So, just how cold was the winter of 44? Staff 12/30/2006 Words like markedly, significant, notably, highly, and very do not describe the record weather in Europe in December of 1944. We never turned t

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2006

Words like markedly, significant, notably, highly, and very do not describe the record weather in Europe in December of 1944. We never turned truck or other small vehicle motors off, and starting bigger equipment engines when necessary was often hopeless without a roaring fire. All an infantryman had to protect was his body and his rifle; we had those and monster machines that cannot be dragged.

It’s true we dried our extra socks on hoods of trucks, and put extra boots directly on the engine. That had to be timed carefully and many boots ended up in boot hill. Everything of any value to an engineer was in the backpack, duffel bag, or under the wooden seats in the trucks. I still remember the one and only letter from one of my older brothers, giving me what for because I didn’t write to them often enough…our hands wouldn’t stop shaking enough to hold a pencil. I kept that letter and stuck it in his ear years later.

An army mess kit in use has no cover to keep rain or snow from turning lukewarm food into very cold soup. With icy rain dripping off the helmet we shifted from foot to foot in the cold and shoveled food down as fast as possible. No need to wash eating utensils, just swish it in a puddle or snow. Worse was the snow driven by a stiff wind down the back of the neck…field jackets were too short at the top and at the waist. Moisture fogged my army eyeglasses so I could hardly see, and soggy wool gloves did not by themselves keep the fingers from freezing. I will never forget and it’s one of the reasons I easily left Michigan.

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You’ve seen pictures of soldiers wearing those long white insulated parkas with hoods that nearly surround the face—we never saw one. Our protection was an open neck field jacket over two wool shirts and two pair of wool pants tucked into combat boots, over all the underwear we could steal. I wrote dad and asked him to send me some long thick woolen hunting socks…they arrived in April. The thick wool coat we were issued was too wet and weighed a hundred pounds. If it ever dried out I might wear it, but even dry they impeded getting work done. Unlike modern combat gear today, our clothing was our body armor.

I don’t know how many became casualties as a result of frostbite but everyone was close to the edge all the time. Thirteen men huddled in a truck to sleep. The enemy suffered equally and there was little killing activity on those days. God help those on either side that had to stand guard while the rest snoozed. On many nights the wind howled relentlessly and even sleep was a nightmare. A wonderful morning was when the sun came out and at least your face could get warm. On those days you awoke in the midst of diamonds, the snow unspoiled and so bright you wished you owned sunglasses. You prayed there would be no missions coming in by radio but it always crackled to life at daybreak giving us the roof panel code, and a bird Colonel somewhere with a mine field for us to clear.

Your heart went out to the local people who had to find shelter in the rubble of their homes or farm buildings. We &uot;borrowed&uot; their hay for warmth and lined our foxholes with it or any kind of stuffing from a shattered mattress. Goose feather pillows were acceptable even when soaked. Little kids had less clothes on than we did and how they survived that winter is a miracle of sorts. We could move on, perhaps to better circumstances; they had to stay there in their misery. War is hell for everybody.

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