Chesterton Tribune

My Heroes, our heroes: Author honors Bulge vets

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Sixty years ago today, at 5:35 a.m., a clanking diesel-belching horde of German troops—25 divisions, 11 of them armored—punched a gaping hole in the Allied front and poured into the Ardennes, the medieval forest in Belgium from whose murky fastnesses four years earlier Hitler’s tanks had emerged like monsters to overwhelm France.

The ultimate objective of Autumn Mist, as Hitler code-named his last counter-offensive of the war, was to re-capture Antwerp—the port city in Belgium through which the Allies were supplying their badly over-extended lines—and at a minimum force a stalemate in the West, at least until Germany had found a way to blunt or turn the Russians’ grinding advance from the East.

In the run-up to D-day, the fortunes of war favored Hitler. Thick weather had grounded the reconnaissance aircraft which could have gotten a visual on the men and machines massing to the east of the front. But Hitler also had the connivance of the Allies themselves, who were as negligent in 1944 as the French had been in 1940 in defending their soft Ardennes underbelly.

The dogfaces startled from their sleep that morning by the thunder of artillery had no chance at all, as the Germans swamped a 90-mile stretch of the front porously held by only four U.S. divisions, surged through them and around them despite ferocious resistance, and descended on the Ardennes like locusts. By Christmas Eve they had rolled 70 miles to the west, creating an enormous bulge in the Allied front, and the Battle of the Bulge was fast becoming the largest land battle waged by the U.S. in World War II.

It was also becoming the stuff of legend, at least as much for the horrific conditions under which it was fought as for the heroics of the fighters. For the U.S. forces surrounded and besieged in the Ardennes, hell had frozen over and they were in it, a ghost-forest ghastly white in the snow and shape-shifting in the fog, ungodly cold, where even the ancient trees seemed to come to life to kill, blown to evil splinters by the air bursts of German rockets.

Frostbitten, hungry, on their heels, the beleaguered U.S. forces nevertheless fought magnificently. At Saint Vith, at Bastogne, at innumerable places not named on any map, they staggered the German drive, bottlenecked it, stonewalled it. By Christmas Day Autumn Mist was slowing, the Panzer columns were running short on diesel, and the bulge had begun to taper at its leading edge. By Jan. 8 the bulge had been lanced like a boil and was being rapidly drained. By Jan. 16 the original front had been largely restored. Hitler had delayed the Allied push across the Rhine and into Germany by all of six weeks.

For the U.S. forces the butcher’s bill was appalling: 19,000 dead, 47,000 wounded, and 15,000 captured, not one of whom expected to spend Christmas fighting for his life. But mailroom clerks and motor-pool mechanics who hadn’t fired a weapon since they were boots suddenly found themselves warriors, as the rear lines became the front lines and then the behind-the-lines. Veterans already blooded in Normandy and at Arnhem lost more of it, and shed more of it too.

Some of them were born in Northwest Indiana, and a few of them live here still. They belong to Chapter XXX of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, and the son of one of them, Barry Veden, has collected their stories in a new book, My Heroes.

“Like all of these guys,” Veden says, his father, Edward, never talked much about the war, although on one occasion—feeling less reticent than usual or more melancholy—he led his young son to the bedroom, lowered his trousers to expose his legs, and showed him the scars of the wounds inflicted by a mortar round dropped on his platoon in the opening hours of Autumn Mist.

Then, on Dec. 5, 1997, Veden accompanied his father to Chapter XXX’s annual dinner at the Michigan City Holiday Inn, and that evening, while the snow was falling as it had once upon a time in the Ardennes, the old soldiers told him a winter’s tale.

“My God,” Veden says, “the stories I heard that night.”

Veden does not consider himself anything like a military historian or authority on the Battle of the Bulge. But he felt called to preserve those stories, before time does to these men what the Nazi war machine could not and buries their legacy of honor and horror with them. “I’m not trying to glorify war,” Veden says. “I just wanted to put this in black and white so it could be passed on to future generations. I want people to know what these guys went through.”

Veden was eager to listen. And the men of Chapter XXX were eager to talk, as though they themselves, in this last season of their lives and before it was too late, needed to make sense of the pain and privation which had stolen their youth. Perhaps some of them just wanted to pause and recall, one last time, the names and faces of those who never lost their youth.

Veden listened to John Trowbridge of Valparaiso (101st Airborne), who, riddled with shrapnel and separated from his unit, watched helplessly as a German took point-blank aim at him, then for no good reason lowered his weapon and walked away.

To Phil Huffine of Crown Point (106th Infantry), who, taken prisoner early in the battle, saw his guards shoot the Americans too injured or sick or tired to endure the forced march to captivity.

To Larry Tanber of Michigan City (705th Tank Destroyer BN), who was awarded the Silver Star after refusing to abandon his armored car in an ambush, neutralizing a key machine gun position with two rounds from the vehicle’s 37 mm gun, and then directing a murderous covering fire on the remaining attackers until his unit was able to withdraw.

To Marion Shagdai of Michigan City (82nd Airborne), who was also awarded the Silver Star after single-handedly storming a pair of machine gun positions, eliminating the first at close quarters with grenades and Thompson, and forcing the enemy at the second to scatter.

To Tom Evans of Portage (101st Airborne), who more than half a century after the battle lost his leg to circulation problems caused by frozen feet.

And to his father, Edward Veden of Michigan City (28th Infantry), who survived that mortar attack when eight of his buddies did not.

They suffered and sacrificed in very private ways. Yet the same memories now and again come skittering to them all. The shriek of German rockets, dubbed Screaming Meemies. The tangled woods of the Ardennes, like some haunted deep in Grimm. The snow, endless blinding drifts of it, knee deep, waist deep, stained crimson. And the cold, slicing to the marrow, more terrible an enemy even than the German because it numbed the spirit. “The one thing they all remember is the coldness,” Veden says. “And the one phrase I heard used more than any other: dead frozen American bodies stacked like firewood at the side of the road.”

They also remember the camaraderie under fire, the foxhole friendships, the small acts of mercy which, at such a time and in such a place, must have seemed like miracles. “They went through a lot together and they fought together,” Veden says. “You’ll never find a more loyal friend than your buddy in combat.”

And they remember the enemy. “Some of them will tell you that they still see the faces of the men they killed,” Veden says. “And they wonder what they would have done with their lives.”

The men of Chapter XXX, given the gift denied so many of their comrades—given the gift which they themselves had denied others—were determined not to squander it. “They survived,” Veden says. “They came home and were hell-bent on making something of their lives. If I could make it through that, they thought, I can make something of myself.”

And they did. They went to work in the mills and for the railroad, earned degrees and bought homes, raised families and watched their children raise families. And this may be their greatest achievement, not defeating the Axis menace, but putting their triumph behind them.

“The guys were all willing to talk to me, some more than others,” Veden says. “But a few changed the subject after awhile or had to stop because it was just too painful for them. Later, after reading the rough draft, a couple of guys called and asked me to delete passages they didn’t want people to read. With all of the coverage of Iraq—and Vietnam too—civilians still can’t even imagine the things that happen in war.”

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Editor’s Note: My Heroes by Barry Veden is available from BookSurge.com and

BookSurgedirect.com for

$17.99. Or call (843) 579-0000.

 

Posted 12/16/2004