I dedicate this essay to my friend and mentor, Harold Turner, a WWII veteran who fought and survived the Battle of the Bulge.
Veteran’s Day parade in Mississippi
A two hour flight later I was in my beloved South, assaulted by humidity and cold. A heavy and constant rain made it difficult to drive my rented Corolla. I expected humidity and hot and I was shivering in my light clothes.
The roads were deserted compared to the heavy constant traffic in D.C. Once in a while a solitary car would pass going in the opposite direction. I had the excellent road all to myself. The dense vegetation and trees displayed lovely shades of green. Hanging lavender wisteria formed nature’s intricate draperies. White, pink, and fuchsia azaleas were in full bloom. Yellow daffodils dotted the landscape. The sky was grey and dreary but the scenery was bursting with color.
I was excited to make the two and half hour drive from the airport to my Mississippi destination. I wanted to see my friend Harold and his lovely wife Lois, my adopted mother in the U.S. since 1978. I could not have stayed without her emotional support and devoted friendship; I was so home sick. Adapting to America was difficult to say the least and she was my thoughtful, loving, and learned advisor.
Harold is a WWII survivor. There are not many left like him, literally and figuratively. He is 93 years young, full of life and energy, straight and moving with a purpose, always smiling, optimistic, and jocular. I never tire of his war stories. I wished I had recorded all of them for the last 37 years.
The house is the same as I remembered it, embracing the visitor with a welcome home comfort that is soothing to the soul and body. No matter when you arrive, you are always welcome in Lois’ home and she has something sweet to eat that she prepared herself, no store bought foods in her house.
The lovely garden in the back is exploding with greenery and a myriad of buds. Lois always had flower beds and birdhouses, while Harold, with his green thumb, planted a sizable garden every summer. His tomatoes were delicious! Harold still fiddles with a small patch of vegetables if he is not too busy bird hunting.
Harold was drafted his senior year in high school. He spent three years in the army, 1943-1946, two of them overseas, as a private first class. At the end of the war, he was offered a good rating of Sergeant First Class if he re-enlisted but Harold chose to build a career as a successful businessman instead.
Harold brought out his prized brand-new Luger pistol in its original holster. He was proud of this WWII souvenir confiscated from a German soldier during the Battle of the Bulge. Holding the cold and heavy weapon, I read the German writing and the caliber. It was made in Prague, Bohemian Weapons Factory, model 27, caliber 7.65, same as a 32 today. The Germans produced around 450,000 such pistols during 1939-1945.
Fought in the winter of December 16, 1944 through January 25, 1945, Harold describes the Battle of the Bulge in the forests of the Ardennes region of Wallonia, Belgium. The Allies front line bulged inward on wartime maps, hence the name. At the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by United States in World War II, of the 600,000 American troops, 89,000 were killed in this battle. The enemy suffered more than 100,000 casualties. The German soldiers of the National Socialist Workers Party (Nazis) eventually lost the battle because they were unable to supply their armored columns with fuel. The Allies constantly bombed the fuel refineries, including those in my hometown of Ploiesti.
Harold described the Battle of Hürtgen Forest as if it happened yesterday. With his lilting Southern accent, he pronounced it Hurricane Forest. A series of fierce battles were fought in a 50 square mile area east of the Belgian-German border from September 19, 1944 to February 10, 1945.
In the Battle of Aachen, Harold’s company lost half of its 165 soldiers. To seek shelter, the soldiers built a hut from tree tops and mud. His artillery outfit shot down 494 German planes with the M45 Quad mount, nicknamed the “meat chopper” and “Krautmower” because the four barrel, .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns delivered a high rate of fire and was highly mobile against enemy aircraft.
German warplanes would attack at low altitude and then would rapidly retreat to avoid Allied fighters. The M45 Quad mount units were a strong deterrent to strafing runs by German warplanes because of the large firepower and because the four 50 caliber barrels could be “tuned” to converge upon a single point at distances which could be reset quickly.
The Hürtgen Forest claimed the lives and limbs of 33,000 soldiers (U.S. 1st Army) in combat and non-combat losses. It was dubbed the Allies’ “defeat of the first magnitude.” The Germans defended the area staunchly because it was the staging zone for the Ardennes Offensive, to become the Battle of the Bulge, and it encompassed a strategic dam. When Aachen eventually fell on October 22nd, the U.S. 9th Army had suffered heavy casualties.
Harold was the master cook and baker. He did not just feed the troops; he fed the entire battalion three meals a day. Fierce fighting forced him to serve one meal per day sometimes. He tells the story of the emaciated soldiers whom everyone thought dead but returned, having been saved from starvation by a Belgian woman who sacrificed and cooked her last rooster to feed them.
With limited resources, Harold always kept a pot of coffee on or warm biscuits, cooking with a 9 pound M1 Garand rifle on his shoulder. The cook was everyone’s lifeline and the soldiers tried to protect him as much as possible, sometimes setting up kitchen quarters in a thicket.
Harold had many close calls with grenades that should have gone off but didn’t or “seeing eye to eye with a low flying German pilot.” He does not speak of the horrors of war, the killings, the loss of limbs, and the utter destruction. His mission was to feed and nourish the soldiers.
While in Normandy, a young Frenchman named Louis Carmelich (Carmelex), Harold is not sure about the spelling of his last name, came by the kitchen quarters looking for something to eat. Harold gave him a few slices of bread, field rations, and chocolate bars. Louis took them home to his parents and returned a couple of times. He came back one day with a piece of charcoal and paper and offered to draw Harold’s portrait. He drew a large number 7 and from it, soon the likeness of an American soldier emerged. It was young Harold. I am trying to imagine how Harold made it home to the States with Louis’ charcoal portrait rolled up in his backpack, but he did. The paper is slightly yellowed by the passage of time but the framed portrait hangs proudly in the Turners lovely home.
The Battle of the Bulge ended January 16, 1945 and more than three months later, the Nazi soldiers surrendered after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.
Seventy-one years ago and thousands of miles away from his home and family, Harold, a young lad out of high school, was on a mission to feed an entire battalion fighting the common enemy, Nazi Germany. He is an unsung hero who deserves his place in history for his selfless service to our country in defense of freedom. To Harold Turner and all servicemen and women from World War II, your sacrifice and bravery will not be forgotten!
On this peaceful Christmas day 2015, we should remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s message of hope to the nation on Christmas Eve, 1944:
It is not easy to say “Merry Christmas” to you, my fellow Americans, in this time of destructive war. Nor can I say “Merry Christmas” lightly tonight to our armed forces at their battle stations all over the world- or to our allies who fight by their side.
Here, at home, we will celebrate this Christmas Day in our traditional American way- because of its deep spiritual meaning to us; because the teachings of Christ are fundamental in our lives; and because we want our youngest generation to grow up knowing the significance of this tradition and the story of the coming of the immortal Prince of Peace and Good Will. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16485