Bastogne Christmas

A Normandy Veteran friend of mine met US Veteran Art Schmitz at a commemoration in Eindhoven. Art, a former school teacher from Wisconsin, wrote a story for the ‘Wisconsin Writer’s Competition’ about the Christmas of 1944, spent in the small Belgian city of Bastogne.

“It was Christmas time in the city. The days were short and gloomy, and the area was covered with a blanket of knee deep, gleaming white snow. It made for a dangerous kind of beauty, because anything not white stuck out like a sore thumb.

Art Schmitz

There were a few similarities to the first Christmas. The first letter of that holy city and the one in which I found myself that night in 1944 both began with ‘B’.

There was no room at the inn for the thousands of men positioned at strategic areas in and around the city. Better off, but not much, were the natives of the place. Men, little children and women – like Mary; expecting their first born. All huddled, hungry and cold in dark cellars, praying with the men in the surrounding countryside that the next minute might not be their last on an earth with no obvious peace or goodwill in place.

The only lights in the starless and moonless night of December 24th were the frequent eruptions of bluish white artillery fire growing across the open fields and woods around the city, followed by varying pitches of sound as missiles of steel hurtled toward their objectives in the city and the Domaine Militaire nearby. Punctuated by the even more frequent flashes of small arms from men trying to fend off other men, determined to break through to the city itself.

There was no silence in this night.

This is the way it had been for days before Christmas. In an old Nelson Eddy movie – At the Balalaika, he played the role of a Russian Army officer in World War One. It was Christmas Eve in the trenches, and for one brief moment the war seemed to stop as he sang ‘Stille Nacht’ to his German enemy.

There were few places near this Belgian city where there was light after dark.

One was in the military base Post Office, where anyone not otherwise occupied was pressed into service treating a constant influx of wounded and dying comrades. The other was the Message Center of the 101st Airborne Division HQ. Both areas were completely blacked out as far as light being seen from outside.

In the Message Center, gathered around an old Phillips radio we listened to Radio Berlin doing a request broadcast. Civilians in Germany were asking for Christmas carols to be played to their loved soldier sons serving in Narvik ( Norway), Monte Casino ( Italy) or Novosibirsk (Russia).

For those of us growing up as descendants of German immigrants it was a heart-wrenching irony to hear ‘Oh Tannenbaum’, ‘Stille Nacht’, and long before Irving Berlin wrote ‘I`m dreaming of a white Christmas’, there was Leise Rieselt der Schnee ( or light falls the snow). All the background noise of German steel tearing the city apart and sending more casualties into the Post Office.

Later that evening, several of us posted as outlooks in one of the few intact houses in the area kept a watchful eye for any sign of enemy activity on the countryside through the still unbroken glass of the windows on each side of the unheated house. One man, smarting at having heard German carols began to sing the English Christmas songs we knew. Everyone, even though most didn`t feel much like singing, joined in; anything to feel better about things on this war-torn Christmas Eve.

Soon we heard the sound of the Angels of Death overhead!

The drone of approaching planes above – probably Junkers of the German Luftwaffe stopped our songs. Grabbing our rifles a little tighter, for all the good that would do, we held our breath and waited. And a bright star lit up the sky!

The first planes dropped thermal flares, lighting up the landscape with such a brilliant glare one could have read the fine print of a contract without glasses.

Seconds later, without a word everyone ran to the stairs, literally falling down the steps to the cellar as the area began to rock with the thnderous blasts of exploding bombs and shattered building parts falling down above us. After checking to make sure we were all there, and everyone was safe, there was little talk and eventually we drifted into a fitful sleep.

Awakening on Christmas Day, we saw that our house had taken a direct hit; the 500 pound bomb still on its nose in what had been the only working toilet in the area.

On its descent it had spiraled as it hit the house, just about totally demolishing the place. But it hadn`t exploded!

Clambering our way out of the building, we thanked one of the guys for praying as we`d tumbled our way down into the basement the night before. His comment was, “Someday I`m coming back here to Bastonge for a peaceful Christmas.” As I understand it; he did return……….”

I asked Art about the Combat Cameramen at Bastogne. He told me, “”Our company photog at Bastogne was usually too busy as our bazooka man, but one evening during an aerial bombing, he was rushing around taking flash pictures! We weren’t too thrilled at his drawing possible attention by shooting off flash pictures.”

This is his story…..