Honoring the memory of a veteran and father
It was a “thank you” over 68 years in the making, but it was well worth it.
After my father’s death in 1978, I inherited a neglected box of his letters home from World War II. Since then I have been doing research in the hopes of completing a book about his wartime experiences. Dad was a G.I. — a “regular Joe Private” — in the 106th Infantry “Golden Lion” Division, which was overrun by German forces in the opening throes of the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 16, 1944.
History records that the Belgian winter was among the coldest on record that year. The soldiers of the 106th, a green “replacement” division with some of the youngest and least experienced soldiers in the U.S. army, had arrived at their positions only five days before the attack began. The military planners had judged the area to be a “quiet sector,” so battlefield preparation was minimal and ammunition was conserved behind the lines. At 5:30 a.m. the Germans unleashed a major artillery bombardment on American positions along a 30-mile front and followed it with a lightning invasion led by panzer tanks and hordes of “volksgrenadier” infantry soldiers.
Issued only a minimum of ammunition and poorly equipped for fighting in the intense cold, the American outposts held out as long as they could. Many were quickly overwhelmed. My father’s position, a small group of foxholes on a hill overlooking the tiny Belgian village of Heckhuscheid, was one of them. The Germans rounded up the American GIs who weren’t killed and pressed them into service at gunpoint, tending to the wounded German soldiers in a nearby farmhouse and barn.
In what the regimental history would later call “a magnificent bluff,” Captain Lee Berwick of the 106th Division’s I company and a small group of his men surrounded the farmhouse and barn. Berwick shouted a challenge to the Germans hiding in the buildings, but he was answered with a volley of bullets. His men replied with a barrage of their own. Again, Berwick bellowed an invitation to surrender, and this time the Germans — all 107 of them — started filing out with their hands up. Along with the Germans were just 15 American GIs who had been captured earlier in the day. My father was one of them.
Though my father returned safely from the war where he met and married my mother, he died in 1978 from a heart condition he had suffered with since his childhood. Much of what I knew of my father’s experiences was pieced together from what little he revealed from childhood bedtime stories or random conversations.
But through an educated guess and a hopeful phone call, I was able to find a veteran in Brady, Texas, who was captured along with my father on that bitter cold day in December. Billy Jackson had written a brief account of his wartime experiences for the Division Veteran’s Association newsletter, “The Cub of the Golden Lion,” and I recognized his account as being that of one of the 14 Americans who were captured along with my father. Though he, too, had escaped the Germans, this man had been seriously wounded in the conflict just a few weeks later, and he had been lucky enough to be retrieved from the battlefield and evacuated to a field hospital.
“I was pretty badly wounded in the hip by a mortar shell,” says Billy Jackson, now 88 years old, “so what happened afterwards is a blur in my memory.”
Jackson was taken first to a field hospital, and then on to Paris where his wounds were tended to in a more advanced hospital. The surgeons managed to save his mangled leg, although he was later awarded disability pay by the military.
“I knew one of my fellow soldiers had gone the extra mile to get me to the field hospital, but after all this time I couldn’t remember the man’s name, and I never got the chance to thank him for what he had done for me,” he recalls.
Although I had hoped to learn nothing more than the details of my father’s capture by the Germans, I was rewarded with an extra bonus. I discovered that one of the letters my father wrote home revealed key details about what happened to Mr. Jackson on that bitter cold night in January 1945:
“By the way we got good news from one of the boys still with the 106th that Billie Jackson of my squad is walking at Johns Hopkins, without any help with his new leg. He was hit as he slept on the bench in the rear of the truck only a few inches above me on the floor during a nasty combination of wind rain snow and hail storm. He mentioned me and thanked me. I had nearly to kick the hell out of an ambulance driver to go up and get him since it was some three mile hike back to the aid station I decided I was going to ride back if I had to drive the ambulance myself. The road was zeroed in with eighty-eights but after sweating them out a day & most of the night firing from the same position I could judge when to expect them and we made it… .”
Although a few of the things in the gossip Dad had heard were wrong — Jackson had not lost his leg after all, and never visited Johns Hopkins — the fact that someone had written home about helping him was all the evidence that Jackson needed. I told him what I had found.
“Your dad was my hero,” he said, his emotions clearly evident in his voice. He took a moment to compose himself. “He was undoubtedly the one who saved my life and saved my leg, and is responsible for the good life I have lived ever since.”
Jackson had wondered most of his life if he would ever be able to thank the man that saved his life. Though he missed the chance to do it in person, he now knows who to thank for the efforts made to evacuate him after he was wounded.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jackson a few weeks ago at his home in Brady, Texas. Jackson is humble about his own accomplishments, as most of his generation are, but his story is one to be proud of. Not yet 19 years old, he left his Texas home in 1943 to join the Army as the country prepared for war. Like my father, he was sent as a replacement to the 106th “Golden Lion” Infantry Division a month before the division was shipped overseas. The division was assigned to positions along the Belgian border just five days before the massive German attack later known as “the Battle of the Bulge.” Two of the division’s regiments — the 422nd and the 423rd — were overwhelmed and most of their number surrendered in the largest mass surrender of the European conflict.
Though the remaining 424th Regiment never surrendered, it bore the brunt of the rest of the German attack in the sector it defended near St. Vith, and consequently quite a few of its number were wounded or killed in the conflict. The regiment suffered the highest battlefield casualty rates of the entire division.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for my father. Though he has been dead for over 30 years, it still matters very much to me to know what kind of man he was, because I bear his name and I still walk in his shadow. Now that I have met Mr. Jackson and heard his story, I know a little more about the courage that he and my father possessed and the trials that they faced before their 20th birthdays.
Mr. Jackson says that he can rest easier, now that he knows the name of the man who saved his life.
And I have a new acquaintance, another American veteran I can truly call an American hero.
Bill Bucher Jr. lives in Salisbury.