The Battle of the Bulge was the last-ditch offensive action of Germany during World War II. American troops were caught unprepared on front lines which stretched from Belgium and France onto the German border, called the Siegfried line.
The America troops had little battle experience. They were told the by US intelligence sources which were monitoring German communications that it would be a ‘Ghost Front’ – and there would be no trouble.
On December 12-15 the weather shifted. Snow and fog made the perfect cover for a German advance of SS troops. These were Germany’s most experienced fighters.
The 106th American Infantry, called the Golden Lions (shoulder insignia above) had one division spread over a thin 26 mile line. The most the military manuals ever suggested was a five mile line.
This prepared them for disaster…
On December 16th the German forces were spotted.
The 106th held off the German advance for nearly three days, earning them the legendary title, ‘The Lions of St. Vith’.
December 19th – two divisions of the Golden Lions were surrounded by the Germans and were ordered by their American commander to surrender.
December 19th – 7,000 American soldiers became prisoners of Germany.
Two thousand of these men went to Bad Orb, Germany.
They arrived the day after Christmas, 1944.
Of these two thousand, 350 were selected for the slave labor camp of Berga, because they were Jewish, or appeared Jewish, according to their SS captors.
Of these 350 men – sixty-three survived Berga.
Holocaust Remembrance Day on the Jewish calendar is the 10th of Tevet. This year, the 10th of Tevet falls on December 28. It is a day of mourning, fasting and prayer.
In 1944, the 10th of Tevet fell on December 26th.
The following is a fictionalized account of the above history from a longer draft of my novel, Red Trouble.
For a fair warning – its a war story – the excerpt contains language and violence.
(All rights reserved.)
The 10th of Tevet: A Red Trouble Excerpt
by A. R. Mitchell
Near St. Vith Belgium
December 19, 1944
We crawled forward on our bellies through the snow and muck. The ice was thin and couldn’t hold our weight. Our uniforms froze with the water from the creek bed, our exhaustion making it more difficult to move. The ice made us cold. The mud made it impossible for us to move.
Bullets flew our over our heads. We kept low in the trench.
The trench grew deeper and we seemed to be skirting a hillside on our right and a plain on our left. Another shot. It could have been friendly fire. None of us knew at this point. Broder stopped crawling.
He held up his hand and moved to his pocket, carefully unfolding a map. I crawled up beside him. “Where are we?”
“The Howitzer guns should be out there.”
I took a chance to peek over the edge.
Someone saw movement and fired.
I hit the dirt. “They were out there.”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. “I saw a couple of burnt tires and a mangled pipe barrel.”
“Damn.” Broder’s voice cracked.
We both took another look.
There were uniforms coming. Dark uniforms silhouetted against the fog and smoke which bled through the trees. The helmets had a flat brim and hung down over the back of their skulls.
These were not American soldiers.
They met us before we could run, shoving their bayoneted rifles in our faces. They demanded our weapons.
Broder looked toward me and nodded, reluctantly laying down his rifle. “Name, rank and serial number. That’s all.”
I nodded in reply, placing the pistol on the ground before me and raising my hands above my head.
The two men argued for a moment.
Broder whispered to me, “They’re debating if they’re going to shoot us or not.”
The one snarled at us and knocked Broder to the ground. He got back to his feet, rage in his eyes.
“March!” the one ordered us.
We kept our hands high and our eyes on the ground.
The snow was past my boots in some places, and as the Nazis marched us onward, it was clear that our situation was becoming more and more desperate by the mile. We joined with another unit of ragtag prisoners. These were Americans too… among the men, I spotted numerous insignia, not just my own.
Men from the 100th, the 29th, the 28th, and the 99th American infantries were huddled against the cold, looks of hard resolve on their young faces. We had yet to set into the unbalanced confusion and blatant torture which would become our lives for the next few months. Right now we were angry.
We clomped down the road, many of us unable to feel our feet as the temperature dropped and we were forced to keep going. The enemy offered us no water. If they had we would have spit it in their faces. We’d grown used to the cold. It was that night I remembered that I’d left my shelter half in the woods of Belgium, near Snow Plateau.
Somehow, when I’d bolted from the enemy, it hadn’t seemed important. It wasn’t important now either… I tried to remind myself as we kept walking.
We walked. Walked. And kept walking.
We marched in a loose formation of tired men lead by our German captors for nearly three days.
Then they showed us the boxcars.
Boxcars are for livestock. They are for animals. Animals which are not housebroken, need to be contained, and are beasts which cannot understand that they are being taken to provide for others. Usually in the form cattle being slaughtered.
People do not belong in boxcars.
Even in the desperate times of the 1930s, when jobs were few and starvation was all too common, and men were jumping into boxcars to ride the rails in search of jobs… only a dozen or so ever sat in a boxcar. We all knew the dangers and had heard the stories of hobos ending up in filled grain cars, or being thrown off trains by the railroad police. But even then, those were men who had no other choice.
Now, we had a choice: Get in the boxcars, or die.
They packed us into the boxcars. Packed us like meat. We had yet to realize that they did not view us as an enemy – they viewed us as something less than an enemy. But that realization would come later, after weeks of humiliation.
Looking back, the boxcars were when it all started….
We were crammed into them, and then locked into darkness. Guys were coughing at the heat, others were starting to realize our situation. The deadbolt on the boxcar’s door brought it home to me.
It was like hearing the nails hammered into your own coffin.
And then the whispers began.
“Where are they taking us?”
“I’ve heard of them doing this to Jews before killing them.”
“But we’re not Jewish.”
“Some of us are.”
“They can’t do that… can they?”
“No. They can’t do that. We’re American soldiers. In uniform. Its in the Geneva convention.”
We heard a train whistle and felt the car rock forward with a slow motion pull. Most of us were exhausted. Several fell into each other.
I was crushed against a wall for a moment.
I fought for a breath.
The young man on top me righted himself. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Great. Even in the dark he could tell I was older than him. “It’s all right,” I replied.
“How many of us are here?” Broder spoke from the darkness. I recognized his accent. From what I could tell, he was nearest the door. “I’ll start the count. Tap the guy next to you for the next sound off. One!”
We got up to a hundred and twenty.
One hundred and twenty men inside a boxcar built for fifty cattle.
I could barely move my feet. My shoulders were pinched into the corner and I could feel the train rocking me sideways, each moment slamming my shoulders into the corners of the boxcar.
The air inside grew hot. So hot that the inside of the boxcars dripped with condensation like a glass of beer on a hot day. I took a breath.
Then the young man who’d bumped into me threw up.
That was the beginning of the sickness.
If the boxcars had started the dehumanizing treatment, wearing someone else’s stomach acid was like graduation at basic training.
Some of the guys in the car were upset. The smell lingered. Not just on me, but it filtered around the car, causing more sickness.
Broder pushed his way through the crowd. “C’mon son.” He led the kid to spot against the wall. “There’s a crack here –”
“I can’t see it.”
“That’s because it after dark,” Broder explained. “Breathe in the cold air, then step aside so it can come in.” He called over the noise of the train, so all could hear. “Joes, if you’ve got a loose board, or if you’re close to the walls see if you can get some of the boards off. We’ve got to get some air in here, or it’ll be… worse than it already is.”
What Broder hadn’t said, was that if we didn’t get better air flow, we’d suffocate. I knew this because I’d been in bank vaults. I’d learned to hold my breath, but that wouldn’t stop the suffocation.
We forced several boards loose over the next few hours. I found a floorboard and started working with it. Anything to keep my mind busy. Anything to keep all of us from our fears. We’d been trained for battle. But they’d never spoken of this….
There was a low buzzing noise.
“What’s that?” one of the men asked.
“Sounds like one of our bomber planes,” another answered.
“That’s what I thought too.”
“Think they’re coming to get us out?”
The roaring of the plane was so close it made our chest cavities thunder. We starting yelling and banging on the walls, screaming and calling out to the crew. It didn’t make sense that they’d hear us – but we did what we could to produce our own miracles in those days.
And we heard screaming of a different sort.
“They’re dropping bombs!”
The train car shook and shuddered.
We felt the ground trembling. We heard the screaming and the whoosh of the explosions. We saw the fire flashes and felt the heat. This went on the whole night.
By day we grew sicker. By night we were bombed. Hurling and dysentery were common. We never got medical attention or even water. We had some straw. When that ran out, letters from home were used as toilet paper.
I had no one to write me letters.
I leaned in the corner.
Most of us were too weak to stand. Others had dropped from exhaustion.
The bombs continued to rain.
There were some of us on the floor who were dead.
Whether it was exhaustion or suffocation we didn’t know.
Broder didn’t even stop to check.
“Is this how things are supposed to be?” a young man finally asked.
“My sarge said ‘only to give them your name, rank, and serial number.’”
“They haven’t asked us that.”
“They never even spoke to me.”
“They arrested everyone in my unit…”
“Yeah. They put them on a different train… I think. Not sure.”
“Nobody’s sure of much.”
“I’ve heard rumors…”
“I thought they were quitting.”
“Then we won’t have long to wait.”
“Wait for what..?”
“Wait for rescue. We’ll be all right.”
The bombing started again.
That was the only reason we knew what time it was. We could identify the planes and determine if they were British or American. The British bombed at night, the Americans during the day.
“Why are they trying to kill us!?” one soldier cried. “Don’t they know!?”
“Its these damned boxcars! They can’t tell if we’re prisoners and their own countrymen! They think we’re supplies for the enemy.”
He started to weep. The weeping turned into a howl. I knew if something wasn’t done then everyone would either gang up and kill the kid, or we’d all be crying without restraint or resolve.
Someone picked the kid up and pulled him through the crowd. “C’mon soldier.”
The floor was slick with dysentery. Each step had to be carefully navigated in order to not fall and be injured or accidentally trampled. The quiet voiced man pulled the crying younger man into the darkness. “C’mon soldier. Come with me. I’m Chaplain Mac Lawrence. We’ll talk… The rest of you… Sing Christmas carols. Its December 25th.”
A murmur of wonder and shock sounded throughout the car.
“Is it really Christmas, Chap?”
“By my logbook it is,” Chaplain Lawrence replied. “Been trying to keep a record since we were captured.”
“Christmas sermon, Chap?” the young man asked.
“Sing a couple a Christmas carols first,” Chaplain Lawrence assured us. “I’m sorry I don’t know anything Jewish.”
“That’s all right, Chap,” Broder replied. “We know all of yours. And we could use some divine company…”
“Divine company…” the chap mused. “Emmanuel – God with us.”
From the back of the boxcar a Joe with a baritone voice started off in a mellow haunting tune, “Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel. And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in exile here; Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to you, O Israel!”
I remembered the song from childhood. So did a lot of the other Joes. The bombs rained down in defiance of our celebration, but defiance was going to become our lifeline.
Somewhere in Germany
December, 26th 1944
Day 3 of Traveling inside the Boxcars
In the silence between the bombing raids and dawn I heard, a quiet realization from the man next to me. “If yesterday was December 25, then today is the 10th of Tevet.”
“What’s that?” one of the other Joes asked.
“It’s a day of fasting, mourning and prayer for repentance,” the first man explained. “It commemorates the day that the King of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem in 425 B.C.”
“Just what are we repenting from?” a third voice sneered. “All I did was kill some damned Nazis!”
Other voices broke out. It was a mix of reverence, sadness and pure rage.
I stood in the corner… knowing what was coming. Our tempers were short from the lack of humanity we’d experienced. We’d been taught to fight, and that was what we did.
The second man cracked the Joe next to me across the jaw. I heard the noise of another few getting slammed into each other. A scuffle was breaking out.
Some moved out of the way.
Others joined in.
I could just barely see one man was on the floor. The other was pounding him. Three others had gathered, yelling and cheering them on.
“ENOUGH!” Broder yelled, shoving his way through the fight. “Save your energy and anger! We as people choose how we react – and the whole damn world chose ways that resulted in suffering.” He pushed the two men from each other, holding them at arms’ length, standing between them. “You – as individuals – choose how you react! Dammit! Man up! Our enemies are the ones who put us in here! Not each other!”
Suddenly, the boxcar lurched to a halt.
We paused, staring up at the darkened ceiling, listening for planes. We heard nothing.
Then there were shouts outside. The language was German.
Our hopes of rescue fell.
The chaplain offered up a quick prayer as we struggled to right ourselves from the jolt. On a good day, it wouldn’t have bothered us. But this was not a good day. There had been no good days since we’d been taken prisoner.
It hurt to flex my knees. I’d had them locked for nearly three days. The muscles were stiff and the joints protested with cracking.
Broder was first to speak after the chaplain’s ‘Amen.’ “Remember… only name, rank and serial number… They can’t do anything else to us. We’re protected under the laws of the Geneva convention. We are to be treated humanely.”
Red Trouble will be released early 2018.
This past September, I was privileged to meet a veteran of the 106th. He spoke at the yearly Eisenhower Farm’s World War II weekend in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The World War II reenacting unit that I am currently a member of portrays the 106th Infantry, the Golden Lions, every year to commemorate the Battle of the Bulge at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. See the link for more information.
Other sources include:
Battle of the Bulge Information
Battle of the Bulge – US Army Center of Military History: https://history.army.mil/html/reference/bulge/index.html
106th Infantry Information
The Desperate Hours: http://usdefensewatch.com/2015/11/the-desperate-hours-the-demise-of-the-106th-infantry-division-during-the-opening-desperate-hours-of-the-battle-of-the-bulge/
The 106th Infantry Division – History Research Remembrance: http://106thinfantry.webs.com/historyofthe106th.htm
Saddles and Sabers: Timeline of St. Vith: http://www.benning.army.mil/armor/eARMOR/content/issues/2014/OCT_DEC/Timeline.html
106th Insignia: https://www.militaryvetspx.com/10diremipa3.html
106th Prisoner of War: Originally from the National Archives, can be found throughout the internet.
Prisoner of War Information
Berga Prisoner of War Camp: http://www.indianamilitary.org/German%20PW%20Camps/Prisoner%20of%20War/PW%20Camps/Berga/History.htm
Berta: Soldiers of Another War, produced by Charles Guggenheim: https://www.amazon.com/Berga-Soldiers-Another-Charles-Guggenheim/dp/B0006H4DD2/ref=pd_sim_14_3?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=71GAPHM86DCY45XG0BWB
Given Up For Dead, by Flint Whitlock: https://www.amazon.com/Given-Up-Dead-American-Concentration/dp/0465091156
Soldiers and Slaves: American POWS Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble, by Roger Cohen: https://www.amazon.com/Soldiers-Slaves-American-Trapped-Gamble/dp/0385722311/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=VMY6CZ3H8N13WXSTW4B9
Guests of the Third Reich: http://guestsofthethirdreich.org/capture/
Hitler’s GI Death Camp: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/explorer/articles/facts-hitlers-gi-death-camp/
Hebrew Calendar/ 10th of Tevet Information
What is the 10th of Tevet: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tenth-of-tevet/
Jewish Calendar: http://www.jewfaq.org/calendar.htm
10th of Tevet Dates/ Conversions: http://www.hebcal.com/hebcal/?year=1944&v=1&month=x&yt=G&nx=on&i=off&vis=0&D=on&d=on&c=off&geo=zip&maj=on&min=on&mod=on and https://www.hebcal.com/hebcal/?year=2017&v=1&month=x&yt=G&nx=on&o=on&vis=on&d=on&c=off&maj=on&min=on&mod=on#cal-2017-12
World War II Living History/Reenacting Links:
National Park Service Eisenhower Farm – World War II Weekend: https://www.nps.gov/eise/planyourvisit/event-details.htm?event=C50DC83A-155D-451F-67FAC14CBFF20E3B
World War II Historical Association: Battle of the Bulge Commemoration: http://www.wwiiha.org/index.php/battle-bulge/public-information
Other Red Trouble Excerpts: (Its changed a lot since this draft. – Fair warning.) https://damselflyonabookshelf.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/surprise-story-part-1-red-trouble/
O Come, Oh Come Emmanuel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD-jBLZSZNU
History of the Hymn O Come, Oh Come Emmanuel: http://www.aproundtable.org/history-blog/blog.cfm?ID=880&AUTHOR_ID=9