Out-manned and out-gunned, Ohioans were among troops who ‘stood their ground’ in Battle of the Bulge
By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: December 12, 2019
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Seventy-five years ago, the Battle of the Bulge drove an icicle through the heart of Nazi Germany's final hopes for victory during World War II.
When it ended after 40 days of frozen, frenzied fighting, one of the largest and longest American battles in Europe had impacted both the future of that continent, and the lives of thousands of soldiers, including many Northeast Ohioans.
As Herb Jacobs, of Lorain, was being evacuated for wounds suffered during the battle, he hung his weapon and ammo on a tree and vowed to never fire a rifle again. And he didn’t.
Clevelander Frankie Yankovic almost didn't become America's "Polka King," when he nearly lost both hands and feet to frostbite.
Dante Lavelli, who would later become a famed Cleveland Browns receiver, rarely talked about the battle, and after the war refused to have any guns around the house.
Similarly, native Clevelander Henry "Hank" Skowronski barely ever discussed the fighting that left him with shrapnel wounds, or his months of captivity as a POW.
Lakewood High School graduate William Bristow lived to recall the day when he was convinced that the last sight he would see on earth was the muzzle of a German tank gun aimed directly at him.
These men were among four divisions of inexperienced or battle-weary U.S. Army troops placed along what was thought to be a quiet, 75-mile front in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. More than 200,000 German troops, backed by 1,000-plus tanks, hit that sector on Dec. 16, 1944, in a surprise attack designed to split the American/British forces and drive them to the sea.
The American lines “bulged” backward — but did not break.
The memories and facts of that historic battle will be saluted on December 15 in ceremonies at the western campus of Cuyahoga Community College in Parma. Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, or their family members, will be featured guests at the 2 p.m. free program in Atrium B, which will include speakers, a memorial wreath presentation and screening of the video “Uncommon Sons: Cleveland’s Contribution to the Battle of the Bulge.”
"It's easy to look back and say, 'Yes, it was a great battle and we won.' But you don't know that on the 16th of December, when literally the American army is outmanned, outgunned by more than 2 to 1, parts of [the battle] were a rout because many of the troops were green, barely had any training, and frankly some of them just panicked and fled," said James Banks, director of the Tri-C Crile Archive Center for History Education on the campus.
“The amazing thing was that eventually the resolve clicked in, they stood their ground . . . so by mid- to late-January you could say ‘success,’ ” he said.
Banks credited the battle with clinching Allied victory in Europe and creating the continent’s political landscape that we know today. “I think you have to lay all that gratitude and honor at those ‘Bands of Brothers’ of the United States Army in the frozen forests of the Ardennes,” he said.
At the time, few of the participants probably thought that they were part of such momentous history.
They were concentrating on staying alive.
Pvt. Henry “Hank” Skowronski, who enlisted in the Army right after graduating from Collinwood High School, was part of the 326th Airborne Medical Co., of the 101st Airborne Division.
After the Battle of the Bulge began, his unit set up hospital tents in Sainte-Ode, Belgium, near Bastogne.
On the night of December 19, a convoy of German troops traveling in half-tracks and tanks machine-gunned the tents, wounding more than three dozen GIs and capturing nearly 150 soldiers, including Skowronski.
The Americans were marched to a POW camp in Germany where about 5,000 GIs were held until the war ended in May of 1945.
After the war, Skowronski rarely talked about his military experiences, according to his daughter, Mary Skowronski, program director of the Tri-C West Respiratory Care Program.
“He didn’t really talk about [the war], and my dad was a talker,” she said.
Occasionally he’d provide little clues.
He liked war movies, but he didn’t watch Holocaust movies because the American POWS had worn uniforms similar to those worn by prisoners in concentration camps.
“There were times when firecrackers would kind-of trigger, he’d kind-of look a little different,” Skowronski said while making a face mimicking her father’s expression of shock at the sound.
Her father’s reticence in discussing the war may have been a generational trait, said Skowronski. “Men and women from that age, they just did what they were told to do, they did what they had to do, and they came home. And for better or worse, they just got on with their lives.”
After the war, her father moved to Tallmadge where he worked in retail clothing and jewelry sales and marched with the American Legion in every Memorial Day parade.
Mary Skowronski recalled that when her father was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2009 for his military service, “The one thing he did say is that war is the last resort. You have to do everything to not go over that line.”
That same year her father returned to the site in Belgium where his medical unit was attacked, for dedication of a memorial.
In a U.S. Army story about the event, the veteran remarked, “Many people have walked up to me and said, ‘Thank you for our freedom.’ I never thought of it that way – that we were giving them freedom.”
But he added, “I feel somewhat joyful from the fact that people are so completely supportive of what we did, and they are still thanking us 65 years later.”
The memorial’s inscription read: “May this monument be a symbol of honor for those brave men and women who were willing to give their lives while saving others, some came home but so many didn’t. May the world never forget.”
That statement reflects Mary Skowronski’s sentiments regarding her father, who died this past June at age 94, and others who served in that conflict.
“They didn’t think they were heroes. The rest of us do,” she said. “Heroes, to them, were the ones who didn’t come home.”
Frankie Yankovic (1915-1998) was already an established Slovenian-style polka sensation prior to World War II, his magic on the accordion drew crowds at dances and clubs around Cleveland.
He enlisted in the Army in 1943, continuing to cut records when on leave, until his unit was shipped off to Europe. There, he became a casualty in the carnage and confusion of the Battle of the Bulge.
A severe case of frostbite threatened amputation of both his hands and feet. Yankovic resisted the doctors’ urgings to have his fingers amputated, knowing that would end his music career.
He managed to overcome a gangrene infection resulting from the frostbite, and his recovery therapy included playing an old accordion that the medical staff found for him.
After his hospital discharge, Yankovic was assigned to the Army’s special services to entertain the troops, setting the stage for his future title of America’s “Polka King.”
Ardent Browns fans probably know Dante “Glue Fingers” Lavelli as one of Cleveland’s top receivers for 11 seasons, from 1946-1956, snagging 368 receptions and scoring 62 touchdowns.
Lavelli’s gridiron accomplishments overshadow his experiences as a combat infantryman during World War II. But that may have been the way he wanted it.
Edward Lavelli, 66, of Lakewood, said his father rarely talked about the war.
Sometimes, “there would be a mention here or there,” he said.
When he and his father watched “Band of Brothers,” a TV series tracing a group of GIs from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge, Lavelli said his father would “make comments, like ‘That’s how it was.’ ”
Lavelli said his father, a sergeant in the 28th Infantry Division, once told him that the start of the Battle of the Bulge was also the beginning of 96 consecutive days without taking a bath or shower.
Lavelli said his father, who died in 2009 at age 85, was very proud of his grandfather, Angelo, an Italian immigrant who served during World War I. “My father drilled into me, like his father drilled into him, that you have a responsibility to your country as a citizen,” Lavelli said.
The war may have figured in his father’s distaste for guns. “He really didn’t like guns,” Lavelli said. “After the war, he didn’t want to have them around.”
His father once talked about the Battle of the Bulge in a 1994 video interview with Tri-C’s James Banks.
In that interview, Lavelli recalled that fateful opening day: "On December 16, this big push came. They lit up the sky, and the Germans were coming with tanks, half-tracks, cannons and foot soldiers by the hundreds. In the first day we captured 13 prisoners, and I thought we were going to win the war . . .
“Then, after the second day, they kept coming and coming and coming. . . So we kept the roads of Bastogne open, and for about 10 or 12 days all I did was dig and sleep, and dig and sleep, because we were in a different town every day.”
Edward Lavelli plans to attend the commemorative event at Tri-C to help keep the memory of the Battle of the Bulge alive. As he said, “I think it’s very important that people remember.”
Herb Jacobs, of Pepper Pike, the GI who put down his rifle for good after the Battle of the Bulge, also will be attending the commemoration.
Jacobs shared some of his combat recollections in a 2018 Plain Dealer story.
He remembered that during the battle, “We didn’t get proper food for weeks. No hot food, no hot coffee . . . we were frozen. The whole army was frozen.
“To this day I do not know what kept us at it. I mean, we couldn’t surrender to the Germans, because they didn’t have nothing either.”
Jacobs said that as a lieutenant in the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, his primary focus was trying “to do the best job I could so they could get out alive. That’s all I cared about, is getting these guys out alive. Including myself.”
But the day came when the odds caught up to Jacobs and he was taken off the line with frozen hands and feet, and a severe concussion from an artillery or mortar blast.
He recalled, “I felt marvelous that I was getting out. I knew I was going to get out of the infantry, and I couldn’t wait.”
He finished the war supervising German and Austrian POWs, then came home to earn an economics degree from Ohio State University and founded the Sheffield Steel Co. in Cleveland, which he ran for 50 years before retiring.
But the war had changed him.\n "It made me more serious, and I didn't laugh after I got back from the Army," he said. "I was just glad to get out of there, and glad that I returned alive."\n Initially, sleep was hard, yet watching war movies didn't bother him. They couldn't compare with the reality and horror of war.
“There’s no way that they can picture what you go through,” Jacobs said.
The tank didn’t fire. And William Bristow survived to tell the rest of the story.
In a 2018 Plain Dealer story, the Strongsville resident shared how the tank turned away from the house where Bristow and other GIs had taken shelter during the Battle of the Bulge.
Initially, “we thought, ‘Well, OK, this is going to be it.’ We all kind of bowed our heads and said a few prayers,” Bristow said.
Then the tank moved to a position where Bristow and machine gunners could pour an armor-piercing fusillade into the tank’s exposed rear deck, setting it ablaze and forcing its crew to jump out and try to escape. They didn’t.
The 9th Infantry Division veteran remembered the Battle of the Bulge as a struggle against bitter cold, heavy snow and artillery tree-bursts that blew deadly splinters into the GIs. “We had three guys in our platoon impaled, literally impaled, with long splinters from the trees,” Bristow said.
And yet there were also moments of sympathetic reflection, such as the time when Jacobs saw one dead German soldier, frozen solid.
He recalled thinking: “That poor soul, he’s lying there, he’s dead, and probably his wife or mother or father . . . they have no idea where he is. And I really felt for him.”
Army Lt. Col. Christopher Carter, battalion commander in the first brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, will be the featured speaker at the Tri-C commemoration.
Carter has visited the Ardennes as part of his military studies and said the 101st Airborne’s role in the Battle of the Bulge, particularly its defense of Bastogne, has special significance for his unit, which adopted the moniker, “We are Bastogne.”
A contingent of more than 50 soldiers from the 101st are traveling to Bastogne for 75th anniversary ceremonies there, according to Carter.
“We’re doing this to honor the service of the Greatest Generation, and to remember the sacrifice and courage of those veterans 75 years ago,” Carter said.
The Battle of the Bulge should be honored because it was “the last push by the Germans, attacking with a numerically superior force, and it was the true grit, bravery and courage of that generation [of American GIs] that won that battle,” Carter said.
“It’s that history that motivates us every day.”
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