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Last Watch: The Battle of the bulge at 75

Their Numbers Dwindling, Vets Remember Hitler’s Last-Ditch Assault

NationalGeographic.com  December 2020


By Bill Newcott

The Germans were on the run. There was no question. Allied forces were poised to push into Germany itself, and they had not seriously engaged Hitler’s forces in weeks. 


It was mid-December, 1944. U.S infantryman Chris Carawan and some buddies, stationed near the quiet front in the Belgian Ardennes forest, captured two German soldiers, apparently lost. One of them spoke near-perfect English.


“You guys better clear out of here,” the German warned Carawan. “We’re about to push you back to the sea.”


Carawan and company reported the warning to their superiors, but they were laughed off. Big talk from a beaten foe, the generals said. Sure, there was a lot of machinery rumbling in the forests beyond the border, but that was the Third Reich in retreat. Hitler was done.


Then came the morning of December 16. It was 5:30 a.m.


“First there was an artillery attack, really fierce,” Carawan recalls. The 90-minute assault was launched from a staggering 1,900 artillery pieces, previously undetected, beyond the tree line. 


“It was, perhaps, the single heaviest barrage in all of World War II,” says Alexander Kendrick, whose book The Longest Winter chronicles the Battle of the Bulge, 75 years ago. “It was earth-shattering. Shocking.”


Sitting on a couch in the TV room of his modest house in Columbia, South Carolina, 94-year-old Carawan offers a faint smile to his wife of 74 years, Alma, across the room in a plush chair. But in Carawan’s eyes, it’s clear he is once again a terrified 20-year-old, staring into the face of the greatest land battle of modern warfare.


“Then came the machine gun fire,” he says. “And then it seemed like Hitler’s whole army was coming out of the woods.”


He wasn’t far from wrong: Beyond those trees lurked 410,000 men and about 1,400 tanks. Facing near-certain defeat on the Soviet front, Hitler was gambling that he could push through the relatively lightly defended region of the Ardennes. His plan was to launch a lightning-fast offensive that would split the Allied forces and forge a path to the port of Antwerp from which he could extract desperately needed supplies — especially oil for his tanks. Ultimately, he hoped to surround the Allied troops and force the negotiation of a peace plan favorable to Germany. 


The overconfident Allies were pitifully unprepared. 


“It was a very long front, stretching from the English Channel to Italy,” says historian Kendrick. “It was undersupplied in both manpower and equipment.”


The Germans targeted one length in particular: a sparsely defended 80-mile stretch of wilderness in Belgium and Luxembourg. There the Allies were no match for the dense influx of German soldiers, artillery, and tanks that would in a matter of days push a dangerous bulge in the Allied line. 

Almost immediately, two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division stationed along the central length of the front were captured or killed — including a young soldier named Kurt Vonnegut, whose brutal experience as a POW would inspire his novel Slaughterhouse Five. Chris Carawan’s regiment — led by a General who had fought the Germans in World War I — found refuge in the hills and could only watch as the tanks rolled past them.


For Carawan’s unit, the fight continued through one of the coldest European winters on record. Pitifully undersupplied, the Allied soldiers didn’t even have winter coats or proper footwear. Most slept in their boots, knowing if they removed them their feet would be too swollen to get them back on in the morning. To this day, most Battle of the Bulge veterans suffer the effects of frostbite. 

Francis Chesko was fresh from the coalfields of Pennsylvania when he landed in France 24 hours after D-day. He’d been stationed in northern Europe when he and his unit were suddenly hustled onto a troop train toward Ardennes.


Because the Ardennes was considered a low-risk area, “We thought we were being taken for R&R,” says Chesko, resplendent in a full Army uniform as he conducts a tour of his war artifact-stuffed home in Mahanoy City, PA. 


“Well, we were wrong about that. We got off that train, and it was as if all Hell was raining down on us. 


“That sound! I can’t explain the sound of it. It’s the worst sound in the world. It’s like thunder and lightning right on top of you.”


Besides the sheer force of German military power on display, Chesko says, the enemy showed a diabolical sense of resourcefulness.


“They dropped paratroopers in, wearing Allied uniforms,” he says. “They switched all the road signs, to lead us right into a trap — and sometimes they would stand right there at the intersection, pointing us in the wrong direction!


“Most of them spoke almost perfect English, too. But they’d need to know the password. Early on, we’d say, ‘Little,’ and if they didn’t answer ‘Orphan Annie,’ well, that would be their Waterloo.”


Vernon Brantley, 95, is sipping a glass of orange juice and port — he calls it his “concoction” — in his Columbia kitchen. With the unmistakable drawl of a southern gentleman, he’s recalling the chaos that ensued as the Jeep he was driving at the Bulger was flipped by a German mortar explosion. 


“The three other guys jumped clear,” he says. “The Jeep landed on me. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m told that you could name any hole in my body and I was bleeding out of it.”

Brantley was rushed to a field hospital, then to a facility in Paris. He was back with his unit within months.  


A knock comes on the kitchen door. It’s Brantley’s old friend and fellow Bulge veteran Gerald White, 93. 


He sits down at the table and, as usual, the two pals are soon sharing war stories.


“I wasn’t even shaving yet,” says White, who was 18 when fate hurled him into the Battle of the Bulge. 


“They had me driving a Jeep, pulling a trailer loaded with ammo. I guess if I’d been hit by a mortar, there would’ve been nothing left. 


“I was told I was the second replacement for that job. So there was one guy before me, and another guy before him. They never told me what happened to those two guys.” 

Another young man hauling dangerous cargo across the Ardennes countryside was Joe Watson. He was in charge of a mortar launcher, which meant that as he drove his unit from site to site, he was a prime target for enemy mortars aimed at him. 


“We were driving our mortar unit along a road, and the enemy mortars just followed us, each one exploding right behind. It was boom-boom-boom! Just like a movie.”

Today Watson, 96, lives on the same 80-acre pecan grove where he grew up in Springfield, South Carolina. Despite difficulty walking — again, due to frostbite — he is planning a return to Belgium to mark the battle’s 75th anniversary. 


“The reason young soldiers are the best soldiers is simple,” he says, gazing out on a pond where he’s fished most of his life. “They don’t think they’re ever going to die. So when you ask them to do something crazy, they’ll just say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and get going.”

Paratrooper Leif Masing had dropped into France even before the D-Day invasion, so he was used to being behind enemy lines. During the early days of the Bulge, the weather was so bad Allied planes could not fly, so he and his buddies were snuck to their remote positions by truck. 


“Paratroopers are trained to act on their own,” says 95-year-old Masing, sitting with his daughter Nancy in his bright living room at a Columbia assisted living home. “You don’t always know where your comrades are, and you have to make split second decisions all by yourself.”


Tall, slim and blue-eyed, Masing still strikes an impressive figure. It’s easy to imagine him slipping through the darkness of night on covert operations while the pitched battle raged mere miles away.


“One night, around 4 a.m., I was crossing through the back yard of a residence,” he recalls. “The owner came to the window and screamed, ‘Who the hell is out there?’ 


“I had to laugh. After all, there was a war going on out here!”


Chris Carawan, tucked cozily in his TV room, brings his voice almost to a whisper. 


“They always told us not to get too emotionally close to the fellas,” he says, “But of course that was impossible. 


“I was walking across an open field, right between my best friend, Doyle Griffith, and my favorite executive officer, Harry Stone. A German tank made a sweep right across the field. It nearly tore Doyle in half. He started calling for his mother. I said ‘Hold on,’ and called a medic over. 


“I don’t know how, but he made it. But it killed the officer. He never knew what hit him.” 

“Why that tank didn’t even nick me, I’ll never know. But I’ll tell you what: I woke up this morning thinking about Harry Stone. Here I am, I’ve had 94 years, and those fellas barely got into their 20s. 


“Sometimes I feel like I’m living my life for them, too.”


Although the tide of the Battle of the Bulge had turned by New Year’s Day, fighting went on until January 24. Some 19,000 Americans were killed.


The German advance never amounted to more than a bulge. Allied resistance slowed the Nazi advance, virtually starving the enemy of the very supplies they’d hoped to get in Antwerp.


Still, historian Kendrick says, it was Hitler’s best shot at a last-minute turnaround for a lost cause.


“In war, you can never predict what’s going to happen,” he says. “But it was a very, very high-risk operation. They would have needed great luck — and their luck ran out.”

When things calmed down, Chris Carawan got an extended leave. Of course, he headed straight for Paris.  


“I was walking through Paris when I heard music,” he says, his red-rimmed eyes lost in the memory. “It was really familiar. I followed the sound, around corners and down streets, and came to this open area – and then I heard this.”


With a slightly trembling hand, Carawan lifts a remote control from the arm of the couch and points it at a CD player across the room, near his wife Alma, who is smiling sweetly. 


The sound of Glenn Miller’s “Slumber Song” drifts through the house.


“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Glenn Miller was right there. It was almost like being home. It was almost like being with Alma.”


The singing saxophones and muted horns of Miller’s Army Air Force Band waft through the house, enveloping the medals on the wall, the photos of a young soldier and his blushing bride.


Chris and Alma gaze across the room at each other. 


It is 1945. And they are dancing.