Seymour I. "Spence" Toll
is a Philadelphia lawyer and writer
World War II's largest battle in Western Europe began on Dec. 16, 1944, when 200,000 German troops attacked a force of 75,000 Americans defending an 80-mile front in the Belgian-Luxembourg Ardennes. Hitler's goal was to split the British-American military line, capture Antwerp, shatter Allied unanimity, and compel a negotiated peace. Although the Wehrmacht drove a 60-mile "bulge" into the northern half of Luxembourg and Belgium, in little more than a month its salient was eliminated.
For me, the Battle of the Bulge began before dawn that first day in the Luxembourg Ardennes. Sixty-three years later, my involvement in it is a memory so immediate and detailed that it's as if I'm still in combat.
After more than a year in the Army, in November 1944 I was sent to an infantry division then being destroyed in what, for the American Army, was the disastrous Battle of Huertgen Forest near Aachen. Like countless other GIs, I had been removed from my stateside infantry division, where I made my closest Army friendships, and sent overseas as a stranger among strangers - a replacement for a GI who had been killed or wounded in Huertgen. In my new outfit - the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division - out of a strength of just over 3,000, the regiment had suffered 2,000 casualties. I was an unremarkable 19-year-old private-first-class combat infantryman destined for unremarkable service in one of the regiment's rifle companies.
The division pulled out of Huertgen on Nov. 19, 1944, and moved south about 50 miles to a static front in the Ardennes, where it was supposed to regain combat readiness while holding a 25-mile sector along Luxembourg's Our River. The rack of battle and Europe's coldest autumn in 30 years created a desolate Ardennes landscape: shelled villages, broken farm buildings, and snow-covered fields littered with bloated, frozen carcasses of artillery-slaughtered cattle. We dug hillside earth bunkers, each barely able to sleep two, and laid tree fragments on their tops to strengthen them against enemy artillery fire. Our 12-man rifle squad's mission was to take German prisoners and go out on night patrols to gather bits of information that might be useful to Army intelligence.
On guard duty one day, another rifleman and I unheroically took three German prisoners.
They were deserters who, almost sheepishly, walked toward us with raised arms and broad grins. For about a week before Dec. 16, our patrols nightly reported hearing trucks and tanks moving around in the German lines. There were many reports like ours, but because they were disregarded, the Wehrmacht's strike in the Ardennes brought the war's most stunning and chaotic engagement on the Western front.
In the pre-dawn of Dec. 16, we were awakened in our bunkers by the sound of German automatic "burp guns." Although I slept with it next to me, I had to grope for my M1 rifle, then crawled out into a fog with no more than five or 10 yards of visibility. Strewn like mannequins on a warehouse floor were several booted corpses in Wehrmacht helmets and feldgrau great coats. Our guards had shot these shock troops minutes earlier.
Coming from the fog were nearby sounds of shouted German, voices of unseen enemy infantryman moving through our line. Behind them rumbled invisible Tiger tanks intermittently shelling us with their 88s. Now locked in a surreal ground struggle, we got through the first day of battle sporadically exchanging fire with enemy troops slipping through us in the fog. Efforts to keep communication with our leaders were as unnerving as the ghostly enemy. Our rifle company had losses from gunfire and artillery, and that first night a few of us survivors sought cover along the edge of a dense forest overlooking a snow-covered valley.
In a textbook demonstration of the Wehrmacht's ballistic efficiency, "screaming meemies" - rocket mortars - sent "marching fire" meter by meter across the valley. Knowing it would inevitably reach our position, each of us was like a condemned man watching the hangman adjust the noose. Through the fog we heard the mortar fire, then saw it goose-step up the valley slope and burst into the woods. Screams of our first casualties pierced the concussive roar of exploding shells. I was bellied down with my face pressing against the unyielding earth, arms above my head as if in folded supplication, when the shrapnel for me slashed into my upturned right forearm.
Despite lopsided odds in its favor, death backed off. Dazed and bleeding, I stumbled to our aid station after a GI pointed his rifle at me until he realized I was in no shape to remember that night's password. The station was in the ruins of a barn where most casualties were Germans. When a medic got to me, he teased from the wound a silver identification bracelet whose thick nameplate was completely severed. Then he removed my helmet. It looked like a steel pincushion with shrapnel stuck in it. I was evacuated in an ambulance that barely missed being shelled.
Battle always burns its brand, but every scar is different. Neither boy nor man that Stygian autumn, I lived through what was unimaginable and hardly comprehensible. My combat legacy was lifelong gratitude for having survived, ineradicable pain from losing nearby stranger-comrades who deserved to live as much as I, and, despite its banality, the unforgettable instruction that fate is inscrutably arbitrary.
I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but these things couldn't be clearer.