Vets remember Battle of the Bulge

By Rick LaFrombois
Wausau Daily Herald

With each last breath taken by a World War II veteran, a piece of oral history is being lost from what many consider to be America's Greatest Generation.

Two decades ago, there were more than 230 members of a local chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. The Battle of the Bulge was the war's largest land battle. It began Dec. 16, 1944, and lasted about a month.

Fewer than half, or 102, of the local Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge -- the nation's first chapter, which was formed in 1983 -- still live.

About 30 of the remaining local Battle of the Bulge veterans gathered Saturday at the Marathon County Courthouse to commemorate the loss of their comrades 61 years ago and to celebrate the lives of those still standing beside them.

Retired Wisconsin Army National Guard Lt. Col. Lyonel Wisnewski of Wausau addressed the veterans at the courthouse, calling them "national heroes" who sacrificed the spring of their lives to embody "duty, honor and country" on the road to launching the world's greatest economic superpower.

Those heroes now are in the winter of their lives, but their legacy and memories live on. Here's how a few of them remember the Battle of the Bulge:

u Woody Timler, 91, of Rothschild was drafted into the Army when he was 30 years old, married and father of a 7-year-old son. He joined the Army's 4th Armored Division in April 1944 and spent Christmas Eve in a basement in Bastogne, Belgium. Most days, Timler slept outside with little more than a couple of blankets to shield him from the bitter winter cold.

"One morning I woke up and I had four inches of snow on me," he said. "I always thought, 'Why didn't I freeze my hands and feet?'"

Born and raised in central Wisconsin, Timler was used to cold and snow, but his thoughts rested with a man in his unit from Louisiana who had never experienced either before the war.

Despite fearing the worst, both survived.

u Wes Cooper, 80, of Wausau recalls a rag-tag bunch of soldiers with worn-out equipment who stubbornly staved off a last-ditch effort by the German army to push its way west into Belgium and Luxembourg.

Soldiers from both sides endured 10 days of fog, sleet, snow and temperatures that dipped to 40 below zero.

"The Germans were suffering, too," Cooper said. "Many of them only had summer coats."

Cooper recalls being surrounded in Bastogne by enemy forces and being down to only two clips of ammunition when Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams rolled in to help break the circle and liberate the troops.

"We were the hole in the donut," Cooper said.

On his march out, Cooper recalls reading the dog tags of several dead German soldiers. They were 14 years old and their rifles had yet to be discharged. The boys had frozen to death.

Toward the end of the war, Hitler had resigned himself to enlisting the young and old to fight his battles.

u The German soldiers were still game for battle, even though it is said they didn't come close to winning it, said Ervin Kolpitcke, 83, of Wausau.

Kolpitcke, 19 at the time, vividly remembers German soldiers coming out of the woods in all directions "like a swarm of bees.

"We will never get over the feeling, the strain, the fear, the awesomeness of the commotion going on around us," Kolpitcke said. "The fear of where are you going to get hit next? They were all over.

"Sixty-one years ago, who the hell would believe that we would still be around? Like all World War II vets, we're a dying breed. Statistics show there is 1,800 World War II veterans dying every day. But that's life, isn't it?"


· The coldest, snowiest weather “in memory” in the Ardennes Forest on the German/Belgium border.

· Over a million men, 500,000 Germans, 600,000 Americans (more than fought at Gettysburg) and 55,000 British.

· 3 German armies, 10 corps, the equivalent of 29 divisions.

· 3 American armies, 6 corps, the equivalent of 31 divisions.

· The equivalent of 3 British divisions as well as contingents of Belgian, Canadian and French troops.

· 100,000 German casualties, killed, wounded or captured.

· 81,000 American casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed.

· 1,400 British casualties 200 killed.

· 800 tanks lost on each side, 1,000 German aircraft.

· The Malmedy Massacre, where 86 American soldiers were murdered, was the worst atrocity committed against American troops during the course of the war in Europe.

· The 106th Infantry Division, average age of 22 years, suffered 564 killed in action, 1,246 wounded and 7,001 missing in action at the end of the offensive. Most of these casualties occurred within the first three days of battle, when two of the division’s three regiments was forced to surrender.

· In it's entirety, the “Battle of the Bulge,” was the worst battles- in terms of losses - to the American Forces in WWII.

Just remember no matter how hectic or chaotic this holiday season is, no matter how stupid people act, regardless of how cold it is, wether or not you got what you wanted for christmas, no matter what a pain in the butt the family may be, just remember, for these men in December 1944 the previous was the very very least of their concerns.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Be safe.