Isaac Pope celebrated his 27th birthday in one of the more unusual ways — retreating from the German army’s offensive into the Ardennes during World War II.
A first sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 969th Field Artillery Battalion, Battery D, Pope helped lead one of the first all-black combat units in the American military. For the battalion’s performance during the Battle of the Bulge, it received the highest honor available, the Presidential Unit Citation.
“Our commanding officer gave us the order to stand (at Bastogne) at all costs,” Pope said Tuesday, the day after his 95th birthday. “We couldn’t retreat any further. Bastogne was the American railhead. It was where our mail, our equipment, everything came in. We had to make a stand there, or else.”
Paula Caplan, an associate at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University, is the daughter of the captain of Pope’s battery, Jerome A. Caplan. She said while she was growing up, her father would point to a photograph of the unit and remark Pope’s service and leadership. She said she considers Pope, “a national treasure.”
“His job was to take care of all his soldiers in their unit,” Caplan said during a phone interview. “He said to me, ‘Every morning I had to know where everyone was, how they were doing, how were their families back home, did they have any worries....’ He was very efficient and smart and very caring.”
Between Dec. 16, 1944 and Jan. 16, 1945, that leadership was desperately necessary.
The 969th, equipped with 155-milimeter howitzers, could lob shells more than nine miles. Originally attached to the 82nd Airborne Division at the Normandy invasion, the 969th was partnered with the 101st Airborne at Bastogne on Christmas.
“The German commander, he knew he had us trapped, so Christmas Eve night, he sent planes over that dropped flares and little slips of paper, playing Santa Claus,” Pope said. “Right dead at 12 o’ clock – right at Santa Claus time – that’s when the German bombers came. You could hear them all in the air. We knew they were coming.”
He added, “They started dropping those bombs, and that’s when they really had us on the go. We stayed dug in our holes as long as we could, then we started running to any dark place we could see.”
When the gray sunlight broke through Christmas morning, evidence of the German bombers’ work lay all around. Survivors ran across body parts of troops injured or killed during the night. Units that were overrun or broke ranks and retreated recombined as they could.
“It was a mess,” Pope said.
That marked the first time the men of the 969th served with white troops other than their commissioned officers. About 15 white soldiers reformed with Pope’s unit to lead the counterattack against the Germans. When the weather cleared on Dec. 26, fortunes turned. American and British aircraft came in at tree-top level to push back the German tanks. Then the supplies arrived.
“American C-47s were pulling gliders. The first wave, they brought gasoline,” Pope said. “They had it baled up like bales of cotton. The next wave brought blankets, and the next brought clothing, then food. That was a happy day.”
Following the break of the siege, the 969th accompanied a Moroccan anti-sniper unit, then received a well-deserved few days rest.
“We got orders to move out, and took off from there to Paris, France,” Pope said. “We went right through the city of Paris. That was a day. Everybody was having a holiday. It was a good time then, because the war was coming to an end all over the place.”
Heading back to western Germany, one of the biggest issues was simply dealing with the mass surrenders of German units. Pope remarked on the unit commanders — their horses outfitted to the nines, themselves dressed in their finest uniforms with shiny leggings.
“(German soldiers) were coming out of the woods and every which-way,” Pope said. “They had us scared to death — we thought we were going to get wiped out, to tell you the truth. They had their arms and everything. They just gave up. Whenever they saw an American soldier, I don’t care where it was, they went right to them. Hundreds at the time.”
Once Germany surrendered, Pope had the chance of heading to the Pacific or returning home to the United States. He came back to Kinston, but couldn’t remain idle with the racism and lack of progress to which he was reintroduced.
Pope worked with the local NAACP on civil rights issues and, while working at the DuPont plant, attempted to form a union. Pope admitted being out-front on such causes placed a target on his back. After the DuPont union vote failed, he decided to let go of the individual pressure that comes with those fights.
But looking back on his life and his years in the Army, what still gets to Pope were those weeks in Europe.
“Lord, it was something. I get right nervous thinking about it right now,” Pope said. “I didn’t get a scratch. God knows, soldiers got wiped out every which-way.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services