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A Christmas Story: 1944

December 12, 2009

     The frigid night air cut through the Lieutenant’s army issue coat as the stopped in the knee deep snow to survey the perimeter. A heavy snow continued to fall on this Christmas Eve 1944, but it was not a silent night. The flashes of artillery lit the sky and generated a rumble like distant thunder as the young officer finished his tour of the unit’s outposts. He was an officer in Company B, 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, the men who fired the big 4.2 mortars which were so critical to the effort of the infantry to advance. They were someplace in Belgium, he really had no clue where, and for the first time in a while the battalion was together again. All four companies had been brought in to help stop the German breakthrough. They didn’t know it, but the 87th was about to be thrown right into the heart of the Battle of the Bulge.

As the Lieutenant finished his rounds he wearily dragged himself into the monastery where the command had taken refuge for the night. The warmth that enveloped him as he entered the large community room was certainly welcomed. He glanced around and saw his comrades sprawled in every available space. They were bedraggled and exhausted after 201 days of almost continuous combat, and by the looks on their faces you could tell that it was only going to get worse. Despite the thickness of the monastery walls, a new sound intruded, the quick crack of tank gunfire.

 Everyone knew what that meant, American tankers were making a last ditch stand against the German armored column in the area. They were outnumbered and outgunned and their Sherman tanks stood no chance against the awesome German Tiger tanks, but they fought anyway. When the battle ended, and it would before dawn, then the 87th became part of the last American line of defense. The war hung in the balance, and so did the lives of everyone in the ancient house of God.

The Lieutenant found a place to sit against one wall and sank down in exhaustion, gratefully accepting the wine, bread and cheese being offered by the monks. In the corner of the room, a soldier fiddled with the dial of a radio, finally picking up the armed forces station. Christmas carols filled the room, but only added to the loneliness. Then as, the sound of the tank battle increased in intensity, a new song started on the radio, Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

For the Lieutenant the song immediately invoked memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas on the farm in Mason City, Iowa and of how far away he was from  those he loved. He could not help himself, the tears began to flow and embarrassed, he glanced around the room to see if anyone had noticed. His eyes fell first on the Company Commander, Captain J.J. Marshall, one of the toughest men the Lieutenant had ever known. The Captain sat ramrod straight, unashamed, as tears streamed down his stubbly cheeks. It was universal that night, strong men, the bravest of the brave, cried over a Christmas carol, and over the homes many would never see again.

As dawn broke the next morning, Christmas Day, the battalion was again split up with Company B assigned to take up mortar positions in support of what was left of the 289th infantry, 75th Division, and defend a Belgium village called Sadzot, a key location in the thin American defense line. For three days they fired their mortars in support of the hastily assembled defense units, and then disaster struck. Early in the predawn hours of Dec. 28th enemy elements of the 12 SS Panzer Division, the infamous Hitler Jugend, broke through the infantry lines and overran the mortar position.

They hastily assembled all of the men they could, and the mortarmen fought a delaying action, fighting hand to hand and house to house against overwhelming numbers. As the fighting retreat continued, they men of company B were joined by remaining elements of the 509th Parachute Battalion which had formed a new defensive position north of the village. There they held until reinforced and then joined a counterattack which retook the village, and recaptured six of their nine mortars and most of their vehicles.

It was later learned that this makeshift force of Americans had successfully stopped a major attack by German troops designed to capture a major highway intersection which would have broken the American line. No one has ever been able to tell me how they won. History recorded it as a classic situation where the attacking enemy held all of the advantages, yet was stopped by the cold determination of a hand full of defenders on the verge of physical and mental collapse. Somehow, they emerged victorious, with Company B reporting almost half of its men killed, wounded or missing.

For his actions during the defense of Sadzot the Lieutenant and the other men of the company received both the French and Belgium Croix de Guerre medals. I know the story of that lonely Christmas Eve and the ensuing days from my Father’s diary. He was the young Lieutenant, Roy E. Connelly, Co. B. 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion. He would read that story to us on Christmas Eve every year until his death in 1987, and then I took over the job with my children.

He never read it without crying over the friends he lost during that Christmas season of 1944, and to this day, I can not read it or even write about it without the same reaction. What was done during that six day period by the men of Co. B and the other companies of the 87th, who also held the line, surpasses the ability of most of us to comprehend. They fought for each other, and they fought for us. We must never forget.

FOR MY DAD, AND THE MEN OF THE 87TH

Michael Connelly: Author of “The Mortarmen”

 

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Michael, thank you for this incredibly awesome & poignant story of your father & the heroics of Co. B! I've shared it with my friends & family, asking them to pass it on so that all will remember the sacrifices and the incredible gifts of men like your father & others who gave their lives for our freedom. We must never forget - and we must never give up our own fight today for the freedoms we are seemingly losing on a daily basis. Your post is inspiring & timely. Thank you so very much for sharing. God Bless you & your family!...Julie

Michael, thank you for sharing this with us. What your dad and his men went through for so many days of battle. That your dad recorded and shared this with the family each Christmas and you have done the same, so very important! Thank you for your service for our country and I know how very proud you are of your sons! May God Bless you and your family and God Bless America! Yours truly, Russ Fernandes U.S.Navy WW II and Korea Veteran.

Michael, very moving story. I'll pass it on to others who I know will appreciate it. I don't think folks today appreciate just how bad that war was for our soldiers. Had an uncle went through Belgium with Patton, also a young leut. (when not busted), came back with white hair. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for reminding us about how our fathers fought for freedom that, unfortunately, so many are now willing to give up for a little security, or is being taken away from us by force through the current insane actions by Reid, Pelosi, Obama et al. Thank you for your efforts to defend our freedom.

My father will be 90 years old in January. He served in the Navy during WWII, first in the South Pacific, then in the invasion of Italy. Just in the past few years we have started asking him to talk about his experiences during the war whenever all his kids (7), grandkids (21) and great-grandkids (19 and counting) get together. Although he was always reluctant, he now sees the value of letting the new generations understand what sacrifices were made in order to assure our freedoms. It is eye-opening to listen to the kids (especially the teen-agers) as they realize how much was given in order that they might have a better life. Just as Michael has done with his father's story, the stories of our Country's Freedom Fighters need to be told and retold, passed down so that each new generation understands that Freedom is not free. And that it can be lost.

My father is only 88 in January 2010. He was in the 29th division. He literally was a human pack-mule and carried the mortar ammunition. He claims he was the only guy in his ourfit that didn't get shot. Dad would volunteer to run "orders" or communication between outfits. This task included a hike of at least several hundred yards. One time when he was doing that, a German mortar landed right in his gunpit, killing everyone in it. Dad certainly would have been in there, if he hadn't volunteered for the "dangerous" job of running orders. He told me this story a few years ago, and he cried so much he quit talking. The event occurred 60 years prior, but for him it might as well have been yesterday. One thing that helped him heal emotionally is, the 29th division started having reunions. He went to them consistently. Sadly, Dad is in foster care now and doesn't get out much. I AM A HIGH SCHOOL READING TEACHER, AND WE WILL READ YOUR STORY IN CLASS. Thank you for your blog and story.

thank you for the story of your father. and all the other info we get from you. please keep up the good work.and YES GOD BLESS AMERICA AGAIN. we need more patriots at every level thank you

What an incredible heritage you come from! To keep the telling of this history alive as a family tradition is so enriching and powerful.
The acts of your father carry through to you and all your family members that quietly, diligently have made this country GREAT!
You do a tremendous service to the country you have earned to speak up for and fight against those that are working so hard to tear it down. Thank you for the 'History' and all you work on to better our soverignity!
God Bless You and Your Family - Living and Past.

Michael, Thank you so much for sharing your Father's story. My Grandfather fought in WWII, my Dad in the Korean war, my brother in Vietnam, and my son is a diabled vet from this war we are now in. We need to continue to fight for our Freedom and never give up. I appreciate all your articles and information. Keep up the good work and God Bless you and yours.

Sir:

I am A retired Veteran of Vietnam, Desert Storm and thirty years as a Peace Officer. Your post brought back memories of many Christmas Eves, spent away from my family, and I am not ashamed of the tears that streamed down my face as I read your father's story. Thank you for sharing it with us. We will NEVER FORGET!



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