Christmas during the Battle of the Bulge

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Christmas 1944 was a bitter one for Hitler, and also for the 19,000 American soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and never made it back home. William Wallace Connelly of Coeur d'Alene was one of the lucky ones.

He almost lost his feet but was saved by peanut oil.

The German Army was facing Allied forces in the dense Ardennes Forest and surrounding areas where France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg meet. The British were to the north under the command of Gen. Bernard Montgomery; the Americans on the west and south were commanded by generals McAuliffe, Bradley, Hodges and Patton, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower over all of them.

It was a bitterly cold winter and the snow heavy. Allied forces, worn out from continuous combat since the D-Day invasion of Normandy, were knocking on the door of the German fatherland.

Hitler called for a quick "Blitzkrieg" drive to the west through the Allied line, aimed at splitting the Americans and the British, and capturing Antwerp-Belgium's main port for Allied supplies. He hoped to block the supplies and trap four complete Allied armies behind German lines.

Where the Germans broke through appears on the battle maps as a "Bulge."

If he succeeded, Hitler believed he could force a separate peace treaty with the Allies, and deal later with the Russians who were poised for a winter assault from the east.

Being so close to Germany, the Germans had the advantage of shorter supply lines-while the Allies were overstretched and supplies were running out. But the Allies had better defensive positions.

In the autumn of 1944, both sides were dithering within their own high commands. Ike and Monty disagreed on strategy, while the two German field marshals - Walter Model and Gerd von Rundstedt - opposed the Antwerp attack plan and offered their own ideas to Hitler, who immediately rejected them.

Hitler ordered that the main battle site be the Ardennes Forest, where the Germans had easily raced through on the way to capturing Paris in 1940.

But this time, conditions were different. German manpower shortages cut the planned 45 divisions down to 30. Ill-trained boys too young to shave and oldsters too old to fight were thrown into battle next to seasoned veterans.

The Germans were desperate for fuel, and had to plan on using captured fuel along the way. To make matters worse, the Luftwaffe was shredded and could give little air support - all of this causing delays as winter approached.

Finally, at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, the Germans began a huge artillery barrage across an 80-mile front. Then the heavy weather set in, with bad roads, lack of fuel and traffic jams further slowing the German advance.

Everything seemed to go wrong. At one point, even German supplies dropped by air landed in American hands.

Connelly was a private first class armed with an M-1 rifle in the 289th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division just arrived to fight in eastern Belgium near St. Vith. Facing them was the German Fifth Panzer Army commanded by the brilliant tank tactician, General Hasso von Manteuffle.

"We were the first unit in that area to be hit," he said. "With a buddy of mine - we got down into the woods and they were firing over us. The captain got hit because he was still up on the road."

The men wore winter gear that was sadly inadequate for the bitter cold. "They gave us the best they had, but they weren't very good," he said. "The boots were terrible ... with only one pair of sox."

There were about 100 men in his unit. "In the first few days, we lost almost half."

The fighting took place in the dense Ardennes Forest. At night the men blasted foxholes with dynamite to sleep in - the ground being too frozen solid to use shovels. "We weren't inside a building for the first week."

Despite everything, they couldn't stop the Germans heading for Antwerp. "They just went on through," Connelly remembered. But that push didn't last.

Just to the south of where Connelly was fighting, Hitler's forces had to deal with the strategic small town of Bastogne, where seven roads to Antwerp converged. But there was a problem - the Americans were there first.

Even though they were outnumbered five-to-one, and completely surrounded by the Germans who hammered them right through Christmas - from Dec. 20-27 - the Band of Brothers dug in and held.

The weather was the worst in memory, with snow and fog preventing air support, and the troops short of ammo, cold weather gear, food and medical supplies.

Confident of victory, German commander Gen. Heinrich von Lttwitz sent a written request on Dec. 22 for the Americans to surrender. U.S. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe then gave his famous one-word response Nuts

It took a while for the German translators to explain what that meant.

The next day, the weather cleared and Allied planes dropped, food, medicine and ammunition to the beleaguered troops.

On Christmas Eve during a lull in fighting, the hunkered-down Americans could hear Germans singing Stille Nacht - Silent Night - in the distance. Soon, American voices chimed in. Then 10 minutes later, the shooting started again (That scene happened in many places, both in World War I and II).

Meanwhile to the north on Christmas Eve, Connelly was somewhere between St. Vith and Liege. "We went out on patrol and got behind the German lines, and could hear them speaking German ... We were in the wrong place!"

The young PFC spent Christmas Eve trying to stay warm and eat canned rations. "On Christmas Day, we were supposed to get a kitchen train. The Germans blew it up. We couldn't light fires so I had a can of frozen stew - that was my Christmas dinner."

That same day, Connelly and another soldier were standing next to a Jeep when "a barrage of artillery came in and blew me over the Jeep, and my buddy was killed." Connelly survived but received a severe concussion.

"Several of us were taken back to the field hospital ... and they said, well, you have a choice - go back to Paris to the hospital, or rejoin your unit." He rejoined his unit, and stubbornly, the Americans held The Bulge in check.

The day after Christmas, Gen. George Patton's Third Army tanks thundered in to rescue Bastogne. The noose was closing on Germany.

"By (January), my feet were so bad that I could hardly walk," Connelly said. "They carried me off the field hospital to the hospital in Paris ... then Winston Churchill Hospital in London."

He was treated there for lingering effects of concussion and from severe frostbite to his feet, which turned the skin black.

Then he was shipped back to the U.S. where he was told that they might have to amputate his feet. However a young doctor told him, "You gotta let me try - you be one of the guinea pigs - I think I can save your feet."

For two and a half months, he laid in bed with cotton between his toes and his feet soaked with peanut oil. "Little by little, the black began to fall off my feet."

Wally Connelly spent 26 years in the army - active and reserve - retiring as a major. Most of his active duty was spent managing Post Exchange facilities in Germany, Paris and Japan. He received the Bronze Star "For exemplary conduct in armed combat," the Purple Heart and the French Medal of Freedom.

He stayed with the Army Reserves while serving in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the L.A. Superior Court.

Connelly and his wife Hope moved to Coeur d'Alene in 1991, where he volunteered at the Police Department for nineteen years.

On Jan. 25, 1945, the crucial Battle of the Bulge was over. Some 610,000 Americans fought there, suffering 85,500 casualties. The German war machine was forced to retreat and defend their homeland. On May 7, 1945, World War II in Europe was over and Hitler was dead.

Wally Connelly survived and is glad he served. "People need to know how much sacrifice our soldiers made," he said. "Had we lost, things would be so different..."

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

Honoring the veterans...

Wally Connelly attends Christ the King Lutheran Church in Coeur d'Alene that has a Veterans Ministry interviewing military veterans of all wars to preserve their legacy.

It took lots of ammo...

Unlike with today's sophisticated weaponry, it took a lot of ammunition to do the job in World War II.

U.S. Air Force sources report that the Germans had to fire sixteen thousand 88mm flak shells to shoot down one Allied bomber.

Even on the ground it was costly. The U.S. Army fired 10,000 rounds of ammo for each enemy soldier wounded, and 50,000 for each one killed.

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