TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Richard Rizzio is haunted by thoughts of friends and comrades past, especially when Dec. 16 draws near.
What once were the ranks only of the 19,000 men killed during December 1944 and January 1945 have now been joined by many men he came to call his friends. They were the survivors, the lucky ones who came home from World War II’s bloodiest and coldest battle.
They are Michigan’s only chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a group of men who 21 years ago decided to come together on Dec. 16 — the anniversary of the first day of the battle — each year to salute those who didn’t come home.
Rizzio had a “negative feeling” as he arrived at this year’s dinner. He was joined by only two other veterans of the battle.
“This may be our last one,” he said Monday as he entered Park Shore Restaurant along East Bay. “Our group is dwindling pretty fast. We’re a vanishing breed.”
The men already were old, many of them retired, when they gathered for the first time. And today few of them survive.
Founded in 1992 by Maury Cole, the local chapter boasted some 30 to 35 members at its peak in the 1990s.
Today, there are four: Cole, 88, of Fife Lake; and Rizzio, 88, Roland Sayer, 90, and Jim Wibby, 89, all of Traverse City.
All of the veterans, except Wibby, attended the Monday dinner that also included 10 family members and friends. It’s a tradition the men and their families have preserved since the chapter was founded.
“We thank you Lord for this day and our being able to be here to celebrate this important date,” Rizzio said, his voice cracking as he prayed. “We do this for one reason — to remember those who did not make it.”
Walking is difficult for Cole.
The war took its toll on his feet, and these days he is on the critically blind list at veterans' hospitals in Saginaw and Detroit. A replacement rifleman in the 87th Infantry Division, Cole spent most of the battle fighting, living and sleeping outdoors.
Still, the group’s annual dinner is one outing he wouldn’t miss.
His feet froze during the surprise attack that caught Allied forces short of adequate winter clothing, boots and socks.
“Our feet got most of us,” said Cole, who was 18 then. “Many lost feet or legs.
"If you couldn’t find a two-man fox hole to share with someone, you couldn’t stay warm. One morning, it was more than 30 degrees below zero. I was never in a house more than three times.
“When you look back and think about it, you wonder how you ever made it sleeping in fox holes,” he added. “But we were teenagers. We learned how to survive on your own.”
The two-man pup tents were the worst of it, he said. Each soldier carried half of the tent. It had no floor and a shortage of winter clothing and boots caused constant angst for the troops.
Cole’s combat days ended on March 19, 1944, when he was wounded in a German shelling. Despite his injuries, he’s not sorry that he lied about his age and enlisted at age 17.
“Back in those days you couldn’t get (a) job,” he said. “It was just after the Depression. I started out at $21 a month, which was about $20 more than I had. Combat pay was $55 a month. It was a big experience, one that I would never wish to go through again, but I’m glad I did.”
Cole said he just started receiving veteran’s disability payments a few months ago for his frozen feet — after 47 years of requesting them.
The Bulge was Adolf Hitler’s last major offensive to weaken the Allied invasion of Germany. Nazi forces launched their attack with 200,000 troops and nearly 1,000 Panzer tanks. The powerful tanks, manned by well-trained elite German troops, were the key to Nazi “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war” attacks that quickly rolled over Poland, Holland and other neighbors of Germany.
Hitler wanted to separate American forces from their supply divisions and reclaim Antwerp, an important Belgian supply harbor that the Allies had liberated in September 1944. He also hoped to achieve a negotiated peace on the Western Front.
The men fighting for the Allied forces in Belgium that winter found themselves thrown into a frozen hell that killed or wounded more than 80,000 American soldiers.
Maxine and Cindy Pekkala are among a group of friends or family who join the men each year to toast their loved ones.
The women are the wife and daughter of Jim Pekkala, a Bulge veteran who died on Dec. 28, 2008.
“I’m honored to be part of it,” said Maxine, 83, who has come to every dinner. “I was proud of my husband and all those men for what they did and went through.”
The families and friends have formed close friendships since 1992 through dinners, picnics and other gatherings.
They talked about chapter members who have passed on — Pekkala, Wayne Mentier, and this year Tony Stefan.
Two years ago, after the annual dinner, several friends went to the Munson Hospice House to visit one of their own, Fred Korb¸ then 96, who served in the 101st Airborne Division. Korb played the trombone in Army victory bands that marched through the liberated villages of France, Holland and Belgium.
“He wanted our visit to be a celebration of life, not a funeral,” Maxine recalled. "He was just glowing and happy to see us. He said he couldn’t wait to see his wife, who had died before him.”
They took turns holding Korb’s hand late into the night while others told stories of celebrations past.
He died seven days later on Dec. 23, 2011.
Cindy Pekkala said snowy, cold winters were difficult for her father, whose feet also froze during the Bulge.
Like many of the veterans, “Winter took him back to that time,” she said.
Her father wrote a 12-page memoir in 2003 at the request of his family. Until then, his family had never known that he had helped liberate a concentration camp in April 1945. The family found another legacy after his death — three boxes of World War II letters, all signed “Jimmie,” that his mother saved from 1943 to 1946.
Those letters were later compiled into a bound volume that will be passed from generation to generation.
A silent night
The coming of the holiday season means more to the men than just a time to celebrate and gather with family.
“The hardest part wasn’t just being on the front,” said Wibby, president of the veterans group, in a 2013 Record-Eagle interview. “It was living with the knowledge that you might be dead in a minute.”
Wibby’s division lost 4,000 of its 18,000 men in the six weeks it took to push forward the 17-mile distance between Aachen and Duren.
Wibby, born and raised in Detroit, was 20 in 1944. He fought with the 104th Infantry along the Rur River across from the city of Duren, the main front during the Allied invasion of Germany.
On Christmas Eve that year, Wibby recalled he saw red and green flares going up on the German side of the river and heard strains of “Silent Night” and other Christmas carols broadcast from a radio. Then, he heard the voice of Axis Sally, a German-American female radio personality who did Nazi propaganda broadcasts to misinform and demoralize Allied troops. That night she made derogatory statements about their wives and girlfriends.
Someone called back to the artillery units, which fired a half dozen shells across the river, knocking out the speaker system and making it, indeed, a silent night for Axis Sally and the soldiers, he said.
Living for the next
Roland Sayer, 90, is the oldest and newest member of Battle of the Bulge chapter. Originally from Cadillac, he and his wife Donna moved to Traverse City to be closer to their daughter. He attended his first Battle of the Bulge dinner last year.
Sayer served in the mobile 452nd Laundry unit that supplied Gen. George Patton’s military field tent hospitals with clean bed linens, using water pumped from rivers.
He was among the first U.S. Army units to go to England for further training as Allied forces prepared for the then-top secret Normandy D-day Invasion that started on June 6, 1944. He landed in Normandy along France’s coast several days after D-day and was with one of the first units to arrive in Paris on Aug. 25, the day it was liberated.
He was in Luxembourg on Dec. 16, when the Battle of the Bulge started. He, too, remembers the bitter cold. He had no sleeping bag or overcoat. Instead, he wrapped up in a lined canvas mackinaw.
Sayer was wounded in Lemans, France, when a shell exploded as he walked along a road. The force of the blast threw him up in the air, and he came to next to a tree, where he lay for a while. Finally, he got up and returned to his tent only to find it bombed. He had no open wounds and continued with guard duty.
“We didn’t even think about not making it,” he said. “We just lived to see what the next day brought and whether we’d be alive or dead, just like when you get blown up like that, so quick you don’t realize it’s happening. I never complained because I lived through the Depression. We took care of ourselves. It was the way I lived then and the way I live now.”
As the dinner wound to its end, Rizzio tapped a spoon to a glass to quiet the talkative and often laughing group. They’ve been thrown together by remembrance of a battle that happened almost seven decades ago, but today act more like family than strangers.
“I was getting a negative feeling last night, thinking this might be our last night together,” Rizzio told them, his voice cracking again. “But based on what I have seen and heard tonight, I think we should shoot for another year and keep it going.”
“Is this plan OK?” he asked the group. “I’m glad you guys showed up.”
Rizzio had worried aloud to his son about maybe being the only veteran at the dinner. It’s a concern that vanished as he was reminded why 21 years ago he first joined the group.
It’s for those who didn’t make it.