Skip to comments.WWII vet: "We were the bulge"
Posted on 12/04/2006 5:28:30 PM PST by SJackson
Twenty-three American soldiers ran through cold mud behind Pvt. Don Hentz as he led the way through the Battle of the Bulge. Adrenaline pumped through Hentz as German soldiers followed close behind. He was blind to the single strand of barbed wire that pierced his thighs.
"I took the fence with me and it ripped my legs open," Hentz said. "We were the bulge. I think it was a set-up to draw the Germans. We were the bait. I'm disappointed that so many young men died for that. I saw a lot of men disappear in the bulge."
At 90 years old, an age Hentz never thought he would reach, he is ready to share his story before others rewrite history. Friends and fellow soldiers are steadily dying off, Hentz said, and it is a bizarre feeling to remain the only one from your generation and face your own mortality.
At Heritage House assisted living in Portage, Hentz sorted through a cigar box that holds five years of his life that he wants back. He has never spoken about his time in combat at length.
"The main thing is that we feel forgotten. I think Europeans remember us more than we do," Hentz said. "A few years ago they were building a memorial for World War II and they used to solicit money from us to build it. The thing is, most of the vets are gone now. The American Legion wrote to us and said we should tell our story before it's forgotten. I'm 90 years old. It's my time to talk about it."
Hentz was 24 in 1941 when he was assigned to the Army's highly regarded 28th Infantry Division. It was referred to as the "Bloody Bucket" by the Germans because of the red Pennsylvania keystone insignia on the left shoulder of their uniforms. It was the Pennsylvania division.
After repeated letters from military recruiters requesting Hentz to enlist "I told them they were nuts" he had been drafted in January 1941. The plucky man from Milwaukee who loved team sports and worked at American Motors, constructing automobile bodies for $1.25 an hour, now had no choice.
"I knew the draft was coming, but I was trying to stay out of it as long as I could," he said.
After basic training in South Carolina, the men traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., on leave. Hentz was hitchhiking to get back to base and a car rolled up and gave him a ride.
"It was General Bradley. Omar Bradley was my buddy. I ran in to him in Europe and he said, 'Hey, it's the Tallahassee kid,' " Hentz said. Bradley was in command of the U.S. Army Group, the largest single command ever held by an American general officer and later was a five-star general.
The division went through several years of training before leaving for Europe in 1943. The crew left Boston on a ship that moved at right angles to avoid submarines. It took 14 days and Hentz felt some what invincible upon arriving at Wales. He was a private 1st class, and intended to stay alive.
"I did have that feeling that someone else might get shot, but not me. But I would be a liar if I said I wasn't scared," Hentz said. Mae Hentz, his mother, was a fiercely independent woman who wrote to her son while he fought. The strong character traits are visible in Hentz, and he speaks highly of her. She was the first woman to join a labor union in Milwaukee, Hentz said, and received some harassment from male workers for her spirit.
The unit was close-knit, and Hentz laughs when he talks about the Pennsylvania coal miners who fought next to him. They were heavy drinkers, Hentz said, and a couple times he was punched in the nose when the men got rowdy.
Marching in a parade under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in August 1944 was surreal because the 28th Infantry went right in to battle, Hentz said.
The first time Hentz ever saw a man killed was in Normandy after the beach was stormed. Gen. George Patton never let the Bloody Buckets go first because they were a diversion to the Germans, Hentz said.
"We had this guy who was a psycho, but you needed them in the Army. Four Germans came over and threw their hats and guns ... they were done fighting," Hentz said. "And the guy killed all four of them. He was a nut. He was later killed himself."
Dealing with Germans
There were various personalities in the unit, but the majority of them remained humanistic despite the combat. When Hentz peered in to the scope of a sniper rifle at German soldiers within the Hurtgen Forest, he could not shoot.
"We were on one side and the Germans were on the other side. We sat there looking at each other. They could not find a guy to look through the site and shoot a German," Hentz said. "Very little do men have that mentality to shoot (another person)." No one shot the rifle and Hentz only used his bayonet to "slice summer sausage."
At other calmer times on the battle field, German and American soldiers collected the dead next to each other. Hentz still recalls the sharp smell of deteriorating bodies.
Although Hentz had a slighter build than others, he was not razzed by fellow soldiers because of his foxhole buddy, Bert Addeo.
"He was a big Italian, 220 pounds and six foot. He was meaner than sin when he got a drink, but I could tell him to do anything I wanted him to do," Hentz said. "The only time he ever threatened me was in the Colmar Pocket (the site of a 10-day battle)."
The ground was frozen so the men could not dig a foxhole, so the two fashioned a granite horse trough as a shelter.
"We chipped the ice out and used it as a hole. Shells hit on either side of us and we both were thrown in the air," Hentz said. "He said to me, 'You know how people say you get the piss scared out of you? It just happened to me, and if you tell anyone I'll kill you.' I kept his secret and I never told anyone."
Often the men created tops over the foxholes with sod, and some soldiers would build standing foxholes to stop tanks.
"When a tank would roll over you, you would put plastic explosives on the bottom of it as it drove away," Hentz said. "You would hope it would blow up, and not stop near you when it blew up."
The unit would take German prisoners and often a dialogue between sides would start.
"The Germans told us, 'You call us militaristic, but the Americans go all over the world to fight,'" Hentz said. In his cigar box, Hentz pulls out an aged pocket knife that he took from a German POW. He didn't take it for a weapon, Hentz said, he took it because it had a corkscrew and it would open up wine bottles.
The language barrier proved difficult, Hentz said, because only a small number of Americans spoke German.
"They (the American soldiers) figure that everyone from Milwaukee was German. I was just walking by the prisoners and said shut up in German, and that got me in more trouble because on my service record I never said I knew any German. But I didn't know German, I knew five or six words," Hentz said.
Hentz saw the aftermath of a concentration camp in Europe.
"It was terrible, (prisoners looked like) starving animals," Hentz said.
When Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, Hentz heard the news while sitting on the side of a road.
"If Harry Truman was there I would tell him to take down his pants and I would kiss his behind. We got drunk,' Hentz said. "For what they did at Pearl Harbor, I have no feelings of sorrow for the Japanese."
In 1945, Hentz and others left "the past" behind them in Europe, and boarded a victory ship to the United States.
"We got caught in some bad weather and the captain said it would be easier to slow the ship down, but we all shouted, 'Don't slow down!'" Hentz said.
The military wanted Hentz to remain at Fort McCoy for two more weeks, before being discharged, because he had an impacted wisdom tooth. He told them, "Boloney!"
"I got home at three in the morning and sat with an ice pack on my cheek," Hentz said. "The next morning I saw a Navy dentist, just out of the service, and he popped it out. The he got a shot glass of brandy and said, 'You can either spit it out or swallow it.' I drank it."
Hentz met his wife, Phyllis, in March 1945 at a wedding reception and they married in August. They had one son, Hugh, who lives in Pardeeville. The couple drove a fifth-wheel trailer around the country to see many of the states and eventually moved to the Wisconsin Dells, then to Heritage House about a year ago. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in August.
Hentz is battling congestive heart failure now, but remains cheeky as he peppers his war stories with jokes. Blood rushes to his face when he speaks of the current Iraq war and the Bush administration.
"They're a bunch of dirty draft dodgers running a phoney war. I am proud of Washington up until Truman," Hentz said. "Omar Bradley was loved by every American soldier because he was looking out for the ordinary soldier. The ones who have no humanity is Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney. I regret to this day (my service) and will to my last day. It took away five years of my life. I have more anger right now with the American Congress and White House then I was every angry about anything in my life."
My grandfather lost most of the hearing in one ear and a toe to frostbite in the battle of the bulge, He was never bitter that I can remember.
He seems very bitter...and paranoid.
It took a lot more than five years from 400,000.
I know two living WW II veterans who think Democrats should be lined up and shot as traitors (literally).
Would she like to interview them for her next story?
There is something wrong with this story. My Dad was in the area at the same time as this guy and his stories are very different.
Something not right here.
Sounds to me like he wasn't very fond of Truman either. If this story was reported truthfully, which I really doubt, he is probably pissed off because Truman dropped the nukes and screwed him out of a tour in the South Pacific. Personally, I think "Jen" might have souped this up a little (or a lot). Gotta clobber President Bush and the Republicans or the story won't get published.
Lil' Jen needs to learn that spell check doesn't fix every mistake. Not only is she clumsy at trying to get her agenda across; she's also a lousy speller. Her editor is not much better.
I think he was a liberal that was forced to go to war. I could not rust such a person next to me in a fox hole.
I agree. My dad was WWII and flew the Burma Hump.
The Bombs were dropped in August. This dude would have been home married by then (he was married in March).
She writes like the bombs were dropped and he went home. Idiot.
No worries, this person likely either doesn't exist or has been in comma for the last 10 years.
You forget, they like to make up stories.
Wow ... my grandfather was WWII but was around the Aleutian Islands. :)
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