ireland and then crossed over to France in early November 1944. They were trucked across France arriving in Belgium in a reserve area behind our 2nd Division. V1 and V2 weapons were flying overhead every day. On Dec. 13, they were sent into the front lines to relieve the exhausted 2nd Division. Three days later, on Dec. 16, they would be directly in the center of the German attack. They and the neighboring 106th Division were immediately overrun by the attacking tanks and men and became part of one of the largest surrender of U.S. forces in history. Melvin was wounded and taken prisoner. He was well cared for by the German medical team.
In addition to the cold injuries, there were many casualties from splinters. That's right, splinters. The enemy shells would hit the heavy forest growth and explode the trees above, sending down a cascade of splinters. Also, the medical treatment teams had trouble because of the effects of cold on wounds. A wounded man would have his blood freeze in the field effectively stopping the bleeding. Then, when warmed up in the medical hospital environment, the hemorrhaging would start again.
Eventually, the attack was stopped in key places like Bastogne where the 101st Airborne performed so heroically until relieved by Gen, George Patton's armored units. By the end of December, the attack had fizzled out and the Germans were again pushed back until mid- January when the attack officially ended and we had returned to our former front line of advance at Aachen. From here on, it was all downhill for Germany until their unconditional surrender in May 1945. Our losses were great. Of 600,000 involved, 81,000 became casualties. German losses were well over 100,000.
This column is a research project of Dr. Peter B. Riesz. Contact Riesz at email@example.com or 361-575-4600.