Vets mark 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulgeby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — This week marks the 65th anniversary of the start of Battle of the Bulge. It was the huge offensive mounted by the German High Command in the waning days of World War II. Some 19,000 U.S. troops died in the battle which was fought in the depths of one of the worst winters in years in Europe.
This weekend, the Parkway movie theater in Minneapolis will host veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, now in their '80s to talk about their experiences.
Bill DeVitt and Jerry Nauss like to kid each other.
"Jerry's not as old as I am, of course," DeVitt said.
"There's only a couple of months difference," Nauss laughed back.
But the two Minnesotans sat in the foyer of the Parkway Theater to talk about a serious time.
They were both in Europe, four and a half months after D-Day, when half a million German troops attacked in a massive counter offensive. Bill DeVitt said Hitler's plan was to break through the Allied lines.
"And separate the American army to the south, and the British army to the north," he said.
Hitler hoped to turn the course of the war. By splitting the Allies and overwhelming the individual armies in the west, he could then focus on beating the Russians in the east.
The Allies outnumbered the Germans, but the Germans were better equipped with Panzer tanks. Jerry Nauss served with the 1st Infantry, the Big Red One. He landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day then his unit fought its way across Europe. He said they were exhausted and hoping for a break. On the night of Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans launched their attack, he didn't know what was coming.
"Had no idea, no idea; and even when we were alerted we didn't know," Nauss said.
The Battle of the Bulge was hard fought in horrible conditions.
"This was the most snow and the coldest winter that area had had in years," Nauss said.
Frostbite and trench foot was as much the enemy as German troops for the Doughboys fighting from foxholes. The battle raged for five weeks before the Allies gained the upper hand.
As Nauss and Devitt talk, the story of the Battle of the Bulge plays out on the screen in the Parkway. This is "The Battleground," an Academy Award-winning film made just after the war.
The two veterans say the film captures the historical details of the battle, and gives a flavor of what it was like to be there. Of course a movie can't capture everything.
Bill DeVitt said his Battle of the Bulge was short, just one day. His unit joined the battle in January. He was with two other members of his unit the first night, preparing for a dawn attack. A mortar shell exploded nearby hitting all three of them. Devitt said he was wounded in three places, but it was hard to tell what was going on.
"It was pitch black. You can't have any lights. What can you do?" he said.
Somehow a medic got to them, and he spent four months in the hospital recovering. He said he doesn't know to this day if the sergeant with them survived.
Joe Minjares listened intently to the stories. He owns the Parkway, and arranged the Battle of the Bulge screenings. He said it's just an excuse to invite veterans to speak about their experiences to the audience after the film.
Historians say the Battle of the Bulge was the single largest and bloodiest battle involving U.S. forces in World War II. Yet Minjares said he found no reference to it in the media on Wednesday, the anniversary of the initial German assault.
"I don't think that people do remember," he said. "I think people leave the responsibility to remember to someone else, and that's how the memories die. These guys are dying at 1,500 a day. They are not going to be around here much longer."
Minjares' father fought in the Pacific during World War II and he said he wishes he had asked his dad more questions about his experiences before he died.
"And when I am with these guys, I feel closer to my dad," he said.
Half a dozen veterans spoke at the Parkway's Battle of the Bulge event on Wednesday. They'll be back this weekend.
Both Jerry Nauss and Bill DeVitt have written books about their experiences. They say wars are fought differently today, but Nauss said one thing remains unchanged.
"War is terrible.You do everything you can in order to gain peace," he said. "Unfortunately people have to be reasonable, and that's our problem today."
The Parkway will present screenings of "The Battleground" at 2 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. Both screenings will be followed by a discussion with Battle of the Bulge veterans.
- All Things Considered, 12/18/2009, 5:43 p.m.