75 years later, an Army medic reflects on the WWII Battle of the Bulge

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Americans of the 101st Engineers near Wiltz, Luxembourg, January 1945

Americans of the 101st Engineers near Wiltz, Luxembourg, January 1945

Thomas Hoke can still recall the weather in December 1944, and the long days that followed.

The battle started on Dec. 16, but his company arrived Dec. 27 and would stay there until the battle's end, nearly a month later. By the time he arrived, snow had blanketed Germany in what was one of the biggest storms the country had seen in years.

"It was 20 below and a heavy fog encompassed the whole area," Hoke, 96, recalled from his Emmitsburg home.

The fog was to Germany's advantage because Allied aircraft were grounded, including recognizance flights, allowing the Nazis to slip in.

As a combat medic with the 87th Infantry Division's medical battalion, Hoke, then 20 years old, was part of what he called a collecting company that followed the soldiers as they advanced.

"We collected the wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Our doctors treated them, then we sent them to the clearing company that was similar to a MASH outfit," he said, noting they had 10 ambulances and about 15 litter-bearers like himself in the company.

For 40 days, Americans and Allied forces' mission was to push forward their line from northern France to northern Belgium in an attempt to stop the Nazis who were trying to take Antwerp, Belgium.

Many historians consider the Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, the Third Reich's last attempt to gain power.

Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the battle named after the bulge that the Germans created in a section of the Ardennes Forest pushing through the American defensive line. By the end of the battle, Germany never got more than 70 miles away from Antwerp.

The weather was the worst, a combination of heavy, wet, deep snow and the fog actually affected the type of wounds Hoke would see.

"We had no rifle wounds because nobody could see each other," he said.

Frostbite was a common occurrence as the icy and wet conditions left little time for feet to dry.

"Our biggest problem was that we had too many frozen feet at the aid station," he said. "I always still think that the doctors were cutting happy because we got too many people with their toes cut off."

The snow also wreaked havoc on getting supplies to the men.

"We were on the Siegfried Line when [Gen.] Patton pulled us off and put everyone he could up there. We weren't prepared for that kind of weather," he said. "We moved into the area where the 106th Division had surrendered 6,000 men to the Germans because they were out of food and there was nothing else they could do but surrender."

Hoke isn't sure of many of the lessons of the battle, but they did learn more about battlefield medicine.

"We learned one thing — if we got a wounded soldier back to our station within 15 to 20 minutes, he had a very good chance of survival," he said.

Earle Lynwood Browning, of Mount Airy, served with the 106th Infantry Division.

Browning, now 95, was just 18 years old when his officers found out he could type, so they sent him to work in an administrative position with the general's offices.

"It probably saved my life," he said in his home.

That's because the 106th were battle-weary.

"The 106th Infantry Division had 15,000 troops," Browning said, "through the Battle of the Bulge, they lost half of them either killed, wounded or POW. They lost about 7,500 troops."

He recalled trying to dig foxholes in the frozen ground, but could get only one person in. And, he said, he still can't forget the sounds of the Screaming Mimis, the nickname for the German Nebelwerfer rocket artillery that missed the troops and hit the nearby town.

"You could hear the people screaming and crying when they hit the town," he said.

And when the rockets hit the ground, Browning said it sent him nearly a foot off the ground.

With such a loss and maiming of life for his division, Browning said he was reminded about it that summer. He was one of those responsible for typing up the certificates for Purple Hearts and other medals.

Aftermath

By the end of the Battle of the Bulge, Americans suffered 75,000 casualties, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The Germans lost between 80,000 and 100,000.

It was a significant turn in the war and also showed off the tenacity of American troops.

By May 8, 1945, the war in Europe was over.

Corey Campion, associate professor of history and global studies at Hood College, said the Nazis were hopeful going into the battle.

"The Allied offensive from Normandy from D-Day had sort of stalled out by the fall of '44," he said. "I think some of their hopes were a bit misplaced. Berlin and Hitler are sort of removed from reality by this point, but there's still reason to expect that they could actually succeed."

Bob Smart, of Middletown, is a World War II history enthusiast. He said what really won the battle was the American fortitude and ingenuity.

"The Germans were not really prepared for the amount of unplanned, random defensive acts that American units took, which slowed things up," he said.

Follow Crystal Schelle on Twitter: @crystalschelle.

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