Remembering the suffering at the Bulge, and elsewhere

This morning, Henry McMaster dropped by my table at breakfast, opening our conversation by saying, “Are you blogging somebody over here?” Which I took to mean that he was somewhat wary of talking with me after this incident. Or maybe he was referring to this piece involving his protege Trey Walker.

In any case, we didn’t dwell on the subject, but moved to something more important. Henry, apparently seeing I was reading the paper, mentioned The State‘s series this week about the survivors of the Battle of the Bulge. He immediately fixed on the very thing that always fascinates me about that battle — the day-to-day, routine human suffering apart from the combat. He said something like, “And we think WE have it tough sometimes…”

Indeed. As one who has never been tested by combat, but have certainly thought a lot about it, the thing that I’ve always found most intimidating about it is not the actual shooting part. Yeah, if you survived something like the landing at Omaha Beach, you’d be marked by the trauma for life. But in my own imagination at least, that part would be easy compared to the day-to-day misery of living in the field in harsh conditions.

And what the men trapped by the German blitz in the Ardennes went through is an extreme example.

This Bulge reunion is a particularly poignant event for my family, because when I first heard about it, I had thought of how we might be able to bring my father-in-law here for it. But he didn’t make it. He died in January. And when I told y’all about it on the blog, I wrote the following:

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., lived a full and worthwhile life. I was thinking yesterday as we mucked through the ice and snow about some of the far-harsher hardships he endured along the way. He was there in the Ardennes in late 1944, the coldest winter in Europe in a century, when the massive, unexpected German attack came. He was a member of the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division (like Kurt Vonnegut). That means he was right at the point of the German spear, right where it smashed through the Allied lines. A friend fell right beside him in the snow, victim of a bullet he felt was meant for him. If he had been the one it found, I’d never have met my wife, and our children and grandchildren wouldn’t exist.

Like Vonnegut and thousands of others, he was captured and held in a German stalag in the last months of the war, when the Germans didn’t even have enough food for themselves, much less for prisoners. After that experience, he never wanted to go to Europe again, and didn’t.

The coldest winter in Europe in a century… That detail from Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers has stuck with me ever since I read it. Some of our troops, such as members of the 101st Airborne, were out in that, living in foxholes, for over a month. Every morning, as they stirred, their clothing would crackle as the ice that had formed in it overnight would break. In many instances, they couldn’t build fires for fear of revealing their positions.

I find the idea of soldiering on under such conditions inconceivable. Even if you weren’t killed, or captured (like Mr. Phelan), or wounded (like Bill Guarnere, who lost a leg in an artillery barrage), how on Earth did they not break? Many did, of course. But who could blame them.

Right now, I’m reading With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Many have noted that for the Marines in the Pacific, the entire war was just as miserable as what the Army endured at the Bulge — only it was mud and blood and jungle rot rather than sub-freezing temperatures — and such books as this one and the one I just finished, Bob Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, present compelling evidence to that effect. As Sledge wrote of Okinawa, the Marines lived day after day in “an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

There was a passage Sledge’s book that sticks with me, about how after that experience, the veterans had trouble relating to the rest of us back home; they had to struggle “to comprehend people who griped because America wasn’t perfect, or their coffee wasn’t hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or bus.”

People like me. I just notice my coffee has grown cold as I was typing this. As I go to replace it with hot, I am mindful of the privilege, and those who suffered and died to make my life so easy.

24 thoughts on “Remembering the suffering at the Bulge, and elsewhere

  1. bud

    Indeed there was much suffering by American soldiers during WW II. War is brutal and ghastly. Civilians also suffer.

    But there is plenty of suffering today even without war. I’d prefer we focus more time and energy on humanitarian efforts. What is happening in places like Haiti and Pakinstan from the effects of natural disasters is trully awful. I’m really not sure I quite get this constant nostalgia about the suffering during an event that occurred 64 years ago. It’s not even the anniversary of the Ardennes fighting.

  2. Brad

    No, Bud, it’s not the anniversary.

    The occasion is that this week, some of the few remaining veterans of the battle are gathered here in Columbia. By the time the anniversary rolls around in December, even fewer of them will still be with us.

    I hope you’ll forgive us if we take a moment to honor them.

  3. Lynn T

    I grew up on stories of the Battle of the Bulge from my my mother, who was an army nurse with the 95th General Hospital. She told us about men brought in with severe frostbite, losing fingers, toes, and more, adding that suffering to other wounds and to severe mental distress. She died three and a half years ago, still vividly remembering the pain she saw there. I agree with Bud that we need to think about the present, but I also think it is useful to remember the Bulge as an exquisite example of the ugliness of war. It is always relevant as an antidote to the sort of cheap and tawdry patriotism found at TEA party rallies.

  4. Doug Ross

    I read Sebastian Junger’s book, “War”, last week. He spent 15 months embedded on the frontlines of Afghanistan with an Army platoon.

    War is no less hellish now for our current fighting force. However, this time the mission cannot be won and the enemy cannot be defined.

  5. bud

    It’s not that I have any problem honoring the men and women of our armed forces who served courageously and honorably. I have great respect for our veterans. My dad served in very harsh conditions in WW II.

    But let’s not get so caught up in their stories that we forget the folks who work tirelessly and bravely to try and make life better for the millions of folks who suffer terribly because of nature. The suffering in Haiti seems indescribably awful and yet after the camera crews left a few months back we seem to have forgotten those folks.

    Hopefully I’ll live to see the day when we can build a monument on the DC Mall to honor the sacrific of those folks who worked tirelessly to try and alleviate a bit of suffering in our world. Given the horrors that occurred in New Orleans 5 years ago there are surely many people in this great country of ours who deserve such an honor.

    I for one salute all our men and women in uniform whether they served in a combat unit in Belgium 65 years ago or in a national guard unit in Louisiana just 5 years ago.

  6. Brad

    Let’s set aside the malevolence that our troops in the Ardennes and on Peleliu were fighting against, since that wasn’t my point in this post. It was about putting up with the daily battle against privation and the elements in the service of the greater good.

    But while I stand ready to be corrected, I suspect that you’d be hard-pressed to find instances in which rescue and aid workers alleviating the effects of Katrina or the Haiti earthquake dealt with the kind of unrelenting battle against the elements, 24 hours a day, that was suffered around Bastogne in the last couple of weeks of 44, or on Guadalcanal during that period when the Marines were living off of wormy, captured Japanese rice, or in New Britain when, as Leckie wrote, after the Japanese had been defeated, the more persistent foe became the jungle itself.

    As I say, I stand ready to be corrected. But the extremes that war imposes, generally speaking, tends to outstrip the conditions imposed by other situations. That is to say, among the people from THIS country sent to deal with those conditions. For too many in the Third World, such suffering can be a way of life…

  7. bud

    I’ve really tried to be respectful here but this point really needs to be made. We already honor the war veterans. We do it the last Monday in May. Then we do it again on November 11. We build monuments and memorial galore to thier gallantry. The State Newspaper cannot go a day without some long-winded account about the veterans or those currently serving. All I’m asking is that we spend 1/10 as much effort trying to figure out how to alleviate suffering and then to honor those who make sacrifices to heal others rather than to shoot others. To quible about whether a soldier suffers more than a relief worker is to trivialize the work of these humanitarians.

  8. Brad

    Bud, I wasn’t trying to “quibble;” I was just returning to the theme of the post. I was trying to make a point that I don’t think does get acknowledged enough: We’re always talking about how troops put their lives on the line, and we should, but I do have two “quibbles” with that: First, I think the fact that ask them to KILL for us is asking a great deal more than that they DIE for us (which is a huge philosophical question that goes far beyond the purview of this post), and that the non-combat hardships associated with combat have always seemed to me to be more intimidating than the getting-shot-at part. Not having undergone the experience (which means I quite likely have no idea what I’m talking about), I’ve always thought a month outdoors in the freezing Ardennes would be more likely to make me crack up and say “I quit” than, say, a combat jump into Normandy in June. Sheer adrenalin might carry you through the latter, but would not be there for you on the former.


    I certainly am not one to trivialize the contribution of aid workers. I recently agreed to serve on a committee for the Red Cross, which I suspect you’ll hear more about going forward. But I didn’t write about that today, because that’s not the topic that Henry McMaster brought up when he came up to me this morning, which if you’ll recall is what started me on this track…

  9. Ralph Hightower

    If things had happened differently in France, then my wife would not have been born.

    Paula shared with me how her father lost his leg in WW-II. A shell landed in his foxhole blowing him out of his foxhole. He went one way, his right leg went the other way. Medics were tending to the wounded after the battle and came across this wounded soldier. One medic started tending to him. The other medic said “Let’s move on. He’s a goner”. The first medic said “We got room in the truck.” He spent months in a body cast in London and was then transferred to Texas for an artificial leg and rehabilitation.

    After he went home to Georgia, he fathered a daughter. If the second medic had allowed her father to die on the battlefield, then I would never have met my wife.

  10. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I recall a fishing trip I took to Labrador several years ago in which an aging WWII vet recounted being captured at The Bulge.

    He and his platoon spent several days being interrogated. Fortunately for them, one of their number spoke German and struck up a friendship of sorts with one of the captors.

    Early one morning, a week or so after they’d been captured, the German in question came running in and informed my acquaintance and his comrades that the Germans were pulling out and all prisoners were to be shot. But because this German and one of the Americans had formed some sort of bond through being able to converse, the German led them into another room, threw open a window and looked the other way while they all escaped.

    Quite a near thing, indeed.

  11. Bart

    A good friend passed away a few years ago. Jim was a WWII prisoner for about 2 years. He told me about his time in the camp and the horrors of the treatment he and his fellow prisoners received.

    He lost the thumb on his right hand because of an infection and malnourishment. While he and his fellow prisoners were being marched to another location where they were to be put to death, the line was so long, when the prisoners walked around a curve, the guards at the front and end lost sight of the middle for a while.

    Jim simply ducked and walked to the edge of the road and hid in a ditch until everyone was out of sight. He scavenged what food and water he could for several days, almost freezing to death.

    Finally, after exhaustion and near starvation, he sat down and waited. Finally, an advance scout happened upon him. He remembered until the day he died the feeling that came over him when he saw American troops for the first time.

    Jim never fully recovered. He learned to write with his left hand and could still use his right.

    I valued the friendship we shared and still think about him on occasion.

    And, I am reminded of another friend who was in a Nazi death camp until the Allied troops liberated the camp. Tom was in line with about one hundred other Jews, ready to be marched into the gas chambers. To this day, he can remember how deep the fear and dread he felt, knowing that at any moment, he would be put to death. Tom still has the tatoo with his number on it. Again, someone who has profoundly affected me in the way I view things.

  12. Cotton Boll Conspiracy


    I’m not sure what led you to draw the conclusion that the Cotton Boll Conspiracy and Sunlit Uplands are written by the same person.

    I don’t know if Brad’s aware of my blog or who exactly writes it, but he and I worked together at The State for about five years. We still chat from time to time and while we disagree on a few things, we also see eye to eye on a good many issues, as well.

    On the other hand, there isn’t a whole lot that’s put out on Sunlit Uplands that I see eye to eye with. Whether you agree or disagree with Obama’s policies, for example, I believe it’s ridiculous to continue harping on things like whether he’s constitutionally eligible to serve or whether he’s a secret Marxist out to turn the US into a 21st century communist empire.

    That kind of hyperbole does nothing to drive debate forward and, in fact, simply further polarizes opposing sides of the spectrum, making it even more unlikely we’ll get anywhere productive anytime soon.

    Sunlit is free to run his blog as he sees fit. It is a free country, after all. Just don’t confuse us, please.

  13. Joe Pinner

    Evidently this “Bud” wanted/wants to speak German. Thank God for the men and women warriors of WWII and especially the Battle of the Bulge we are free and speak English. Thanks also to THE STATE for moving, sensitive stories of these veterans who do not consider themselves heroes rather patriots who responded to the call to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Even “Bud’s”! To detract from the visit of the Battle of the Bulge veterans is almost unspeakable.

  14. Brad

    No, I don’t know who you are, Cotton Boll. You have the advantage of me.

    Why is that? Why hide behind anonymity? I don’t mean to be provocative in asking; I genuinely wonder. I understand, somewhat superficially, that some non-journalists have a privacy fetish. But journalists? Or ex-journalists? Or maybe you worked at The State in some other capacity…

    Anyway, anonymity on blogs puzzles me in all cases. A blog is sort of a cry of the ego — look at ME and what I think! So doing it behind a veil seems contradictory…

  15. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Brad, there were a couple reasons I went with anonymity initially:

    One, I worked at an ad agency when I started my blog and didn’t want my opinions to be confused with those of the agency. I didn’t want clients or potential clients getting ticked off about something I wrote that was my own opinion, and had no connection to my employer.

    Second, while I enjoy writing and tossing out the occasional opinion, I figured some folks would attach some hidden meaning to my views because of where I’ve worked previously. Not that many folks would know or care who I am or where I’ve worked.

    Regardless, my goal was to let my writing stand for itself, rather than have some reader possibly pre-judge it because of whose name was attached to it.

    At this point, it’s been almost two years since I started the blog. My identify isn’t much of a secret, really, but I can’t bring myself to put my name on the blog officially. Don’t ask me why – I’ve just never been a big fan of attention, even in small doses.

    But I’ll fill you in next time we have breakfast.

  16. Mabilene

    Cotton Boll Conspiracy says:
    August 31, 2010 at 8:26 pm


    I’m not sure what led you to draw the conclusion that the Cotton Boll Conspiracy and Sunlit Uplands are written by the same person.



    Pure speculation and shenanigans at the “Houston Chronicle.” Do you post comments and have a cache of avatars on that website by any chance?

    6:36P 09.01.10

  17. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Brad – Yes, we did. Who else in South Carolina is going to blog about history, hockey, drunken baboons, business and libertarianism all in the space of a couple of days?

    Mabilene – I don’t read the Chronicle, but I’m intrigued. Any topics on the site in particular? And what avatars?

  18. Mabilene

    Cotton Boll Conspiracy — first, can you provide the link to the blog post you did about the angry opossum found by someone listing a Tyler, Texas phone number?

    Perhaps I am looking at the wrong months in 2009, but I can’t locate it.

  19. Mabilene

    That’s it — thanks. Apparently I didn’t search far enough into June 2009’s archives.

    The Tyler part was the buzz word, though. Speaking of — one of the avatars at the “Houston Chronicle” is a ttyler5 that hangs out most recently in and around Nick Anderson’s editorial cartoons.

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