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A tribute to those who courageously served in the Battle of the Bulge and to veteran Adrain Owen who tells the story.
By Sue Curry Jones
In late 1944, subsequent to the allied forces’ successful D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, it appeared as if World War II was all but over. But on December 16, along with the arrival of winter, the German army launched a counter attack meant to hack through Allied strongholds, and turn the surge of the war over to Hitler’s favor.
The historic battle fought during those harsh winter months is known as The Battle of the Bulge, and it’s a true story about the bravery, resolve and willpower of the American soldiers that fought the battle.
The battle was an offensive plan of attack that not only caught American soldiers by surprise, but it also occurred during an extremely bad winter filled with snow and ice-covered terrain, and temperatures of 35º below zero.
Historians have noted that the encounter was the biggest and bloodiest single battle American soldiers ever fought –– one in which hundreds of thousands American soldiers were killed, maimed or captured.
During the winter of 1944-45, more than 500,000 American troops were deployed to the Ardennes Forest where the battle was fought. A shocking number would be wounded or killed. The Bulge is considered the most horrible battle fought in World War II, and yet, it is also one of the most important, because it was the fight that gave freedom the victory.
But, for American soldiers, the battle was a true test of fortitude and determination.
American forces were predominately comprised of young men in their teens, as many were just out of high school.
One of those young foot soldiers was Adrian Owen, age 19, of Ava. Adrian served on the frontline of the Ardennes battle where he fought against Hitler’s forces and tried to be a good soldier –– but most of all, he fought to stay alive.
The Germans, who had managed to keep their offensive plan a secret, sought to split the Allied armies stronghold by driving through to the English Channel. The Germans put their offensive plan into action on Dec. 16, with over 200,000 troops and nearly 1,000 tanks. The first attack was made into the Ardennes Forest, an area occupied by four American divisions.
Owen was transported overseas on the Ship Alexander. The troops were set ashore between Normandy and Le Havre, and shortly thereafter, his troop was enroute to southern France. In southern France, Adrain remembers that it rained all day –– all the time, and the men would dip the water out of their foxholes with helmets. It was impossible to stay dry.
For the most part, soldiers were dressed in light-weight uniforms, with leggings that fit over the shoes and laced up the outside of each leg. Boots were not a standard issue, and even with the leggings covering the top of each shoe, rain and snow would easily fall inside.
As Owen and the soldiers fought their way across the terrain, they would secure old foxholes or dig new ones. Each day was a new experience, and there was no way to predict what was ahead.
One day while clearing an area, Adrian found a sack of potatoes and a slab of bacon. He placed the potatoes in his gas mask pouch for safe keeping, and put the bacon under his uniform. He also secured a thin metal sheet for cooking. For the next few days at meal time, he would cook the bacon and then cook the potatoes in the drippings. Most generally, Lieutenant Burney, who was also nicknamed “Rosie”, would join him.
One night the troop set up camp around a nearby barn, and as usual, Owen built a fire inside the barn to cook bacon and potatoes. The meal was progressing well, when all of a sudden the fire burned through the thin sheet being used as a pan, the grease hit the fire, and the hay ignited.
In minutes, the barn was ablaze, illuminating the troop’s camp site. The fire provided a well-defined silhouette of their location. But, for some reason, the Germans didn’t see the flames that night. However, Adrian had earned a new nickname, “Hillbilly”.
Even though the barn burned, the incident wasn’t a total loss for the men as the shelter had been filled with apples, and for the soldiers, the “baked apples” were suitable to eat. Finding food, either fresh or baked, was akin to finding a treasure –– a treat the Americans and their enemy enjoyed and appreciated.
However, on many occasions, the soldiers would share food items with children. It was always amazing to the soldiers how many kids would come around needing food. If they could, the soldiers would always share.
One evening the troop had the chance to stay in a village and spend the night in the comfort of homes. In the excitement, the soldiers just plopped down on the beds, dirty shoes and all, making a mess on the covers. However, Owen thought differently, and placed a layer of paper across the foot of the bed for his shoes to rest. Later that night, after all the soldiers were asleep, a German woman quietly tapped Owen on the chest, motioned for him to follow, while in German she whispered, “Good soldier, good soldier”. Much to Owen’s surprise, when he arrived in the kitchen, the lady had a small feast of fresh bread, butter and applesauce on the table. She had prepared the provisions in return for his manners, and the respect he displayed by placing his dirty shoes on the paper.
Owen made friends wherever he went. In fact, one day when fighting with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Infantry, he heard “Hey Owen” and recognized a fellow from basic training. He never saw him again.
But, that is what happens in war.
However, one soldier and friend, Edgar Clay of West Virginia, wasn’t just a good pal, but he was also the fellow you wanted by your side –– and when Owen and Clay acted together, their efforts were always a success, whether intentional or accidental.
In one incident when the troop was penned down by machine gun fire, Owen and Clay volunteered to crawl near the site, and shoot the sniper. The two men could easily see the glow of the muzzle, and Clay with his Browning automatic rifle, could hit the target. However, upon eliminating the sniper, the two soldiers realized they were actually on top of a Germans hole and three other Germans were inside. They took the Germans captive.
The next evening Clay and Owen opted to sleep in a nearby hay loft, and as the two men drifted off to sleep, they could hear the snores of other soldiers also resting quietly in the hay. The next morning upon rising, Clay and Owen discovered they were in the loft with German soldiers. However, when the five Germans heard the two Americans talking, they surrendered. Clay and Owen quickly took them captive.
For days after the incidents, Clay and Owen were heroes, and rightly so. Clay had also used his Browning to kill a sniper hiding in a tree, but this time, it was a game of patience. He waited for the right opportunity, and took it.
Heroes during the war came in all shapes and sizes, and with a host of names. One memorable moniker belonged to a soldier the troop called “Sissy”. Sissy could speak a little bit of German, but it was just enough to get by. However, in one event, his German saved the lives of the troop.
Penned down by tanks and flame throwers, the Americans were in a bad situation. In the midst of the battle, and most unexpectedly, the guy called “Sissy” stands up and walks out with his rifle at his side. Speaking German in a loud voice, he repeated over and over, “If you give up, we’ll give hot food.”
And, after this remarkable act of courage, the Germans surrendered.
Needless to say, the men never used the nickname “Sissy” again when addressing the soldier.
During his tour of duty on the frontline, Owen was wounded, and transported to the 128th General Hospital in Paris where he spent six weeks recuperating. His battle injury wasn’t nearly as bad as his feet – they were frozen and black with frostbite. The damage was evident. The doctors, worried about the onset of gangrene wanted to amputate, but Owen wouldn’t agree to sign the papers.
Before returning to the front line of battle, Owen spent seven days in London. His wound had healed, but his feet weren’t quite ready. Little did he know that it would be years before his feet would actually mend, and they would never be restored to health.
Many times during his tour, the troop would “clear out a town” and flush out German soldiers to make an area safe. The task was a one-on-one battle with the Germans, and a street fight that almost always meant violence. However, on one occasion it was a good memory.
Adrian was in the town of Sagan, Germany, and the troop was clearing out the town, when the news was received that the “War is over”. The troop had captured several Germans the day before, but this was a really good day.
For Adrain Owen, there are many more stories to be told and with each and everyone, the details are as crisp and clear as if it just happened. The narratives are amazing, but so is the clarity of memory. The images are branded in his soul.
The Battle of the Bulge is a story about American soldiers who did their part to quell the Nazi advance. They did it under horrible conditions and during unbearable temperatures, nonetheless they did it well. And, like Edgar Clay with his Browning automatic rifle, the American troops succeeded. These men were part of one of the greatest battles in American military history.
After the battle and the end of the war, an appreciative and thankful British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
Indeed, it is.
And, to the frontline soldiers like Edgar Clay from West Virginia, Adrian Owen, of Ava, and a soldier nicknamed “Sissy”, we thank you.
It is truly a pleasure to know you.