Playing a part in the Battle of the Bulge
In early December 1944, it appeared that the Nazi's war machine that had conquered Europe so easily in the first part of World War II was just about at the end of their rope. Allied forces had stormed the beaches at Normandy only six months before and now were poised to make the jump from France and Belgium into homeland Germany. The Soviet Union's Red Army backed by American arms and equipment were coming like gangbusters from the east through Poland. The Italian peninsula had been liberated and now some Italians that were formally fighting for the axis powers were battling their old allies. It looked bleak for Germany, and Hitler was determined to do something to break the steel ring that was surrounding his country more each day.
In the fall of 1944, Hitler met with two high ranking generals, one of them named Alfred Jodle, who was given the task of coming up with a plan on how to break the Allied grip on Germany. Hitler was convinced with the right timing, a quick speed of attack and a little luck German fighting forces could break through the mostly American lines in the area of the Ardennes Forest and make a rush for Antwerp, Belgium. That would put Hitler's forces at the edge of the sea and effectively divide the Allied forces in the west in two. Hitler actually believed that there was a lot of tension between all the allies and such a move might bring on in-fighting between them.
Jodle spent a month working on the plan and in early October it was done and ready for Hitler's approval. Originally the plan was code named Watch on the Rhine, but Hitler changed it to Autumn Mist as he spent the next month going over the details. The change actually came in reaction to the fact that many of his generals tried to convince him the plan was suicide, and would shorten the war for the allies rather than lengthen it for Germany. But the leader of the Nazi Party wouldn't listen and set the attack for the middle of December, where eight armored divisions along with 13 German Infantry divisions would attack five divisions of the American First Army.
The Ardennes Forest was the perfect place for an attack because the rough terrain and thick forested landscape made it so the Americans had lightly defended the area thinking the Germans would never attack there. It also afforded the Germans good cover during the attack. Hitler also knew that the weather that is often very bad that time of year and in those days of aviation cloud cover would prevent airpower from aiding the allied soldiers on the ground.
But the American Army would stop the counter attack from succeeding, due largely to the stamina of American foot soldiers and their desire to get the war over. A good example of this kind of soldier was Remo Etzel, who resides in Price today and was born in Castle Gate.
|A gravestone marking the final resting place of a soldier from the battle.|
The march across Europe to the point of where the Battle of the Bulge would take place had been a costly one for allied forces. Each day hundreds of new soldiers were arriving on the continent to replace those lost in battle and to add additional numbers of troops available to commanders for the fight against the Germans.
Before the war began Etzel had traveled to southern California to work as a welder in the booming aircraft industry there. Working for Lockheed in the days in a buildup for a war almost everyone knew was coming was a good job and California sun was a good life. But not long after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in December of 1941 the draft began and Etzel was placed in the Army in 1942.
Etzel was sent to basic training at Camp Robertson, Ark. and after that was sent to Scotland where troops waited until the continent was invaded. While Etzel was not involved in the Normandy invasion, it wasn't long until he arrived in France and began to see the horrors of the war up close.
On Dec. 6, 1944 the Germans attacked the American First Army and the Battle of Bulge had begun. At the time Etzel was in Luxembourg, about a hundred miles south of the surprise attack.
"Right away they mobilized us and sent us toward the battle," says Etzel as he sat at his dining room table. "We rode in trucks part of the way and also marched part of the way to the battle. It was a relay action." Etzel said as they were headed toward the front they ran into tank crews some of whom had had their tanks destroyed by German armor.
"I remember one of them saying that they couldn't do anything about the German tanks," he says. German armor was heavy and feared by most soldiers as they headed toward the front lines.
The Germans knew to make their plan work they would have to capture Bastogne, Belgium, a key strategic position that could spell success for whoever held the town. Both the Germans and the Americans realized this and the American 101st Airborne rushed to the town and secured it first. But only a short time later a huge German force surrounded the town and laid siege to the American troops there. The 101st had to fight with little support from the outside because the weather was so bad allied aircraft couldn't supply them or give them air support. On Dec. 22 German officers gave the American commanders in Bastogne a chance to surrender, but General Anthony Mcauliffe gave his well known reply when he wrote back to them on a piece of note paper one word; "Nuts," which the courier who returned explained to the German officers meant "Go to hell."
|Veterans tour the Ardennes Forest and find an old foxhole that was used during the battle 60 years ago. |
Etzel, who was part of the Third Army under General George Patton, was with the units that moved into Bastogne in late December to relieve the 101st after they had so bravely held onto the town. At that point Patton's troops were able to counterattack and drove the Germans back past Bastogne. By December 29 the skies had cleared and allied air support became much more effective with steady sorties rather than the spotty support based on breaks in the weather. It was then the Americans launched a counter offensive.
While the Americans had a strong plan to crush the German troops between the First and Third Armies, the going was rough. In the dead of winter eastern Belgium can be inhospitable, and in this particular year it was one of the coldest and snowiest ever known. Soldiers sloshed through waist deep snow and many used newspaper for extra insulation under uniforms to keep warm.
"One of the things I remember the most about the whole thing was the winter, the cold," says Etzel. "Many of the guys had wet feet all the time. But I wore galoshes. Some of them couldn't see wearing them but I did. My feet were dry most of the time because of that."
Etzel doesn't talk much about what he saw during those days of the counterattack, but the fighting was fierce and bloody. During the entire event of the battle 100,000 Germans were killed or wounded with the Americans suffering 81,000 casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed.
By the time the Battle of the Bulge (named not for the terrain it was fought on but for "bulge" it created in the allied lines) was over it had become the largest land battle that Americans fought in Europe during World War II. Over 500,000 Germans, 600,000 Americans and 55,000 British troops fought in the battle.
The battle stretched into January, but by Jan. 8 Hitler could see that he was just losing troops, supplies and equipment and that taking Antwerp was impossible, so he ordered troops at the tip of the "bulge" to withdraw and as they did the Americans closed in. By the middle of January the front lines were where they were before the invasion.
Etzel and his unit (the 80th division) were moved back to Luxembourg for a short time before they were sent to directly invade Germany. During that time he came upon a woman who had helped Jews get away from the Nazis during the occupation.
"She had actually hid a Jewish boy out for seven years in her house before we showed up," he says,
|Etzel in a foxhole some where in Europe during World War II.|
The Battle of the Bulge may have been over, but the war certainly wasn't. Soon Etzel and his buddies were headed toward Germany and the closer the troops got to the Rhine River, the harder the Germans fought. The Americans had to counter with everything they had ranging from weapons to stealthy maneuvers.
"We used a lot of deception during those times," says Etzel. "We would often move from foxhole to foxhole. Sometimes we would penetrate the lines by a half mile then move back again to keep them guessing as to where we were."
Etzel said in one place in Luxembourg his unit was raided by the Germans. In the battle that ensued he lost his company commander, a colonel and two lieutenants. Only a few guys survived the attack.
In the Army companies are supposed to have about 100 soldiers, but often companies fighting to get into Germany and after they crossed the Rhine River were at two thirds or even one third of their official strength.
Etzel also remembers the booby traps the Germans would set for the allies.
"They would set up traps in wood piles where wood for fires were or they would even booby trap the dead bodies of their own soldiers so if anyone looked for souvenirs they would be killed by the explosive," he stated.
Once the Americans had crossed into Germany Etzel said that he was surprised at how much cleaner and neat everything there was compared to other places he had been. He also said the German civilians actually treated the Americans very well.
"The thing was, you mostly just saw older people there, all the young ones were gone," he stated.
Toward the end of the war the Nazis recruited children as young as seven or eight years old to fight against the allies. Many just vanished into the fog of war.
One of the things most people don't realize is how hungry most of the soldiers that fought in the field became. While they did get supplies and the famous K-rations most people have heard about, they were always looking for food. As with most armies in history, the Americans to a certain extent lived off the land or what the native population had to offer.
"We ate a lot of chicken, eggs and potatoes," said Etzel. "There were a lot of abandoned houses and we often found food in various places. If there were crocks around they would often keep eggs in them. I also found out that the civilians would cure hams in the chimneys and so we would look there."
As the end to the war drew closer, the fighting became more intense. During his time in Germany he received a Purple Heart when a shell burst near his position and he was wounded.
He also was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, something he is overly modest about.
|Etzel, far right, on his return from Europe during a stop over in New York with some other soldiers.|
"I got it for taking prisoners from a machine gun nest," he said. "They tell me I killed five of the enemy in the process of taking that position, but I don't know. We were all fighting, we were all just doing our job."
As the Americans fought their way toward Berlin, rumors flew about all the things that were going on, particularly about what the Russians were doing.
"One day while we were marching I said to one of my friends, 'Watch me start something,'" says Etzel. "I turned to the guy behind me and said 'I heard the Germans are in Berlin.' He passed that on to the guy behind him and then it went on."
Etzel said the guys were talking about it as the rumor went down the line and when what he had said reached the end of the formation, it dawned on someone what he had said. They had all been so caught up in thinking about the Russians being in Berlin that they didn't even realize they were actually passing a rumor about the people who had always lived there.
Etzel said his unit got within 30 miles of Berlin when the war ended. Then he was shipped to Czechoslovakia through Austria and was bivouacked in homes in the countryside. He says there wasn't much exciting going on and they mostly just drilled. At the time Europe as a whole wasn't in very good shape. Many of the cities had been bombed flat and much of the infrastructure had been destroyed.
"The people who lived in the country were not as bad off for food as those in the cities," he says. "There was a lot of starvation in the cities."
Later he was moved back to Germany, as part of the occupying force. In June of 1946 he was discharged at Fort Douglas and then came back to Carbon County.
In December of 2004, Etzel and his family traveled for a 60th anniversary get together with other veterans commemorating the Battle of the Bulge. They spent a lot of time traveling to places he had been, although many of them were unrecognizable now that the country has been rebuilt.
"We were on a river that we crossed during the invasion of Germany and I tried time and again to find the place where we landed but I couldn't find it," says Etzel. "It has changed so much."
But one thing that hasn't changed according to he and his family are the feelings many from the area have for the American boys that liberated them and their country from the Nazis. One man came up to Etzel with tears in his eyes telling him thanks time and time again.
The Etzel's found that contrary to what the popular media has been telling Americans, most Europeans still like us and are thankful for what was done for them so many years ago.
To them those once young men, who are now in the 80's and 90's, are heroes to this day.
All American's should probably take a lesson from that.