NEW BERN, N.C. — It was probably all over but the dying in late 1944, but no one could convince Germany’s Adolf Hitler of the fact.
In the seas, he was sending orders that virtually turned his once-feared, but now miniscule U-boat fleet into kamikazes; on land, he was pressing a mixture of his best warriors and some untrained teenaged soldiers to make a last great offensive to break the incoming Allied forces before they crossed the Rhine.
He chose to assault the American line along the Ardennes mountains in Belgium because he believed Americans would be the quickest to run. On Dec. 16, a surprise attack opened one of the longest battles of the war (it would last through late January 1945) — a battle that, at times, looked dark for the Yanks.
Its official name was the Ardennes Counteroffensive. But when newspapers ran maps showing the deep curvature of the American battle lines as a result of the offensive, the battle was popularly renamed “The Battle of the Bulge.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Abbott Weatherly, now 96, remembers the battle well. He was in the thick of it, a young artillery major overseeing a battery with the 113th Field Artillery — a unit raised, in part, from Battery D, National Guard, in New Bern.
Abbott, born in 1916, graduated from the New Bern school system in 1935, when he signed up with the National Guard armory — located then where the New Bern police station is today.
“We had the 155 Howitzer, which is a big weapon!” he recalled. “I got to liking the military, but then again, I liked the ball!”
A gridiron hero, he received the attention of coaches from N.C. State University, who offered him a scholarship. But, scholarship or no, he still had to find $100 to sign up.
“No one had a hundred dollars,” Weatherly said, so he settled on a military career.
In September 1940 — more than a year before America’s entry into the war — Battery D was called into the active army. For a time, GI Weatherly had it easy. The unit would occasionally travel to Fort Bragg to practice firing the big guns and, in New Bern, they marveled at their bounty: the government awarded each man around 60 cents a meal.
“We appointed a mess officer and he’d go downtown to the grocery stores and buy our food and come out and we’d cook it on our stoves,” Weatherly recalled. “That’s the way we got our meals… We got to the point where we couldn’t spend all the money!”
Eventually the unit was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C, where they were posted in tents on a golf course until the grounds could be built to meet the needs of the rapidly growing army.
Weatherly’s unit remained stateside until February 1944, when it left by ship in Boston for England.
“We landed at Liverpool and got on the train. The Germans attacked the train on the way down there, you know! That very night!” he laughed.
“They stationed us in a little camp [in Southampton],” Weatherly continued, “And why England didn’t sink, I don’t know, there was so many American troops in it.”
He has great admiration for the British, who warmly accepted the GIs flooding their shores: “They were just so happy we were there… they were all very good to us. Very good to us. At night, they would go and spend the night in the tunnels of the underground…because the Germans bombed the place every night. And the families would take up the kids and all and they’d go in that underground and spend the night.”
The 113th saw its first action at the Normandy invasion when it landed on Omaha Beach the third day after D-Day. He recalled a “small world” incident in which he stumbled upon Edgar Jackson, a man he knew from New Bern. “And Edgar says, ‘You got any dirty clothes?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, we got lots of dirty clothes.’ He had rigged up a cement mixer as a clothes washer. And he put all my clothes in that damned cement mixer and cleaned them for me. I’ll never forget that.”
One of the earliest large battles for the 113th was the Battle of St. Lo.
“Over 3,000 aircraft — our air force bombers and so forth — bombed St. Lo. And they really tore the town up completely,” Weatherly said. “And they made a mistake the first day, dropped the bombs too close and killed Gen. McNaire, three star general, one of our generals. But the second day, they decided to try it again and they were successful then. They dropped them on the German side of the line, and we got a big jump-off from St. Lo, we started fighting. And from there on it was… well, a lot of various battles.”
Weatherly remembered one fight before the Bulge in which he intentionally directed his guns to fire on friendly positions. In the Battle of Mortain, American forces were surrounded on a hill and were in desperate need of batteries for communication and medical supplies.
“So I said, ‘Let’s try something,’” he said.
Weatherly directed his men to replace the explosive powder in a number of shells with batteries and morphine, then fired those into the American lines. “And they got a lot of that stuff,” he recalled.
“The Battle of the Bulge, you go, ‘How in the hell can somebody gather a force like that and fight and defeat you?’” Weatherly soliloquized. “Hitler …gathered some armor and put his armor specialists in there and put the tanks and everything. And we had a sector that a new division had just come over from the states and he was put into that sector …And they weren’t as experienced as the [other] fighters that was there. And therefore the Germans cranked up and just took off through that crowd.”
The Germans had chosen to open their attack in the worst possible weather when allied aircraft could not assist the Americans or keep an eye on German movements.
“The weather was terrible,” Weatherly recalled. “Two feet of snow. The heavy equipment was hard to move around. … You couldn’t move this, that and the other. And I finally got some equipment that could move my howitzers and we got to using them pretty good. I had a battery of 120 men. And I had six howitzers.”
In the battle’s beginning, American forces were vastly outnumbered. The Germans had specific advantages in equipment as well: “We had some tanks, but unfortunately the tanks that we had was 75 millimeter tanks. …The Germans had a Tiger tank. Hell, they’d shoot right in the front of our tanks and right out the back.”
As an artillery unit, the 113th did most of its fighting as support from behind the front lines.
The Battle of the Bulge ultimately ended on Jan. 25, 1945, when the German forces simply ran out of fuel. Low on supplies, the original intent had been to overrun allied fuel dumps and continue fighting on American gas. However, the American forces managed to blow up most of their fuel dumps before the German army could take them.
“That’s when we knew the Bulge was over,” Weatherly recalled. “We’d see their tanks lined up, [abandoned,] on the road.”
As an aside, another New Bernian, Joe Taylor, late husband of Marion Taylor, would years later recall observing part of the battle as a non-participant — he was an escaped American POW, working his way back toward American lines when he witnessed the climactic battle from a nearby hilltop.
Weatherly says he will never forget a particular incident during the Battle of the Bulge in the area of Malmedy, Belgium.
“This will stick in my mind, I’m sure, the rest of my life,” Weatherly said. “There was a case where I was called over to a unit, and they had found a bunch of covered-up people in snow. Dead. I went over, investigated it.”
What he found was horrific: On Dec. 17, the second day of the battle, German forces had lined up 113 prisoners, machine-gunned them, then went among the survivors and shot or clubbed them. Despite this, some 21 men managed to feign death well enough to escape and report the event. Their bodies were recovered on Jan. 14, which is probably when Weatherly was there.
Weatherly would remain in the European Theater through war’s end. After the war, he would take part in the military’s nuclear bomb testing.
“I retired in ’69 as a bird colonel. It was the best move I ever made,” he said, and added wryly, “Course, if I’d got killed, it wouldn’t have been too damn smart.”