A True Story from the Battle of the Bulge
The last Nazi offensive of World War II, as experienced by Belgian Andre Meurisse, who was 7 years old at the time and wounded during the December 1944-January 1945 fighting between German and Allied armies.
Story by Frank Jardim
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The Battle of the Bulge, and the Americans’ brave stand at Bastogne in particular, has fascinated me ever since I was a boy when I first heard the stories from the men who survived it, and I watched it dramatized in Hollywood. e Academy Award-winning 1949 movie Battleground remains one of the best, and two episodes of the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers are likewise excellent.
Strategically, the Bulge – which began on December 16, 1944, and continued for five weeks – was one of the most important battles of World War II. It was Hitler’s last all-in gamble to win the war on the Western Front by splitting the Anglo-American line and capturing the port of Antwerp. He came close to pulling it off, but what tripped him up was the tenacity of the American enlisted men and non-commissioned and field-grade officers on the ground who refused to yield. Though it was a watershed for the United States Army (it was their “biggest and baddest” fight; the number of troops involved is eclipsed only by Operation Desert Storm in 1991), they delayed the attacking armies, and time was something the Germans could not spare.
Bastogne, Belgium was important because it was at the confluence of a major road network. Arriving inthe nick of time, American troops thwarted the German infantry, tank, artillery and air attacks for ninedays. The German demand for their surrender was rebuffed with a one-word response: “Nuts!” Encircled and cut off, but undaunted, the Americans held Bastogne until relieved by forces from General George Patton’s Third Army on December 27, 1944.
The defense of Bastogne was a series of small unit actions, and I’ve explored its many battlefields over the years with the guidance of Andre Meurisse, a retired Belgian Army officer who lived through the battle himself as a child. He spent his life in the area and knows the terrain intimately, and his dedication to its history is apparent in the hundreds of relationships he’s established over the decades with battle participants and witnesses. He started giving free tours to Americans in 1965 and has since given thousands of them. My last visit to Bastogne in September 2017 was my third time with Andre, who by then was 80 years old but still sharp and spry, retaining his vise-like handshake. On this last visit, Andre shared his personal experience of the Bulge.
ANDRE WAS JUST 2 years old when Germans occupied his country in His family lived in a little house in the little village of Senonchamps. Like for most boys, soldiers were a source of intense curiosity for Andre. He was awestruck when his uncle Marcel visited in the uniform of the Regiment Chasseurs Ardennais with his cartridge boxes and rifle. Their unit insignia was a wild boar head, and their motto translates to “Resist and bite.” To Andre’s delight, his uncle let him touch his rifle. When the Germans invaded on May 10, 1940, the Belgian military fought back to the extent they could. Heavily outmatched, they were forced to surrender just over two weeks later.
Glimpses of war and the constant presence of German soldiers were a part of Andre’s childhood; but, in the way that perhaps only a child can be, he wasn’t partisan. He often saw planes dogfight in the sky, but he didn’t root for Germany or Britain. A German military encampment set up close to their home and the soldiers took over the family’s kitchen three close to their home and the soldiers took over the family’s kitchen three times a day to cook for the troops.Because the soldiers cooked for the family too, as well as cleaned up, Andre’s mother thought they were a housewife’s dream come true. Some of the soldiers were quite fond of Andre. Two of them once brought him to their firing range not far behind the family home and allowed him to shoot a German Army Kar98 Mauser bolt action. As Andre was only 5 or 6 years old, the soldiers helped him support the rifle so he could fire it safely and not get injured by the heavy recoil. It was his first experience firing a gun. He loved it times a day to cook for the troops. Because the soldiers cooked for the family too, as well as cleaned up, Andre’s mother thought they were a housewife’s dream come true. Some of the soldiers were quite fond of Andre. Two of them once brought him to their firing range not far behind the family home and allowed him to shoot a German Army Kar98 Mauser bolt action. As Andre was only 5 or 6 years old, the soldiers helped him support the rifle so he could fire it safely and not get injured by the heavy recoil. It was his first experience firing a gun. He loved it.
War at a safe distance offered many things of interest to small boys. Andre visited a British Lancasterbomber that crash-landed in a nearby field. The pair of German soldiers “guarding” the aircraft didn’t mind curious local people climbing inside it. For most, it was the first time they saw an airplane up close. Andre was intrigued by the radar-obstructing chaff he found in the fuselage. He couldn’t imagine what the thin aluminum foil strips were for. (Neither could any of the other villagers.) Andre took some home to save for decorating their Christmas tree.
WHILE CRASHED AIRPLANES were a source of fascination for Andre, they were an alarm bell to members of the Belgian resistance. When an allied plane went down, it meant there might be aviators needing rescue. The resistance organized a chain of safe houses to hide downed air crews, help them avoid capture, and get them back to England. Andre’s schoolteacher, Mr. Germain Jacquemin, was an informant for the resistance and maintained hidden bunks in his home for fugitives to rest before moving on. He was betrayed by a fellow Belgian, and the Gestapo beat him savagely and put his bloody body in the trunk of their car with the trunk lid closed on his neck. Every time the car bounced onthe rough road, the trunk bounced on his throat. Andre witnessed his kind teacher’s suffering as the Gestapo drove past his house. That was the last time anyone saw Mr. Jacquemin alive. This was Andre’s first personal connection with the horrors of war. Rather than jeopardize the safety of his family, Andre’s father chose not to aid the resistance in any way. There were German soldiers in his home every day with his wife and son. In effect, his family was already hostage.
After the Allied invasion of France at Normandy, the Belgian resistance was emboldened to act, and civilians paid the price. As the Germans prepared to retreat from Andre’s village, the resistanceattacked a soldier in their rear guard. In response, the German commander ordered the destruction of all houses in Andre’s village. On the scheduled day of destruction, two German soldiers knocked on their door and politely asked for permission to use the second floor to observe the enemy’s front line. Andre’s father agreed for sensible reasons of family preservation. The soldiers carefully hung their loaded MP40 submachine guns on coat pegs by the door and climbed the stairs. For a moment,Andre’s father considered picking one up and killing both Germans when they came down the steps. Hequickly put the reckless thought out of his mind.
When the soldiers came back downstairs a short time later, they thanked the family, picked up their guns and said goodbye. Before departing, one of the soldiers reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of taffy candy for Andre. He told the boy to take it because he didn’t expect to live long enough to eat it. Later that day, September 10, 1944, the Meurisse family saw their first American soldiers. The village was liberated before the fleeing Germans could burn it. Shortly after the American liberation, the body of Mr. Jacquemin was discovered in a field, shot in the back. He was a given a hero’s funeral on September 27, 1944. Andre and his classmates attended.
IN OCTOBER 1944, Andre’s family moved to Bastogne so his father could be closer to the head office of the electric company he worked for. Most thought they had seen the last of the Germans. They were wrong. Two months later, the city was full of battered, disorganized remnants of U.S. units once stationed nearly 30 kilometers to the east, followed by the sudden arrival of fresh American soldiersfrom the 10th Armored and the 101st Airborne Divisions.
The sounds of nearby battle, the incoming casualties and, worst of all, the frequent artillery and air bombardment led Andre’s father to conclude the family had to get out of Bastogne. He thought if they must die, it would be more humane to die in the open trying to escape rather than be crushed under rubble of their burning house. He was not alone. About 20 others had drawn the same conclusions and tied a few possessions to their bicycles, ready to push along the road west.
Andre’s father told him to dress heavily for protection from the bitter cold. They loaded their things on the horse-drawn coal cart of the neighborhood coal man who also hoped to escape the perils of a besieged town. Andre was the only child in their refugee group. They walked northwest out of town along a snowy road toward the village of Hemroulle, which was about 3 miles away. En route, they weresurprised by an American paratrooper who was hidden from view in a foxhole.He jumped up with the bayonet fixed on his M1 rifle and angrily challenged them. Why he was so angry was hard to discern since they did not speak English, but they concluded the soldier did not want civilians in the area. They quickly moved on.
When they reached Hemroulle, a heavy German artillery barrage greeted them. They saw exploding shells strike on either side and close enough for them to feel the concussion. The blasts threw debris high in the air and sent soldiers and their refugee group running for cover. They found shelter in the cellar of a nearby house but the coal man’s horse had to stay outside. They waited about half an hour until the shelling stopped before resuming their trek, but the barrage terrified the horse and it would go no further. Andre’s father transferred their possessions to the bicycles of their fellow refugees who willingly helped them and continued northwest – without the coal man, his horse, or cart – along the road through farmland and forest towards the village of Champs, about 2 miles away. Unfortunately, the battle beat them to it.
BASTOGNE WAS ENCIRCLED by the Germans on December 21, though there was no way Andre’s father could have known that. As he tried to lead his family west to safety, the Germans were trying to break the American lines in his path. When the refugees approached the outskirts of Champs, they heard the sound of heavy rifle and machine gun fire and saw American soldiers running past them toward it. That, and the incoming artillery fire, which they could feel and hear but not see, caused them to run for the cover of ditches along the side of the road. Champs was on the front, so they changed course and took the road south to the village of Mande Saint-Etienne, another 2 miles away, while the sounds of battle continued on their right.
They moved quickly but again the battle blocked their escape. The fighting was pitched. They passedthrough the village and turned west on the paved road to Namur and Brussels. As they approached thevillage’s western outskirts, the noise of nearby small arms fire around them intensified. The refugees ran for shelter in the last house on the left side of the road. Andre, with his short legs, nearly stepped on the bodies of two dead German soldiers on the ground just outside the house.
The refugees piled into the cellar. Soon two American 101st Airborne soldiers joined them to escape the gunfire. Andre noticed that sweat ran off their necks despite the frigid weather. The fighting ebbed and when the soldiers left, they accidentally dropped a pack of cigarettes, which the refugees shared with great relish before departing the cellar themselves. Night was approaching, and Andre’s father did not want to risk walking into another battle. He knew the three Cowett brothers who lived near the opposite side of Mande Saint-Etienne. They had a stone farmhouse with a very sturdy vaulted roof and a stable on one side.
He asked the farmer brothers for shelter for the night, and they obliged his group the use of their stable and gave them some food. Seven other refugees, also with their possessions strapped to bicycles, were already there. They all made their beds from straw on the stone floor of the stable and fell asleep. Exhausted as they were, it would not be a peaceful night.They awoke to the sounds of renewed battle outside: machine gun fire, shouting and the clack of heavyhobnailed boots against cobblestones. Suddenly the stable door was kicked open and two German soldiers, with their burp guns poised to fire, stepped into the glow of the single petroleum lamp hanging in the stable.
They looked at the fearful refugees in the straw silently. Andre thought he was living the last moments of his life, a realization likely shared by the adults, who noticed that both soldiers were drunk. One stepped forward undoing the fly of his pants. Laughing, he urinated in all the buckets of fresh milk lined up by the doorway. Then they heard a voice yelling in German outside, and the drunken duo turned and left the stable. The German night attack took the village, but an American counterattack recaptured it by dawn.
The next morning, weary but relieved, the refugees poured out the polluted milk and washed the buckets. Andre and his parents were sharing some breakfast with the farmers in their living quarters when they heard airplane engines approaching rapidly, followed by the whistle of falling bombs. Everyone dashed toward the stable, and moments later a huge deafening blast rocked the stone farmhouse, collapsing the kitchen where they just were and setting fire to the manure pile outside. Some soldiers right outside were killed. The stone building next door was also hit by a bomb and was burning.American soldiers dashed for cover as the planes returned for strafing passes. Andre watched through the transom over the stable door and saw soldiers running by with wounded comrades on litters. At the crossroads beyond the burning house next door, soldiers laid out a big cherry-red cloth square on the ground. Andre would later learn that it was a marker panel to alert friendly planes of their positions. A pair of American 9th Air Force P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers mistakenly attacked them not realizing the Americans once again controlled the town.
AFTER THE ATTACK, Andre told his father that his right shoulder hurt. Seeing no apparent injury on theboy, his father dismissed it. When Andre repeatedly complained about increasing pain, his father foundbeneath all the layers of Andre’s clothing that his undershirt was stained with congealed blood andvirtually glued to his shoulder. He soaked it in water to soften it, and upon removing it, he found a ¾-inch hole with no exit wound.
At best it was a puncture wound; at worst it was a bomb fragment or other piece of debris driven into Andre’s shoulder, where it would fester and become infected unless removed. Andre’s father ran his pocket knife blade through a candle flame to sterilize it and then probed the wound for metal.For a boy of only 7, Andre handled the surgical exploration bravely. His father’s heart sank when he couldn’t find the foreign object. The wound was much deeper than it looked on the surface.
His father ran to the American medics who were treating their wounded and managed to convey tothem, without English, that a child was hurt and needed help. A medic dressed Andre’s shoulder and left,which angered his father who knew he needed a surgeon. With the help of the village priest to translate, they learned the surgeons were at the 101st Airborne’s divisional aid station back in Bastogne. The soldiers agreed to drive Andre there with their own wounded, but only one parent could accompany the child. Andre’s father went with him, reluctantly leaving his wife Fernande on her own at the edge of the front line with the refugees.Father and son sat in the back of an open truck, and the soldiers gave them blankets to keep warm. Andre’s parents didn’t fully appreciate how bad off the Americans were. They were surrounded with nomeans for resupply, and their ability to treat ever-increasing numbers of wounded was desperately strained from the start. Virtually the entire collecting station of the 326th Medical Company just to the west had been captured by the enemy four nights earlier. 101st Airborne Sergeant Richard O’Brian was one of the few 326th medics not captured. At this time, O’Brian was working as a surgical assistant at the divisional aid station set up in the big Catholic seminary at the end of Grand Rue in Bastogne. (One of his grislier duties was clearing the amputated limbs from the upstairs; he threw them out the window where they fell into the bed of a cargo truck parked beneath.)
Back in Bastogne again, Andre was triaged by the American medics at the divisional aid station. Unfortunately for him, many gravely wounded were already there and for whom the immediate attention of the surgeons meant life or death. With their bloody hands full, the few medics and doctorsat the divisional aid station worked to exhaustion and could not predict when, or even if, they would be able to operate on Andre’s shoulder. His father took him back to their house, which, thanks to good fortune, still stood but was already occupied by neighbors whose homes were destroyed.
EVERY MORNING FROM the 23rd to the 26th, Andre’s father brought him to the aid station where medics changed his dressings and cleaned his wound, but still they did not operate. As the infection spread, Andre’s arm swelled to almost twice its size, turned grey and became very painful. On December 27, the German encirclement was broken and Andre was evacuated to the 107th Evacuation Hospital in Sedan, France. His stretcher was squeezed into the ambulance and tied up by the ceiling like a chandelier. Andre and his father completed the 51-mile trip by nightfall. e American Army doctorsthere operated and saved his arm, but events separated father and son three days later. It was weeks before the family was finally reunited through the tireless efforts of his father.
By then, the fighting had moved east; and father, mother and son traveled to Sibret where Andre’s godmother lived. The intensity of the battle in and around the little village was apparent. Nearly all the houses were destroyed, and a knocked-out German MkIV tank sat on the roadside. A hundred feet beyond it, they saw the house they sought was damaged but still standing. It was clearly visible to them because the dwelling next to it was leveled. Fortunately, Andre’s godmother was unharmed, and she welcomed them inside. Their personal ordeal of battle was finally over. Alive together and with a roof over their heads during one of the coldest winters in years, they considered themselves very lucky.
I CAME INTO Andre’s story at its epilogue when he reconnected with the American military personnelthat ultimately saved his arm and his life. In 1988 his ceaseless research of the Battle of the Bulge resulted in an unexpected reunion with a U.S. Army nurse who cared for him while he was at the 107th Evacuation Hospital in Sedan. ough he was too weak at the time to take much notice of her, she never forgot the little Belgian boy.She broke down in tears when she saw him nearly 40 years later; he cried too when she finally told him who she was. They corresponded for years until the day she died, and he still corresponds with her children. About 15 years later, Andre met former 101st Airborne medic Richard O’Brian, who I had the pleasure to visit Bastogne with. Although Andre’s father took him to the seminary aid station three times, they did not recall each other. Still, they embraced like father and son, tears in their eyes.Andre was just a little boy when the Battle of the Bulge upended his life, but because he lived through it, he shares a bond with everyone else that did. It goes both ways. The magnitude of that bond showed in the tearful reunions of a former wounded boy, a tough U.S. Army medic and a kind nurse, none of whom ever knew the others’ names.