Veteran remembers Battle of the Bulge
FAYETTE --- William "Bill" Kane lives in close, but cozy, quarters at a nursing home in Fayette.
He was used to a lot of things being "close," but hardly comfortable, 70 years ago --- including the Nazis.
There was close-quarter combat. Close scrapes. Close calls. Close brushes with death.
Kane, a native of Independence who lived in Waterloo most of his life, was a member of the U.S. Army's 304th Military Police Escort Group during World War II. He'd worked 12 years at the John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works before the war.
"I was behind enemy lines more than in front of them," said Kane, who turns 91 on Dec. 10. "My weapon of issue was the .45 on my hip," referring to his Colt pistol.
His military discharge papers attest to where he's been and what he's seen. Five battle stars for combat campaigns in Normandy, northern France, the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
His unit was often assigned to slip into Nazi-occupied towns ahead of the Allied advance and wipe out remaining stubborn resistance.
The soldiers were not issued American-made rifles, whose distinctive sound could be detected by the enemy. Instead, he'd have to steal an enemy rifle.
He entered the European continent at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, driving a 4x4 weapons carrier.
He was a firsthand witness to the carnage on "Bloody Omaha," where more than 2,000 Americans were killed or wounded. Any family receiving a loved one's remains from there "got them back all in pieces," Kane said. "You stepped over them. How the hell we held it, I don't know." Had the Germans not moved a major portion of their troops north to the Pas-de-Calais, the "Longest Day" may have had a different outcome.
As the Allies moved inland, the fighting was bitter and hand-to-hand as Allies moved, town by town and building by building. A German wielding a rifle with fixed bayonet charged from a closet, wounding Kane, but he also was wielding a bayonet-fixed enemy rifle, and he responded in kind, killing his adversary.
Kane showed the enemy no mercy because the enemy gave none --- like when SS forces executed American prisoners at Malemedy during the Battle of the Bulge, machine gunning them to death.
"After they shot those guys, I never took another prisoner. 'Kamerad! Kamerad!' To hell with them," he said, referring to what Germans would shout in surrender. "If you turned your back, they'd get you."
And when a battle was over, "I saw them load bodies like a farmer loads fence posts" into vehicles for burial detail, on both sides.
Kane said he, like a lot of soldiers, drank a lot as a result of the horrors of war. He jested that the Germans might have won the war if they'd simply poisoned all the wine cellars and liquor cabinets they left behind in retreat.
Kane was in a forward position in advance of the U.S. 1st Army in December 1944 during the German counterattack that became known as the Bulge. A Belgian family hid him for several days in their home until he could make it back to the Allied lines.
"They gave me water and fed me," he said, sheltering him from the bitter winter weather and the enemy.
After the war he was a contract truck hauler for A&P grocery stores, delivering eggs from Iowa farms to New York. He also operated a diesel truck repair operation, Bill's Transport Service.
Kane's first marriage ended when, like a lot of servicemen, he received a "Dear John" letter when the years of separation became too much. His daughter, Kathy, who works at his nursing home, suggested that personal setback may have explained why he threw himself into fighting the war.
He was married 52 years to his second wife, Vernieta. He has five grown children, 26 grandchildren and a large and growing number of great-grandchildren.