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Sixty-one years later

This past Dec. 16 came and went rather easily, uneventful for most. But it brought back memories for thousands of families in at least two countries because of a similar date in mid December 1944 … the worst winter ever recorded in Europe.

I cannot honestly tell you where I was on that date, but it was somewhere in Germany. Units of our army were thinly scattered in the north and our 106th Infantry Division fronted the action that had us poking our nose into Germany, our first real penetration up there. You might call it a bulge.

The generals figured it to be the least likely place for a German counterattack, because their units were also spread across a very wide front. The generals were wrong.

The Ardennes Forest area is somewhat mountainous and a heavily forested part of eastern Belgium, northern Luxemburg, and Germany. Suddenly three German armies hit us on one of the coldest and snowy days of that year. Their intention was to drive us to the sea, trap four allied armies, and force negotiations that would end the war.

As you have read, they failed to properly supply their fast advancing troops and, more importantly, ran into American stubbornness at Bastogne, and St. Vith, where the 106th Infantry took them head on. This held up the German advance, giving our generals time to rethink their battle plans and get our armored divisions up there fast.

Old blood and guts Gen. George Patton, (as we say: his guts, our blood) finally cut off their supply lines. In two weeks it was over, and we able to go on the attack again … this time to go all the way to the Rhine.

I write about this, not because I was there, but because I want to make a few comparisons with our current war being quarterbacked and denigrated by an armchair Congress, many too young to even remember that battle, the worst in terms of losses.

While any loss of life or terrible wounds is regrettable, what has happened in Iraq during a two-year period is paled by three days in World War II. Even the battle of Gettysburg is overshadowed by the Ardennes slaughter.

This was not Iraq where less than two hundred thousand Americans are battling it out. Here were over half a million Germans, colliding chaotically with 600,000 Americans, and 55,000 British soldiers.

The first three days of this fight were the worst, and more than 100,000 Germans were killed, wounded or captured. When it was over, our main problem was collecting and containing the thousands of cold, hungry and angry German prisoners who had been told it would be their victory. It nearly was.

It was to be many days before they saw food, and their only shelter was each other. You can only imagine their cold hell, and ours was not much better.

On our side it was a massacre. In addition to what happened at Malmedy, where 86 American soldiers were murdered, we suffered more than 19,000 killed, 23,500 taken prisoner by the Germans, and more than 36,000 wounded, not counting frostbite.

Our second main task as engineers was hurriedly erecting tent hospitals. And not one congressman or woman, not one senator demanded we bring the troops home. No one accused the president of lying. I would have been willing to go home that week because there was still much more enemy land to cross before it was over, and four more months of killing.

We cleaned the mud from our rifles the last time on May 8, 1945.

My memory of that first day of the German attack is one of sheer panic. We had had an opportunity to fall back and rest, get some hot food, dry clothes and best of all, a hot shower in a medical facility.

Suddenly our “front line” was scrambling to get out of wherever they had been and racing back to France. We had no idea what was happening around us, but we followed suit, loaded our trucks hurriedly and joined the retreat as we were instructed to do. The snow and cold made almost every movement impossible and we learned later that much of our gear had been left behind.

I learned much about fear during that ignominious retreat and have always had sincere empathy for those men and women who are fighting our battles today. I wish them well.

Robert Pocklington is a Suffolk resident and regular contributor to this section. Contact him at robert.pocklington@suffolknewsherald.com