WELZ, Germany — Fred Woelkers never thought he’d return. But there he was, 68 years and 13 days later, standing near the same spot where a Nazi bullet ended his fighting days on the front lines of World War II.
Now 88, with a loving wife of 65 years and 15 children, Woelkers has a lifetime of memories off the battlefield.
Those he made on it, he said, are fading.
Coming back to the scene of his wounding wasn’t something he really thought he’d do.
“I’m not an emotional person,” he said, with a crooked smile. “I’m three-quarters German.”
When his son Jay, a 49-year-old Navy commander stationed in Sembach, Germany, asked if he would return to where his war ended if he could, “I thought, yeah, I would like to go and see where it was, what it was like.”
So there he was.
Getting to Welz this time was, no question, easier than it had been the first time. Rather than cross the Atlantic by boat, he flew. Instead of taking a month to cross France and Belgium by train, he rode just a few hours in his son’s minivan.
“I am interested in seeing how much of what I thought was what it was,” he said at his son’s home before climbing into the van. “And, of course, I’m interested also to see how that area has been revitalized.”
Today, the foxholes Woelkers and his 2nd Platoon, Company K, 407th Infantry Regiment comrades occupied on and off for nearly two weeks have long been plowed over. Houses are there that weren’t before, he noted, standing in the field where he’d been shot.
Some things are the same: the sugar beet field where Woelkers took a bullet through the leg; the gully he and his platoon mates slogged the length of in a botched attempt to kidnap a German soldier; the town that was his unit’s objective on Nov. 30, 1944.
Woelkers didn’t make it that far.
Though he’d spent about 10 days on the front lines staring toward Welz in 1944, Woelkers didn’t get a look at the town until more than 68 years later. A clump of trees had been in the way, he said, pointing to what he thought might be it.
“We didn’t know the name of the town even,” he said. “They told us that was our next target — was the little village.”
It was about dawn when Woelkers and his platoon popped out of their foxholes and affixed bayonets for the assault on Welz, about a thousand yards away. But the sun was high in the sky by the time artillery shells began falling on the town to soften their advance.
When the order finally came to move, it was full daylight. Woelkers doesn’t recall ever thinking he might not make it off that field alive, though.
“You think about when’s the next time you’re going to get something to eat,” he said.
Infantry school was designed “to get us thinking in terms of battle and not worrying about anything else,” he said. “So I didn’t even think about or worry about getting shot or getting killed as far back as I can remember.”
Despite the artillery barrage, German forces were still dug in and well concealed. Woelkers was about a third of the way across the field when a bullet ripped through his leg and blew out the back, taking much of his calf with it.
“When I was hit, I didn’t know where it came from, actually, because I didn’t see those that were shooting at us,” he said.
In the Westerns he saw as a kid, he remembers how quickly a shot man goes down. It’s true, he said. “I was hit and, boom, I was down on my butt.”
With the green tops of sugar beets serving as a small measure of cover from the German machine guns, he crawled into a shell hole to wait for the medic. If the hole hadn’t been there, he said, “I’d have probably got a few more wounds in me.”
The medic got to him. A litter team carried him off the battlefield. He’d spend most of the next year in hospitals in Belgium, England and the U.S., recovering and training for a desk job. The war ended before he was fully on his feet again.
Minus training, travel and recovery, Woelkers’ war lasted about two weeks.
“I was fortunate in having a short fighting career, if you’d call it a career,” Woelkers said. He fired only a few rounds and never saw the enemy.
He’s glad he never had to shoot anyone close up. “I don’t know how that would have affected me.”
Though he told his wife, Sally, about the war, about wondering whether the medic would come as he bled, his children knew little about what happened.
They didn’t know that of 11 men in Woelkers’ squad, seven died in the assault on Welz. Standing again within sight of where his buddies fell, Woelkers bowed his head and said a silent prayer for them.
Jay Woelkers said he understood why his father didn’t talk about what happened here.
“Because I don’t tell my kids about Afghanistan and Iraq for that reason — the details. Because you don’t want to scare them. They’ll have nightmares.”