In May of 1940, the brilliant German tank commander Heinz Guderian emerged with lightning speed from the so-called impenetrable Ardennes forest in South Belgium and Luxembourg, heading for the Meuse River and the fall of France. Incongruously, four year later as the Allied armies took a breather near the Rhine River and the heart of Germany, American GIs held a front of eighty miles with only four divisions because Eisenhower's high command considered the Ardennes forest "impenetrable." Adolf Hitler and his staff couldn't believe their good luck and took full advantage of the Allied blunder, launching a massive attack through the Ardennes with a 1000 tanks and 21 divisions on December 16, 1944. Military historians call this deep breach The Battle of the Bulge.
A year before the Bulge, eighteen year old Roy Hector was pulled out of Army Air Corp training to fill the need for combat infantrymen. After earning his infantry badge, Roy boarded a Liberty ship in Massachusetts and sailed for the War in Europe. Fighting sea-sickness and dodging Nazi U-boats, losing one Liberty ship to a torpedo, Roy's convoy docked in LeHavre France, then boarded obsolete World War I freight cars to the front. Assigned to the 79th Infantry Division, Roy started walking, and walked into every battle for the next two years.
He eluded infamous 88mm German artillery in one French town, then entered the Hedgerow country - dense, impassable shrubbery, impervious to Sherman tanks, and a nightmare for the GIs.
"We'd go to bed one night and wake up to discover German soldiers in the next hedgerow, not fifty feet from our positioin," Roy told me. "A sergeant took two rounds through his legs during one fight, and I carried him on my back to safety and medical help."
After surviving the hedgerows, Roy entered another French town and received his baptism in house to house fighting. "One private in our platoon thought he'd captured a German general due to his impressive uniform," Roy said. "But the man turned out to be a trolley conductor." Later, Roy was leading a squad of GIs that ran into an enemy machine gun position. "But nobody was manning the gun," Roy said. "No wonder," he continued. "We found eight German soldiers in a building drinking heavily; they were lit, to say the least." The intoxicated Germans became P.O.W.'s, but as the two groups, one drunk and one sober, were leaving the village one of the hammered Hitlerites warned the GIs of shoe mines in the area made out of wood. "The Germans were short of metal, I guess," Roy said. "But our metal detectors couldn't find the mines made of wood, so we'd probe the ground with bayonets."
When the German's launched their surprise counter-attack from the Ardennes at 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, Roy Hector found himself entering history as a combat veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. During one house to house fight, Roy and two of his buddies captured a German soldier. "He kept his hands raised," Roy said. "So I thought everything was okay. But when I turned around to do something, the German pulled out a concealed pistol and was going to shoot me in the back. One of my buddies took him out. I guess my life was measured in a split second." Luckily for the Allies, the Germans literally ran out of gas and their massive counter-attack sputtered to a halt. Some German units actually had to walk back to Germany in the frigid cold. The butcher's bill paid by the Americans was 76,890 killed and wounded, 700 tanks destroyed, and 590 aircraft. The Germans suffered comparable losses, but the American and Allied forces had fresh reinforcements and an inexhaustible supply chain; the Germans did not. The war was winding down.
"I knew the Germans were losing the war," Roy continued. "They were using horses to pull their big guns. Dead horses were everywhere." Relieved of action for a short time, Roy's unit was sent to Holland and stayed in the private homes of appreciative Hollanders. "That was enjoyable," Roy said. "But we could hear the V-1 buzz bombs flying overhead en route to England." Roy and his men were trained in Hollard for a river assault across the Rhine. "We had big boats," Roy said. "And when we returned to the front line, we slept under them at night for protection. One night the boat next to us took a direct hit from an artillery shell," he said. "There were seven men under that boat when the shell hit, but it didn't do nothing but rattle-around. It was a dud. All seven men had, uhhhhh, I guess the word is.....wet pants."
After crossing the Rhine, Roy and his unit were in combat for about eight weeks, no baths, no shaving; no hot food. "We survived on cheese and chocolate bars," he said. "The canned meat in the C-rations tasted horrible. We often wondered what the heck we were eating." They slept in tents for twenty three days, and for twenty three days they endured a steady rain. "It was horrible," Roy said. "The freezing cold was constant; frost-bite was common."
In one German village Roy was ordered to set up a machine gun position to guard a vital railroad junction. Roy and two other GIs set up their machine gun on the third floor of a building that over-looked the rail yard. "I was walking out of the room for something, when....BOOM!....a German soldier had thrown a hand grenade through the front window. My buddies were killed. I was blown out of a third story window and landed in snow-melt, nothing but thick mud. I only had minor injuries, but had to lay there in the mud for over two hours because of sniper fire."
After a stint in a field hospital, Roy returned to duty. In another engagement he took a piece of shrapnel in his right leg. "The medic dug it out," he said. "Poured some mercurochrome or iodine on it, bandage the wound, and I was back in action."
I asked Roy, "So, you received two Purple Hearts, right?"
He replied, "I received no Purple Hearts. A lot of guys didn't that got wounded, we just rejoined the fight."
Roy survived the war. He was assigned to guard prisoners during the Nuremburg trails, even had to do laundry duty. "That was boring as hell," he admitted. "But, you know, the German people were defeated, devastated. They'd do anything for food or a pack of cigarettes. They ended up doing our laundry," he said. "Our underwear would even come back with creases starched into the fabric." There were cases of isolated sabotage after the war, but the GIs were now unarmed. "We still found weapons," Roy said. "We had to."
On a personal note, I consider myself at least an amateur military historian, but Roy told me a story that I'd never heard, and it blew my mind. "The military was still segregated after the war," he told me. "The black soldiers stayed in one area and white soldiers stayed in another area. Most of the German women had never seen a black soldier, so a rumor spread among the German women that black soldiers were actually Special Forces white soldiers that were camouflaged as black men. When the black soldiers returned to the States, they'd turn white again. Can you believe that?" Roy asked me.
Roy made it home. "There weren't any parades or anything; the only thing I got was a free ride on a trolley. At least the conductor appreciated what the GIs endured." Roy admitted, "There I was, a 21-old combat veteran, and I'd been told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, for three years. Adjusting to civilian life was tough, something folks don't and can't understand." Roy had the "shakes" for a long time, but time took care of this veteran. "I eventually adjusted pretty well," he said. "My wife and I were married in 1949." Roy and Margaret have been married for 61 years.
Our WWII veterans are leaving us at a rate of one every 90 seconds. Do the math and you'll understand why their stories need to be told, and you'll understand what our country is losing The Greatest Generation.
A belated, "Welcome home," Roy.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and freelance writer. If you’re on active duty, a veteran, or a member of the homefront and would like to be considered for a column, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org