Bill Harris, The Bulge and Christmas 1944

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 "Near-complete surprise was achieved by a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance. The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions, which grounded the Allies' overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive around Elsenborn Ridgeand in the south around Bastogne blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This and terrain that favored the defenders threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops. Improved weather conditions permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line."  wiki

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Long ago and far away I served with a man named Bill Harris.  This was in Turkey in a big NATO headquarters.  Harris was a full colonel and a WW2 paratrooper.  I was a very young major just back from Vietnam. 

Bill was from Missouri, had attended the University of Missouri and had left that institution a year before the war when he ran out of money.   He joined the pre-WW2 US Army and had reached the rank of sergeant before the Japanese attacked the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

He spent a few months improving the training of National Guard troops as they mobilized for war and then was sent to the Infantry Officer Candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia.  To his surprise he was assigned to the emerging paratroop force at graduation.  He served with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division throughout the war in Europe. 

Bill jumped into; Sicily and Salerno in Italy, Normandy and Holland with the 505th Regiment.  He was the only man I ever saw who had four stars embedded in his parachute badge, one for each of his combat jumps.  At the end of the Market Garden operation in Holland the 82nd Division was pulled back to a rest and training area outside Paris.  There, the division built itself a camp and settled down to wait for spring and an anticipated jump across the Rhine.   By that time, Bill Harris was a major and the chief operations staff officer (S-3) of the 505th.

Christmas approached and the division prepared to party.   Officers' Class A uniforms were brought over from storage in England so that they would look resplendent for an anticipated grand Christmas gala to be held a few days before the holiday.  The front was far to the east and the intelligence people thought the Germans would be inactive for a while, certainly long enough for the 82nd to celebrate.   The division's engineers  built an amphitheater made of canvas and wood in which to hold the officers' party.   The structure had concentric circular platforms on which tables for four were placed at higher and higher levels as one moved away from the center.   In the very center of the big tent was a dance floor.  The division's band combined forces with part of the Air Corps' Glenn Miller Orchestra to provide music.  "Chattanooga Choo Choo"   and "American Patrol" sounded through the wintry night for the party.     Women and booze were pre-requisites for such an event.  Paris was an easy source for the liquor.   Army nurses, Red Cross girls and French women from the city were invited and eagerly accepted.

 

On the much anticipated night, the revelers gathered.  According to Harris, the ladies were enchanting.  The American women were in uniform but the French ladies wore dresses from their pre-war wardrobe and were described to me by Harris as "simply lovely. " Champagne flowed.  The bands played.  Couples filled the dance floor.  The division's officers were dressed in "pinks and greens" with "bloused" jump boots.  Major General Gavin, the 37 year old division commander, sat with his staff in the circle closest to the dance floor.

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 Just before midnight, the division's "officer of the day," entered the "big top" and approached Gavin to whisper in his ear.  A few minutes later the division's chief intelligence staff officer (G-2) did the same.  Gavin rose to exit with the regimental commanders.  At that point Harris gathered his belongings from the table and had someone take the regiment's women friends to their transport.  The 82nd Airborne Division's officers sat and waited champagne glasses in hand. 

There were similar parties for enlisted men underway across the division.  In all these festive locations, soldiers waited.

The division chief of staff arrived to announce that the Germans had attacked in great strength in Belgium and Luxembourg, that US units in the path of the onslaught had been defeated and, in some cases, annihilated.   Troops were being rushed forward to stop the German advance and to that end the division would move to the front in two hours. 

 Everyone changed into combat gear, and began climbing into trucks in blowing snow and darkness.  Long "serials" of 2 1/2 ton trucks rolled toward the east as they finished the job of loading troops and supplies. 

Major Bill Harris rode in the right front seat of his jeep at the end of the 505th's column of vehicles. At four in the morning the regiment passed through a  little town in Belgium.  At one street corner a US MP stood directing traffic.  Harris stopped his jeep to ask the soldier what unit he was from.   The man answered that he belonged to the 7th Armored Division.  They had passed through the town the previous day, and had left him.  He had seen no other Americans until the 82nd had begun arriving in the last hour.  As they spoke a rumbling, clanking could be heard.   They turned toward the sound and watched in awestruck surprise as a German Tiger crawled into view as it rounded a corner at the end of the street.  The turret rotated towards them.  Harris reached out, grabbed the MP by the front of his clothes and pulled him into the jeep across his lap while yelling at his driver to move!  They drove out of town before the tank could finish aiming its main gun.

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The 82nd Division moved to its assigned sector on the north flank of the Bulge penetration.  There, it played a crucial role in halting the westward advance of the 5th Panzer Army under General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel.  Manteuffel became a Liberal Party politician after the war.

The quality of the 82nd Division in the Battle of the Bulge is well represented by the possibly apocryphal legend of a sergeant of the 325th Glider Regiment who told a retreating tank destroyer crew,  "… pull your vehicle in behind me—I'm the 82nd Airborne, and this is as far as the bastards are going!"

As part of the German plan for the Bulge operation, a "scratch" airborne Kampfgruppe (battle group) had been assembled to participate.  One of Germany's most experienced paratroop officers, Colonel Friedrich_August_Freiherr_von_der_Heydte was appointed to command this forelorn hope.  This nobleman, a famous professor of law after WW2, fought in Holland in 1940, in Greece, in Crete, in Italy, in Normandy as CO of the 6th Fallschirmjager (paratroop) regiment and finally in this last desperate throw of the dice.  1200 paratroop instructors, students and officer cadets were brought together, loaded into transport aircraft and dropped into a Belgian wood to assist von Manteuffel's advance.  Once there, they discovered that they were surrounded by counter-attacking Americans.  Re-supply drops never arrived. Ammunition and food ran out.  There was no ammunition, no shelter and his men were slowly freezing to death.  In this circumstance, Von der Heydte (a holder of the Knight's Cross) made a command decision and sent a parlementaire officer out of the woods to a road to talk to the Americans under a flag of truce.  In the course of this meeting in the snow, the Luftwaffe officer said that the battle group wished to surrender but could not, and would not surrender to any but US or British paratroops.

The next day Bill Harris accompanied General Gavin to the site of the talks, and displayed a white flag while standing next to Gavin's jeep. The same German officer came from the forest to ask who they were.  He returned to the dark of the trees and soon emerged at the head of a column of German paratroops that was led by Baron von der Heydte himself.  Von der Heydte saluted Gavin and handed him his sidearm.  The Germans stacked arms in the road and waited quietly in ranks to be loaded into the trucks Gavin had brought with him.

Bill Harris is no longer with us.  I know that von der Heydte is not, nor is Gavin.  I hope that somewhere they and the sergeant from the 325th Glider Regiment are celebrating Christmas together.  pl  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Bulge

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/505th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallschirmj%C3%A4ger_(World_War_II)

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Airborne+Songs+YouTube&Form=VQFRVP#view=detail&mid=DE8EA28787D5EC1ED5E5DE8EA28787D5EC1ED5E5

 

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18 Responses to Bill Harris, The Bulge and Christmas 1944

  1. Avatar Matthew says:

    Col: You write non-fiction like poetry. Simply beautiful.

  2. Avatar Diana C says:

    Agree with Matthew….very nice read.
    Of course it also brings to mind the Christmas of 1914 during WWI, which was one of the most inexplicable wars I can think of.
    Merry Christmas to all on the blog and especially to the writers.

  3. Avatar Bob Visser says:

    Dear Sir,
    Your mention of operation Market Garden brought back memories. I did grow up in the Nazi occupied Netherlands and eagerly followed the Allied progress after the landing in Normandy via Radio Oranje, broadcasting from London. When they brought the news of the landing near Arnhem, the action was now near, in our own backyard and hope was high for immediate liberation. Alas, we still had to wait and endure the terrible hunger winter, before we were finally liberated by the Canadians under Montgomery in April 1945. I still have a red beret, dating from that time and I will now dedicate same to your Bill Harris. Rgds. BV

  4. Avatar Jim Ticehurst says:

    Colonel…I appreciate you sharing this event..and this Part of Bill Harris Life..with your own expierences…As mentioned above..You have a Fluid…Poetic Style..that is a Pleasant Easy.. Read…Rather …Its…Fact…Fiction….Historical…or Any Aspect..of Lifes Experiences..You are gifted..and We are Blessed You share your Talents..Thoughts.and.Insights…What would Life Be..Without..Literature…and The Written “Word”…Merry Christmas..to All..and to All.. . a Good Nite..

  5. Avatar Brian G says:

    This summer I took a trip with my dad and his friend, Chuck, to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Chuck was in the U.S. Army 299th Combat Engineer Division and was in the first wave on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Actually he was there a couple days prior, underwater, to set up explosives on the German fortifications. He survived the invasion though was wounded with shrapnel in his arm. He spent some time healing in the hospital in St-Lô before going on to fight in the the Battle of Bulge. After the war he returned home and became a teacher in Northern California. That’s where he met my dad, also a teacher and WWII veteran (U.S. Army 77th Division, Battle of Okinawa).
    Chuck is 94. His wife died a about 10 years ago and the only family Chuck has left is a 60-something unhappy spinster daughter, who, from what I could gather, is somewhat estranged from him. Anyway, my dad called Chuck the other day to ask him his plans for Christmas and if his daughter would be visiting him. Chuck told him no, that he planned to spend the day there by himself. My dad felt terrible and kind of helpless (my dad lives in Frederick, MD and Chuck in Los Altos, CA). Chuck, like my dad, does not belong to any veterans groups. So smartly my dad thought to call the local paper out there, the Los Altos Town Crier. They knew of Chuck from having profiled him in the past and promised to have people there from the paper spend time with him. Maybe not an It’s a Wonderful Life-ending, but who knows?

  6. Avatar Christian J Chuba says:

    There is nothing like a personal connection. By the time the battle of the Bulge my dad was already in a German POW camp. He became fascinated by the fact that the U.S. had and used proximity fuzes in artillery shells during the battle. It was very bad news for German infantry.

  7. Avatar FkDahl says:

    Brian, I live in Los Altos, does Chuck still need someone to spend Christmas with ? I always make too much food…

  8. This story reminds me one of paratroopers who, sadly, never arrived.
    My father, then aged 17, was a liaison officer with the Ist FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur) Region military headquarter in Vercors. He and his comrades in l’Équipe, as they called themselves, brought to local heads of the Résistance in occupied Lyon, Bourg-en-Bresse, Saint-Etienne, Grenoble, Valence – most of southeastern France – millions in false francs and food tickets printed in London and parachuted on the Vercors Plateau, together with military orders, by either train or, more often, bicycle. All that under the nose of Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo, the Wehrmacht MPs, and Vichy France gendarmes as well as the fascist Milice. Many of them were caught, tortured, killed or sent to Nazi death camps.
    In the Spring of 1944, in preparation of the Normandy landing, General de Gaulle called all Résistance fighters in France to gather in remote places which they would « free », in order to fix far from any possible landing place as many German troops as possible. Some 3,000 young men crowded on the Vercors Plateau, as eager to fight as poorly equipped. My dad’s former chief, Capitaine Hubert, then a 22-year old student in Ecole normale (primary school teachers’ school), recounted that « London » had promised to send 600 élite (presumably French-speaking) Canadian troops along with heavy armament.
    In early June 1944, obeying codeword « Le chamois des Alpes bondit » heard from Radio-Londres, maquisards under Colonel Descour proclaimed the « République Libre du Vercors » and flew a huge French flag stamped with the Gaullist Lorraine cross, visible from miles away in the Rhône valley. Aided by villagers from Vassieux-en-Vercors, they prepared a landing ground for all the military assistance that had been promised to them.
    However, that support never came. Instead, the Nazis launched several attacks against the Vercors, first slaughtering all the 190 inhabitants of Vassieux, men, women and children alike, and killing several dozens of fighters trying to rescue the civilians, then, afew days later, sending heavy gliders full of assault troops, mainly Ukrainian SS, which landed on the ground prepared for the Canadians, while armored cars and trucks also brought ground troops in the fight. With a gun for three and very little ammunition, FFI maquisards lost 600 men and were forced to disband.
    At the time of the assault, my dad was returning from a mission in Lyon. He crawled amidst the Nazi Sturmtruppen to join his comrades, but he arrived on the plateau only to find a desolate battleground with corpses lying all over the place. I don’t know how he managed to escape and found refuge at his parents’ home in the Pilat Mountains, on the opposite bank of the Rhône. A few days later, someone knocked at their door, in tears. It was one of his teammates of l’Équipe and another survivor of the massacre, coming to announce to my grandparents that their son, Cadet Officer Loulou, had been declared MIA…
    I remember, in the early 1960s, our visit to the Vercors, and how our mother took us away when my father’s face, usually jovial, suddenly changed when we came to the burnt church with a glider carcass nearby. He walked away alone and disappeared for a while, then returned to us, smiling. He never talked to us of his time in the Résistance again, nor did we do this pilgrimage again. All I know I learned from his official military record and from Capitaine Hubert, whom I interviewed many years after my father’s death. Most surviving members of l’Équipe kept strong lifelong ties.
    In memoriam Loulou, Kiki, John, Sim et tous les autres.

  9. Avatar Brian G says:

    Thanks FkDahll. In addition to the folks from the local paper I think we’ve managed to wrangle a relative of ours to visit.
    But please, Chuck has a lot of funny and amazing stories to tell— from rigging up explosives underwater at Omaha Beach a couple of days before D-Day to bartering with Russian troops with chocolate and cigarettes after the Allied Victory. So if you want to hear stories firsthand you’ll never hear elsewhere then you must meet Chuck. And he loves telling these stories. Nb: be sure to have him tell you about being scared out of his mind on Omaha Beach and hiding behind a telephone pole as bullets were striking on both sides of him and his lieutenant coming up behind him and putting a gun to his head and telling him to either run or he (lieutenant) would shoot him dead right there.
    brownflamb@gmail.com
    Article on Chuck from this past summer:
    https://www.losaltosonline.com/news/sections/community/177-features/60199-world-war-ii-veteran-visits-his-battleground

  10. Avatar Bilenda Harris-Ritter says:

    I am Bill Harris’ daughter and I loved reading this. Thank you so much for sharing a memory of my Dad. I would love to know more stories if you have any.

  11. Avatar Maggy says:

    Thank you so much for this! Bill Harris is my dad! To read this, and on Christmas no less, brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so very much and If you have more stories of my dad, I would love to hear!
    Maggy

  12. Avatar Maggy says:

    Wonderful!!!!!

  13. Avatar turcopolier says:

    Maggy and Bilenda
    i will write you both soon.

  14. Avatar JohninMK says:

    The comment by Christian J Chuba last year was right on the money.
    The Anglo American developed proximity fuse is a little known changer of warfare in WW2. In 1944 it was top secret with the Pentagon refusing to allow its use in situations where the Germans might capture one. Then came the Battle of the Bulge.
    This is how Wiki puts it. “After General Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded he be allowed to use the fuzes, 200,000 shells with VT fuzes were used in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. They made the Allied heavy artillery far more devastating, as all the shells now exploded just before hitting the ground. German divisions were caught out in open as they had felt safe from timed fire because it was thought that the bad weather would prevent accurate observation. U.S. General George S. Patton credited the introduction of proximity fuzes with saving Liege and stated that their use required a revision of the tactics of land warfare.”
    Lovely prose Colonel.

  15. Avatar Kerry Edward Noonan says:

    Thank you Colonel for a timely and memorable story. Though I was born long after, the Battle of the Bulge is a landmark in my life. My uncle, Edward Noonan, was killed during that battle by a direct hit. His body was never recovered.
    My father, William, who fought in the Pacific with the 7th Army, was Edward’s younger brother. They had grown up across the street from the Polo grounds, and Edward was a great athlete and a rising prospect for the New York Giants. As with all death, the loss was permanent and mysteriously lingers to this day. May the death of all brave soldiers bear fruit unto eternal life.

  16. Avatar turcopolier says:

    Kerry Edward Noonan
    7th Infantry Division. not 7th Army

  17. Avatar Deap says:

    That was then; this is now
    :……… “As you know, 71 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are currently ineligible for military service, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a history of crime or substance abuse,” the leaders wrote. The leaders belong to a group called Mission: Readiness, a nearly 800-member coalition of retired generals and admirals……….
    Thank a progressive.

  18. Avatar turcopolier says:

    Deap
    You are over-estimating the quality of manpower available in WW2. You cannot compare the quality of the men of elite units like the 82nd Airborne Division to the ordinary run of people.

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