I was a 20 year old Stg-T gun mechanic for A Battery, 456 Field Artillery Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division during the Belgian Ardennes Campaign which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. For those of us that fought in the Ardennes most will agree that the weather and conditions created by it were often as bad and sometimes more perilous than the Germans.
On a very cold January day, in early 1945, the six guns of our battery were ordered to be moved to a new location where we were to set up near a crossroads in the long valley surrounded by the Ardennes Mountains. Now you've got to understand when I use the term "crossroads" it was more in keeping with the roughtest country lane found in America. It was barely wide enough for a horse drawn farm vehicle let alone our towed 75mm howitzers being pulled by big army trucks. Plus the fact the ever present ground cover of snow was quite deep in places. We inched our way slowly along this path that had a small stream trickling under a blanket of ice on one side and dense snow-covered hedgerows lining the other side. It was an interesting experience just getting to our new area and setting up. I recall thinking how beautiful of a pastoral winter scene this sector was if one could forget for a moment we were in a war!
After digging in the guns as much as the frozen earth would allow, we were finally able to knock off for some well earned rest in the late afternoon. A couple of buddies and I nosed around the area and we found this kind of plastered log hut that was about the size of a one car garage. It was located near enough to the guns that the three of us figured we'd found the perfect place to sack out for the night. But once inside the small hut, and much to our dismay, we discovered the hut must have taken a hit as the log roof ceiling was aglow with brightly smoldering embers. We sort of looked at each other then shrugged our shoulders. It was extrememly cold outside, just a few degrees above zero, so we said the heck with it, and decided to take the chance the roof wouldn't cave in. It was the warmest night I spent in the Ardennes Mountains, sleeping under the most unusual fireplace I'd ever seen then or since. (The "embering" roof smoldered all night but never did fall in. Tough logs in that part of the world - huh?)
Before staying the night in the hut I did a little exploring on my own. I ran across the dead body of a German soldier that our burial unit had not picked up yet. He was lying in this ditch, frozen solid with his left arm thrust straight up in the air. In the fading sunlight I noticed a gold wedding band on his ring finger. It sort of got to me and I had some sad thoughts thinking about him having been married even though I was single at the time.
What made it worse for my emotional state was when I passed the body an hour or so later as I made my way to the mess truck for the cook's evening delight, he called food. One of my so called civilized battery buddies had cut off the finger and taken the ring. I didn't eat too much as that really upset me.
Before nightfall I decided to do a little foraging to see if there was anything around I could "liberate". Seeing this footpath between the hedgerows, I climbed up through it. On the other side of the hedgerow was another body of a German soldier and he too was frozen stiff. I started to turn and leave, but something compeled me to take a closer look. He was just a kid, couldn't have been more than 14 or 15. Smooth faced with no hint of whisker stubble. His arms were halfway folded across his thin chest and he was clutching a Vulgate (Roman Catholic Bible) that had a very pretty Rosary wrapped around it. As I backed away it hit me: "My God! This young Kraut worshipped the same creator as I did!" That scene really brought home to me the true horror of war.
My lesson for the day was not complete, however. No sooner did I return to the battery when a group of our guys, about 20, trudged into the command post wanting to know if we could spare them something to eat. They were hollow-eyed, unshaven, and dirty beyond belief. Their uniforms were faded and ripped, you could see the war etched on their faces and they were totally worn out. Some had dirty bandages on their heads, yet there was a strength of character about the group I've never forgotten. When the group passed by me I asked a fellow who they were with and where they'd come from. In a lifeless monotone he answered: "Eighty-Second Airborne"! A day I'll never forget.
— Richard W. Mote
The narrator of the following story was 12 years old when he met Dick Mote
What was to be known as the Battle of the Bulge had been at full blast for a few days, but the news was scarce. All we knew was that the Germans were on their way back and all of us were scared to death, being just out for five years of occupation of our land. During these years, many Belgian citizens had been executed under the pretense they were terrorists whereas they were just freedom fighters willing to rid the country of unwanted "guests"! Would we be reoccupied, there would undoubtedly be more reprisals against the civilians, as the Germans had had to fight hard the Belgian "underground" forces during their retreat three months earlier. As a 12-year-old boy, I was living on a farm in a small hamlet (called Mont-Theux) in the boondocks of the Belgian Ardennes. My father, a sturdy 47 year old farmer, would not let up his work despite the prevailing mood of fear. On that foggy Wednesday, December 20, 1944, with cannons roaring in the distance, he never-the-less decided to tend his field studded with molehills. With a pitchfork on his shoulder, he strode down the dirt road toward his field. In a sharp turn where the road is deeply embanked, he suddenly found himself face to face with two young German paratroopers in their camouflaged fatigues, each toting a handgun at the ready. In such an encounter, a pitchfork was no match as a weapon and there was no way to scurry off. The only option was to stay put and to rely on God's help. The Germans could have opened fire offhand, to suppress the awkward witness that my father was. But obviously, they had other priorities as, since their landing, they had their share of problems. One of them was wounded with one arm in a sling. Also they had gotten lost in the Belgian countryside. First of all, they were in great need of a native informant to straighten things out and could postpone my father's lot until later on.
"Wo ist Luttich?" (Where is Liege?) Liege is the main city in Eastern Belgium. My French-speaking father did not talk German, but knew that Luttich meant Liege. He waved in the direction of Liege (distant of a mere 20 miles) as though it was hundred of miles away. "Gibt es Amerikaners hier?" (Are there Americans around here?) Again with the launguage of the hands, my father conveyed to the Germans that American soldiers were all over the place (in fact there were not GI's for miles around).
The two Germans spoke briefly together and the incredible occurred: they threw their hands up as a token of surrender to the old farmer whose only weapon was a pitchfork. My father quickly laid his pitchfork down, grasped the two handguns and escorted his two prisoners to a main road a distance of one mile, where he could hope that an American vehicle would pass by and stop. The two German paratroopers walked in line followed by my father with one gun in each hand.
On their way, they came across another farmer on a horse-drawn carriage. He stared wide-eyed at the unlikely procession and questioned my father: "Albert, qu'est-ce qui se passe?" (Albert, what's going on?) "I have just made two prisoners and I am going to deliver them to the Americans", he quipped in French.
Once on the main road, he signaled to the Germans to sit down on the sidewalk as he stood nearby in the middle of the road. After a while a jeep loomed up out of the fog and he flagged it down. My father could not speak English; pointing to his two prisoners, he just said to the two incredulous GI's, "pour vous" (for you). He then handed over the two guns and undaunted, he went back to tending his field. That was my father's contribution to the Battle of the Bulge, which was to claim so many American lives.
Thanks to the bold resistance of the GI's, the Germans came short of reoccupying our hamlet and a few weeks later, we had the pleasure of billeting in our farm a couple of American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division: Wes Barthelmes, a law student of Boston, and Bill Vernon from the mining country of West Virginia. They were on a well deserved leave after weeks of heavy fighting, which kept the Germans at bay in their last surge to win the war.
By our next-door neighbor was billeted a 20 year old paratrooper of the 456 Field Artillery Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division. His name? Richard Mote of Indianapolis. He was to become a dear friend and since the end of the war, over the last fifty seven years, we have met Richard and his lovely wife Joyce several times here in Belgium and in the U.S., where my wife Clauding and myself (after I got a medical degree in Belgium) have lived for five years as I trained to become a neursurgeon at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. Our two children were born there; our daughter Fabienne, 41, lives in Belgium and our son Albert, 38, lives in Houston, Texas.
Had my father's life ended in his encounter with the two German paratroopers, there is no doubt that my own life would have been shaped otherwise and, as the oldest child of the family, I would have become a farmer, a succession which was handed over, many years later to my younger brother. Myself, I became a neurosurgeon. That's the way God shaped the Labasses' destiny.
— Henri C. Labasse. Marcinelle, Belgium
(picture below) Templehof Airbase in Berlin - October 1945. The men are in dress uniform prepared for a VIP review (Patton, Marshall, Zhukov, and Montgomery).
Dick Mote is at center, facing camera