From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Nine Days

On December 16, 1944, in one last desperate attempt to finish the war in the European Theatre, the Germans punched through overextended American lines in southern Belgium. A handful of my buddies and I had a frontrow seat at this action, known as the “Battle of the Bulge.”

At the time, I was an infantry aid man on detached service with the 106th Division. When the attack came, I was serving as the medic assigned to a reconnaissance patrol. As the fighting increased in fury, the Germans overran our lines, and we were separated from our unit. We were lost with no maps, no one in command. None of us knew where we were, where the enemy was, or which direction to go to avoid capture or to find our unit.

To complicate matters, we soon discovered that as the Germans advanced, they removed clothing from the American dead—anything for additional warmth against the terrible cold. They also made use of captured American vehicles. So in addition to being completely confused about where we were, who might be around the next bend or behind the next tree—we realized that we could not assume that a man dressed in an American uniform riding in an American vehicle was, in fact, an American soldier.

Even the weather did its best to kill us. The winter of ’44 was one of the bitterest Europe had experienced in many years. Temperatures seldom rose above freezing. It snowed heavily, and a blanket of fog made every shadow a menace. When we lay down to rest—there was no way we could sleep—we bundled ourselves in our overcoats as best we could and let the snow cover us, insulating us from the worst of the wind and cold. To make matters worse for the whole patrol, I had a hacking cough, which I constantly tried to suppress so as not to give away our position.

The wounded suffered the most. Very soon our supply of morphine was used up, so in one way, the cold was a positive thing: It slowed the seepage of blood and partially anesthetized their pain. In another way, the snow and cold were deadly because the wounded were in greater danger of frostbite and freezing to death than the rest of us who half-carried, half-dragged them through the deepening snow.

We floundered, lost, for nine days, hoping to come across our own troops, trying to avoid capture. We were aware of German patrols passing near us. The only times we didn’t curse the snow and fog was during those close calls. The Germans failed to spot us because the weather conditions created a lacelike, billowing curtain between us, providing camouflage when we needed it most.

We struggled through this numbing nightmare, each day expending more of the little strength we had left. We subsisted on a few Army-issue chocolate bars the size of bricks, and about as easy to chew. We counted ourselves lucky to have them. On the ninth day, strain, lack of food and the penetrating cold had worn us down psychologically, as well as physically. Capture seemed only a matter of time.

That evening, as darkness settled in, we found ourselves at the bottom of a slight rise. As we prepared to try to survive yet another night, we heard the sound of moving vehicles.

“Shhh,” someone hissed. We listened. The sound of a horn. An engine starting, then stuttering into silence. Voices purposely lowered. It was too far away to know whether English or German. We crawled to the top of the rise and strained to see down onto the road. Watched. Listened. Americans? Germans in American clothing? American equipment?

Germans using captured American equipment? We waited. No more voices. No clue. We slid back down the rise.

“It’s a road,” we told the wounded. “It looks like American vehicles and soldiers down there.”

“Yeah, but . . . ,” someone said, his voice trailing off. Everyone understood the unspoken. If we were wrong, and they weren’t Americans, we’d be taken prisoner. More likely, we’d be shot. It was rumored among American troops that the Germans had stopped taking prisoners quite a while ago.

We hunkered down to discuss the situation. The wounded were barely holding on, but none complained of their pain; some of the men suffered with seriously frostbitten extremities; by now, my cough sounded like the whooping kind; all of us were stretched taut with the unrelieved tension.

“Well, what should we do? Play it safe and wait till morning to get a better look?”

“Or take the chance they’re us, put our hands up and go over the hill?”

“Maybe we should stay where we are and hope that in the morning, they’ll still be there and then, maybe, we can tell if they’re Americans or Germans.”

“If we do that, the wounded will have to spend another night in this freezing hell. And what about all the guys who have frostbite? They’ll be in worse trouble after another night out here.”

“Yeah, but what if they’re not our troops? The wounded and the frostbites who can hardly walk will be shot first.”

In the end, the wounded, in danger of losing their lives, and the frostbitten, in danger of losing their limbs, refused to jeopardize the rest of us by suggesting we take the risk of showing ourselves this night. The rest of us refused to jeopardize their lives if by waiting a few more hours, we would know for sure.

Impasse. Silence.

Finally, “What’s one more night after all of ’em we’ve been through?” one of the wounded asked.

So it was decided. We would wait until morning.

We prepared for another restless night. I made the wounded as comfortable as possible, then rolled up in my overcoat. We fell quiet, each man weighing the chances of survival, dreaming of home, loved ones. . . .

Suddenly, out of the darkness came a voice from the road, very loud and very clear: “Get those blankety-blank vee-hic-culs moving!” it bellowed, cursing as only an American sergeant can.

Within moments, we had slung the wounded onto our backs, clambered up the rise, over the rise, screaming, “Americans! We’re Americans! Americans! Americans!” We slid and fell down the slope, stumbling and crying, toward our countrymen and safety.

I never saw any of those men of the nine days again. I never knew if the wounded lived, if the frostbitten kept their limbs. I can’t recall even one name. But the memory of their devotion to their comrades, and their courage in the face of incredible odds, remains with me still—and will forever.

Walter F. Peters

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