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Mike Reckage, at a Battle of the Bulge veterans' reunion in 1988.
Mike Reckage, at a Battle of the Bulge veterans' reunion in 1988. (Ken George/Stars and Stripes)

Pvt. Mike Reckage leaned carefully against the building. There was movement amid the rubble of the blasted house next door.

He took deliberate aim, and his finger started to squeeze the trigger. The day was very cold. His trigger finger felt half-frozen.

Germans were all over the place. He expected to see a helmet rising from the crumbled hot bricks and lumber any second. Then, just as he was about to fire, he saw her — "an old lady in-a black dress who came rising up out of the rubble."

"She looked like a ghost. She was scratched up and bleeding and dusty and could barely stand up or walk. This poor old thing sort of reminded me of my mamma, and I was about to kill her. She was all shook up, you know, and so old. She looked like she was 100 years old."

He lowered his rifle.

"I cleaned her up as best I could and carried her back for some first aid. I'll never forget that."

Reckage, 71, of South River, N.J., grins. "Funny what you remember when you come back," he says; it isn't the grand strategy of the great Battle of the Bulge, it's the little things.

He was with the 991st Field Arty — "just a bastard outfit, belonged to nobody, sent wherever they needed us, and they needed us bad in the Bulge."

"We had 72 guns, a lot of self-propelled 155s. We made a ... lot of noise when we really started popping. We had already been up around Aachen, you know, near the Siegfried Line, and had to hurry back down in Belgium and help bail out Bastogne."

Little things . . . "I found one of our paratroopers who had been a German prisoner. His hands were tied behind his back with barbed wire. He had been shot in the head. That's when the fireworks start inside your head. That's when you know you're in a war. That's when you feel like ripping them up."

There were times daring those desperate days of the Bulge when they lowered the barrels and fired directly at German tanks thundering toward them.

There was the time his colonel looked down the road and saw a church steeple with a German observer in it. "Knock down that steeple!" commanded his colonel. Wham! They did.

Then came the shout, "Kraut tank coming!" It was a Tiger Royal, the biggest the Germans had.

"We saw the muzzle turning toward us. We didn't have time to really aim, just sighted-down the barrel. The tank was sort of turning. We caught it at an angle. Kabam! Goodnight, Irene, The turret just flew right off. Ripped the sides wide open."

Little things ... Being out there like freezing animals that would do anything to keep warm.

He remembers The Stars and Stripes. "We sure appreciated old Stripes. It was our only contact with the outside world. And they sure helped keep out the ... wind. We would read 'em, stuff 'em down inside our pants, then read 'em again."

Little things ... A fire was going and they were all huddled, shivering, in a snowy ditch with some German prisoners, and he noticed one of them wore American overshoes. "I wondered where he got them. My feet were too cold to wonder very long. I waved my rifle and suggested he give them back to America right now. He looked at me like he wanted to slit my throat. But he didn't have much choice. He would have taken mine in a minute. Sorry, Hans, that's the way it goes when you start a war."

When Reckage returned to Belgium after so many years, he was so tied up with feelings, he couldn't sleep. There was a place in the old Bulge battle area that he had to find, something he had to do.

"People I had befriended, a mom and dad and the two daughters, Ida and Denise. The son had been killed by the Germans. It was New Year's Eve '44, and I'll never forget, they wanted me to sleep in their son's bed. Maybe I looked like him or something, but when I slept in his bed they looked at me lying there and started crying like hell.

"On New Year's Eve at exactly 12 o'clock our artillery opened up. Our colonel had said we would give the Krauts a New Year's party they'd never forget. Our guns were out in the fields behind the house, and they started blasting away. It was like daylight at midnight. Maybe I got a little sleep. The next morning I got up, drank a glass of water and went back to the war.

"I promised those folks I'd come back some day. I remember I got a letter from the girls in 1945. They had taught themselves to write in English,. but there was no return address. So after all this time, I come back and look around and find the place, which is the village of about 100 people. I knock on the door and a lady steps out, white-haired like I am now. We look at each other and she looks very good. It's Ida,. and she stands there like she's frozen.

"Then comes her smile. I walk into the same house, the same spotless house, with the son's bed still there in the same place under the same pictures. Like a monument in the family.

"I give her a bandana, a heart with an arrow going through it, you know. We hug and we kiss and she cries. I didn't cry, but I just felt real damn funny, you know. Just all filled up. After 40-something years to come back to-the place I had dreamed about for so long. I had all these feelings, and going there must have relieved something special inside of me. Because after that visit I slept good, maybe five hours, which is good for me.

"I guess I had finally made the magic circle."

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