Reunion records tales of the Battle of the Bulge
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Many of them thought the war was over. They were on the way to Berlin. Hitler's Third Reich would soon be history.
Then came the German attack, and GIs weren't sure they'd survive another day - much less the next 68 years - to see comrades at a reunion and to tour the home of their former supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A couple of dozen World War II veterans of the Battle of the Bulge are set to catch up with old friends this weekend and tell their stories for a videotaped archive, to be offered to the National Archive and U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle.
"It's good for people to know what we did, to understand the cost of freedom," said veteran Bill Stravinsky, 89, of Springfield, Delaware County. "It took a lot of sacrifice."
Members of the Army's Eighth Armored Division - now in their 80s and 90s - will meet Friday at the Holiday Inn in Bensalem and look over war memorabilia in a hospitality room.
They'll head to Gettysburg on Saturday to visit the Civil War battlefield and see the Eisenhower National Historic site, where they'll be greeted by World War II reenactors in full combat uniforms.
The veterans — from many states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Connecticut — say the reunion may be their last chance to get together. Their ranks are thinning, and many of the remaining 150 members in their association are unable to attend the event because of health issues.
"We enjoy the camaraderie of those we served with," said Stravinsky, who served in the division's 58th Armored Infantry Battalion. "We won't always talk about the war. We'll ask about each other's lives: 'Did you marry? Did you have kids?' "
They may also recall a few close calls. "I saw a lot of combat," said Stravinsky, who became a quality-control inspector at a Westinghouse plant in Lester after the war. "I remember one time when a sniper took a shot at me - and just missed."
The Battle of the Bulge - fought from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945 - was the largest and most costly of the war for the Americans, with nearly 90,000 U.S. casualties, including 19,000 killed.
The fighting started with a huge, last-ditch German offensive intended to breach the Allied line of American and British troops. The Allies were posted in the forested Ardennes mountain region in Belgium during a snowy winter that prevented air support and resupply.
"At the time of the attack, many were complacent," said Stravinsky, who drove an armored half-track personnel carrier. "They said, 'Oh, the war is over.' But it wasn't."
The German onslaught created a bulge in the line that the Eighth Armored Division - nicknamed the "Thundering Herd" - and other Allied units tried to push back. One of the places needing urgent relief was the besieged town of Bastogne in Belgium, where the American commander famously rejected the Germans' call for surrender with one word: "Nuts."
The GIs' memories of the desperate fighting remain vivid nearly seven decades later.
"I remember my buddy jumped off a tank, hit a mine, and got shrapnel all over his back," said Romeo Battilana, 89, of Philadelphia's Burholme section. "He survived and later went on to become a professor."
Battilana, who was a draftsman before the war, also recalled a horrific mortar barrage that threatened his unit, and German propaganda fliers that depicted American soldiers as skeletons and "civilians making time with their girlfriends back home."
"One day, there was this odd sound I never heard before," said Battilana, who was in the division's 49th's Armored Infantry Regiment. "It was a German jet, the first jet I ever saw."
The reunion and trip to the Eisenhower site — home and farm of the supreme allied commander — might not have been possible without efforts to save the Eighth Armored Division Association. In 2009, the association, made up of World War II veterans and family members, was on the verge of disbanding, largely because of aging and dwindling membership.
That's when Andy Waskie Jr., a Temple University language professor and son of one of the division's medical officers, stepped forward with veteran Vern Miller, 89, of Birmingham, Ala., to help revive the group.
The two arranged the reunion and trip to Gettysburg. Miller knew Waskie's late father, Andy Waskie Sr., who died in 2006 at 87.
"I heard my father's stories but didn't get detail," said Waskie, interim president of the division's association and a Fishtown resident. "I could kick myself for not sitting down with him."
One of his stories stood out. "He treated wounded soldiers and was told to set up a field hospital" in a German castle, Waskie said. "The castle belonged to the duke of Braunschweig, and my father went into a huge wine cellar there, took a bottle, and started drinking it."
The duke found him in the cellar and asked whether he was sampling the wine.
"He told him he was drinking it because it was his birthday," his son said.
The duke noted that it was also Hitler's birthday.
"'Then, I'll drink to him — in case we lose the war,' my father told him, and the duke scurried away," recalled Waskie. "He always told that story on his birthday."
The elder Waskie, a lieutenant at the time, was friendly and sometimes chatted with Miller, then "just a lowly corporal," the Birmingham, Ala., resident said.
"I think it's great to have our stories preserved," added Miller, who was a battalion supply clerk and drove trucks during the Battle of the Bulge, and who later became a magazine editor. "The whole purpose of reactivating the association was to keep the history alive."
Miller remembers a sniper's bullet missing his head by two inches, and his truck being peppered with enemy machine-gun fire.
His comrades had similar stories. "I had a buddy killed right alongside of me," said Elmer Unbenhauer, 87, of Cape May Court House, who was unable to attend the reunion. "It could have been me.
"You have to be lucky," said Unbenhauer, a retired Merck & Co. Inc. clinical research director. "When there's artillery fire, you never know where it will hit."
Ed Lambert, a tank commander, lost comrades in two different tanks and temporarily "lost hearing from the concussion" of an explosion. "I didn't hear for a couple days," said Lambert, 86, of Collingswood, retired manager of merchandise receiving for now-defunct Strawbridge & Clothier. He also was unable to make the trip.
Some images are indelible. Battilana came upon a concentration camp that "was pitiful. This place had trenches where they threw the bodies" of Jews, he said. "Their wrists were half the size of ours. I saw lamp shades made from human skin."
The years since then melt away when the veterans are reunited, revealing the bond forged in war.
"They're so excited to see their comrades again," Waskie said. "They wanted to get together, even if it's the last time for some of them."
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.