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A Veteran of the Bulge

Bernie Barenbrugge

    This is Benjamin Bernard Barenbrugge’s account of some of his experiences as a young soldier in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was part of the 10th Armored "Tigers," who fought bravely at the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

2002, 2009 Lyn Barenbrugge

    In November 1942, at the ripe old age of 21 and compliments of the draft, I was sent to the Induction Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, Indiana. I pulled kitchen KP there for a few days and was then sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where I joined Company E of the 54th Armored Infantry Regiment. This was part of the 10th Armored Division. Here I went through about a year of intense infantry basic training. This was hell and a lot of hard work, but we also had a lot of fun drinking beer at the PX in the evenings. That helped to get me through it, and the homesickness. I really missed the old hometown of Dunkirk, Indiana, and my folks. I especially missed Luenette Turner, a girl from Muncie, Indiana, whom I had begun dating about eight months before I left.

    The division then moved to Camp Gordon, Georgia. We had two more months of training and maneuvers in the mountains of Tennessee. I spent three months at a communications school at Fort Knox, where I was promoted from Buck Sergeant to Technical Sergeant and was made the Communications Sergeant for the company. This made me responsible for all communications for the Company Commander between our platoons and the battalion headquarters. This was done with either the radio or telephone equipment. Our main radio was a large unit mounted in the half-track, which we rode in during combat. It operated off the half-track battery and had a long whip-like antenna. It had a range of several miles. We also had smaller portable radios, which were carried by the platoon leaders.

    In addition to the radios, we had phones in all the necessary places. These were all battery operated and connected by phone wire. They were only used when we were in a dug-in, fixed position. It was my job to string the wire between all the locations. Stringing wire at night, through a bunch of trigger-happy guys in foxholes, was a little scary at times. I had to keep all of this equipment repaired and in good working order. It was a big job, but I liked it. I rode in the company commander’s half-track (two wheels in the front and tracks in the back, and it held ten guys). We had a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a turret in the front and a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on a pedestal in the back. The guys in my company were all general, run-of-the-mill GIs. Just a bunch of average good guys, wanting to get the war over with so they could return home.

Bernie3.jpeg (34643 bytes)    The division began to get ready to ship to Europe, so Luenette and I decided to get married before I shipped out. She traveled down to Camp Gordon by train. We were married June 26, 1944, by the post chaplain, Father John Jedlowski, in the little white frame Post Chapel No. 7. It was a short but sweet ceremony, around 6 p.m., on a Monday evening. It wasn’t fancy, but it was legal. Afterwards, we all went to a hotel in Augusta for dinner. I had a three-day pass, so we also honeymooned in Augusta. Our wedding party consisted of best man John Pippert of Cincinnati, who was also my best army buddy; Augusta native Ellen Biggar was maid of honor; her aunt, Roberta Biggar, and her friend, Hazel Word, were also in the party.

    John and I had met Roberta and Hazel soon after we arrived at Camp Gordon. They were two real nice elderly Southern ladies who were doing their part for the war effort by entertaining soldiers. They had a fine home and invited us in for Sunday dinners. Their favorite menu was fried chicken with all the trimmings and plenty of Mint Juleps. It sure was good! Luenette stayed and in a couple of weeks I was granted an unexpected 10-day furlough, so we went home to Indiana together. In the meantime, the division cooled off. I went back to camp and Luenette came back down to Georgia later and stayed a few more weeks until I was sent out. It was here at Camp Gordon that our regiment’s name was changed to the 20th Armored Infantry, B Company.

    On September 11, 1944, the 10th Armored "Tigers" (which had become our nickname) shipped out of New York. We were about 10,000 strong at that time. I was one of the poor souls on the USS General William M. Black troop ship. We slept in bunks in the lower part of the boat and it was hot and stinky down there. We ate in the ship’s mess hall. The cooks, if you could call them that, were Navy men and the food was terrible. I ate very little, because I couldn’t keep it down. I was seasick the whole trip. The weather was rough and the ship did a lot of bouncing around. We were all afraid because German subs were sighted near our convoy many times. Our destroyers were dropping depth charges in an attempt to destroy them. This went on for the 12 extremely long days it took us to cross the Atlantic. I don’t know if any of the subs were sunk or not.

    The only entertainment we had during this time were card and crap games (for those that were able). We landed at Cherbourg, France, on September 23, 1944, after one helluva rough crossing. I was never so glad to get off a boat in my whole life. We immediately pitched our tents in a big muddy field. We were here a month and spent most of our time in more training and getting our weapons, equipment and vehicles ready for combat. We did get to walk around Cherbourg some. It was a picturesque old French town. I was able to write home.

    On October 24, 1944, we were on the move. We had been assigned to General George Patton’s Third Army. We passed through Paris, where we were greeted with great joy by the French people. They gave us flowers and cider to drink. We gave them cigarettes, and candy for the kids. They were all so happy the Germans were gone. We moved on out of Paris and after that it was a continuous fight, taking one town after another.

    Our first contact with the Germans was November 2, 1944, at Metz, France, and Fort Driant. Germans had occupied the fort and we exchanged artillery fire for a couple of days, until the fort was reduced to gravel and these particular Germans were no longer a problem. From there on, it was pure hell. We chased those damn Germans from town to town. They shelled us and we shelled them. We both took a of casualties. There was no hand to hand combat; all the killing was done by tank fire and artillery.

    I guess I had a guardian angel riding on each of my shoulders. We ate K rations on the run and slept very little. There was no time to clean up. General Patton’s theory was, "When you have them on the run, keep them on the run!" There was no rest for the weary. It was our job during combat to provide flank protection for the tanks from the enemy infantry. Wherever the tanks went, we went.

    On December 17, we received orders to move north, as the Germans were making a large counterattack. December 18, we arrived in Bastogne, Belgium, and hit the Germans head-on. This had to be the roughest day of my service. We were completely out-numbered and surrounded. We held them off for eight miserable days. On December 26, 1944, the 4th Armored Division broke through the lines to help us. Were we glad to see them! We had run out of tank and artillery ammo. We were also out of fuel for the tanks. We were being supplied from the air by large C-47 transports parachuting in ammo, fuel and food.\

    I had plenty of winter clothing, so that wasn’t a problem for me. Our main problem was hunger. We had no food. Between artillery barrages, we scrounged through empty houses in Bastogne. The civilians were all gone and we gathered up a lot of home-canned vegetables and meat they had left behind. We built a fire in a wood-burning stove in the kitchen of the house we were in and made a huge pot of stew. This was on Christmas Eve, and the stew was just about ready to eat and then WHAM! The Germans were bombing Bastogne. One bomb hit in our back yard. Luckily, we were in the front part. Needless to say, the stew, along with the back half of the house, was gone! We all grabbed our gear, ran across the street and went into the basement of a large Catholic cathedral. The bombing went on all night and so did our praying. The dawn finally came and the bombing stopped. The cathedral and all its occupants were spared, thank the good Lord! The Germans then dropped parachute troops on the town. There was snow on the ground and all their paratroopers were garbed in white to conceal themselves. Thanks to our crack riflemen, they were quickly eliminated. This was no doubt the worst ordeal of my entire Army career. Hunger, capture and death seemed imminent. Under these circumstances you do some serious praying and think a lot of your loved ones, while you’re following orders to survive.

    On January 29, 1945, we finally left Bastogne, and the Battle of the Bulge was over. After having been relieved at Bastogne, we headed back south. Our orders were to push the Germans further back into Germany. The Army engineers literally built our bridges as we moved. They got a good workout. The Germans blew every bridge across each river we had to cross. Our engineers built new bridges made of large rubber pontoons, lashed together and anchored to the river bed. They placed steel grid channels across the pontoons, spaced far enough apart to accommodate our tank tracks. I really felt sorry for these engineers, as this was a hard and dangerous job. German artillery would blow these bridges up as fast as they built them. Then our artillery had to go to work and knock out their artillery. Sometimes this went on for days. When we could, we would rest up in some little nearby town. We made three major river crossings: the Saar, Rhine and Danube. We took over 150 towns and cities. Some of the major ones were: Trier, Kaiserslautern and Mannheim.

    Our company commander, Capt. Omar Billet, was killed in action April 1, 1945, at Crailsheim. Our column had come under artillery fire and the captain and his jeep driver had gone up ahead to a little white church with a tall steeple. They climbed up in the steeple, hoping to locate the enemy fire. The Germans spotted them and they laid an artillery round right on the steeple and they were both killed instantly. Their bodies were placed on doors off the church and brought back to camp on the hoods of jeeps. Capt. Billet was without a doubt the best officer we had. We all missed him very much. He was the most fearless and kindest man I ever met. I remember one night we were in foxholes on the side of a muddy hill. It was cold and pouring rain. The Germans were shelling us. The captain was walking through our area checking to see if everyone was okay. My buddy and I were in a hole together. When the Captain came by, he asked us how we were doing. We said we were doing okay, but we were cold. He took off his trench coat and threw it over us. He said, "Maybe this will help a little," and walked on.

    So many of our buddies died. Our company jeep driver, Sanders, was killed; as well as, Lt. Col. J.J. Richardson, by artillery fire near Kirchen, Germany. Richardson was well liked by all the troops and was a good leader. The word was he had the biggest pair of field glasses in the division, but he never kept them in their case. He kept two fifths of Scotch in the case, to ward off the chills. Ha! We proceeded on through Germany and into Austria. The Germans had blown the road off the side of the mountain, so we had to stop. We pulled back to Murnau, Germany. It was May 1945, and thank God the War was over!

    I was transferred from company headquarters to battalion headquarters and assigned to S-2 intelligence. Our job was to round up any Germans still hiding in the mountains or woods. Willie Messerschmidt, the designer of the German fighter plane, was among those we captured. Our division took over 6,000 prisoners of war. Most of these were taken toward the end of the war. They would come running out of the fields and woods to our tank column, waving white flags and yelling "Kamerad!" We would send them to the back of the column, where the foot soldiers would escort them to prisoner-of-war camps. The photos used in this document were taken on a camera that had been "confiscated" from a German POW.

    We liberated a concentration camp holding several thousand Polish soldiers. We gave them all of the extra candy and cigarettes we had. Boy, were they happy! We never saw any American soldiers in camps in our area. Most of the homeowners had migrated ahead of our columns, deeper into Germany, out of harm’s way. When we reached Murnau, we received some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

    We stayed in some big, fancy houses that we had taken over on the shores of Lake Staffelsee. It was a beautiful lake in the Alps, with a nice swimming beach. Almost all the civilians were in their homes in this area, as there was no fighting here. We went swimming, boating, and they even had a stable of riding horses. I was one of the lucky few from our battalion who won a two-week pass to London and Paris in a "hat drawing." We saw about all the major attractions we could. Most of the major shows and restaurants were still closed because of the war. The thing that impressed me the most in London were the areas that were hit by the German V-bombs. There was nothing left but big piles of brick as far as the eye could see. This used to be factories, stores and homes. What a disastrous sight. It is hard to imagine what these poor people went through.

    For my three years’ service, I did receive a few awards to help ease the pain. On a sunny day in May, our battalion assembled in a big field close to Murnau, and the commanding general of the 10th Armored Division, Major General Fay B. Pricket, presented all of us with our awards and citations. Unfortunately, there were no families present. No photographs were given to us individually. They probably all went to division headquarters. There was no reception either.

    I received awards for Good Conduct, Marksmanship and Combat Infantry. I won a Bronze Star for crawling, under artillery fire, to reach Johnny Smith, a wounded member of my squad. I dragged him back to a bomb crater where several of us had taken shelter. Thankfully, his wounds weren’t too serious and he was able to continue on with us. Appleton, another squad member, wasn’t as lucky. We had to leave him lay for the graves people to pick up. What a shame. I was also awarded the Purple Heart for a small shrapnel wound to my right hand, received while under German artillery fire. I guess I zigged when I should have zagged. I was lucky my guardian angel was with me again! I was also awarded a Campaign Ribbon with three Battle Stars. Our Battalion also received the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for our part in the Battle of the Bulge. We were all very proud of this award, and it was presented to us by Major General Anthony McAuliffe, the general who told the Germans "Nuts!" when they asked him to surrender at Bastogne.

    In September 1945, I received the sad news from the Red Cross that I should come home as soon as possible, because my mother was in the hospital and was not expected to live. Her appendix had burst and gangrene had set in. It was over a month before I could get home. I wasn’t able to get a plane out, because they were all being used to return doctors and medical staff and patients to the States. Since I couldn’t get a plane, I had to go to France and wait for a boat. By the time I arrived home, Mother had recovered and was up doing her housework! I came home through Camp Atterbury and was processed and discharged from there in October 1945. My three years of service were over and I was home to stay!

– Edited by Lyn Barenbrugge

e-mail Lyn Barenbrugge

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