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Second Front

WWII vet recalls Siege of Bastogne

During World War II, Oxford resident Larry Walker was a forward observer with the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. He fought at the Siege of Batstogne, which was part of the much larger Battle of the Bulge, and parachuted into southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
September 12, 2012 - Larry Walker doesn't think of himself as a hero and he certainly doesn't want to be portrayed as one in this story.

Like millions of American GIs, he's simply a guy who did a job when his country needed him a long time ago.

"I was always proud that I did see combat, but don't call me a hero," said Walker, who served in the U.S. Army from 1942-45. "I don't want to see any of that hero stuff, please."

Looking at the 87-year-old Oxford resident today, one would never know he took part in one of the most famous and pivotal battles of World War II – the Siege of Bastogne, which was part of the larger Battle of the Bulge.

"I wasn't worried at all," said Walker, a former corporal who served as a forward observer with the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, which later became part of the 101st Airborne Division, both of which fought together at Bastogne. "Maybe I was young and foolish, but I never thought (about being killed or captured). We weren't going to quit."

The siege lasted from Dec. 20-27, 1944 in the Belgian town of Bastogne. Despite being completely surrounded, American forces repeatedly repelled German attacks.

When the Germans gave the encircled Americans an ultimatum to either surrender honorably or be annihilated, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, who was acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division, gave what's perhaps the most notable one-word reply in the history of warfare – "Nuts!"

"The German officer said he understood English, but he didn't understand what that meant," Walker said. "They told him it means 'Go to hell. Do you understand that?'"

"We were all that way – to hell with them," he added.

Walker noted how news of the Malmedy Massacre fueled the battered Bastogne defenders' desire to battle the Germans to the very last man. On Dec. 17, 1944, German SS troops murdered 84 American artillery men in cold blood after they had surrendered and were taken prisoner near the town of Malmedy, which is 32 miles northeast of Bastogne.

"They shot them all. They were that way," he said. "They told us they were going to annihilate us if we didn't surrender. That's a dumb move. That makes us fight harder."

The Siege

In and around Bastogne, U.S. Forces were outnumbered, had no tanks or tactical air support and lacked cold-weather gear, ammunition, medical supplies and senior leadership.

"It was very cold," Walker said. "Some of the guys' feet would turn dark (with frostbite)."

Walker noted that at one point, the 463rd was down to a mere eight shells per howitzer. But they still had plenty of charges left, so they fired their guns without shells.

"They made a big bang and a flash. The Germans thought we were firing at them, but we weren't," he said. "We were saving the shells for when we needed them."

With seven roads leading in and seven roads heading out of Bastogne, it was critical for the Germans to take control of the town in order to move their tanks and other vehicles, so they could achieve their ultimate goal of recapturing the Belgian port of Antwerp. That's why the Americans defended it with such stubborn tenacity.

"We had two barns full of prisoners," Walker said. "They were the guys that were supposed to come in and kill us."

The 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion was stationed around the small village of Hemroulle, about a mile northwest of Bastogne. Although the primary mission of Walker's battalion was to help keep the Germans from reaching Bastogne via the thinly covered western and southern sectors, the 463rd was called upon on a daily basis to assist other sectors along the 101st's perimeter as they were attacked.

When the 463rd arrived, Walker said the men of the 101st thought they were all "greenhorns" i.e. inexperienced soldiers. What they didn't realize was that the 463rd had seen its first combat in Sicily in July 1943, whereas the 101st didn't taste combat until the invasion of Europe, known as D-Day, in June 1944.

"We'd already been on the Italian front for a year," Walker said. "That was the difference."

The 463rd, along with the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, proved their worth and courage as soldiers when the Germans attacked around 3:30 a.m. Christmas Day 1944. They were headed straight toward Hemroulle.

"We took on 11 German tanks and their infantry. We had no tanks, no nothing," Walker said. "I think we knocked out two or three (German panzers) completely, captured one and the rest retreated. We took a lot of prisoners."

The battle lasted until 9 a.m.

The German forces who had attacked the 463rd and 401st were almost completely destroyed. Most of the enemy soldiers were either dead, wounded or captured.

"That was tough, but we didn't let them in," Walker said.

According to an account of the battle written by Martin F. Graham, who's father was a member of the 463rd, there was a some disagreement over exactly many German panzers the battalion took out.

Lt. Col. John Cooper, commander of the 463rd, "was convinced that since his guns had all 11 panzers in their sights, they had been responsible for the destruction of the entire force moving against Hemroulle," Graham wrote. "But as some of the tanks had moved after being struck, there was no way to confirm the kills. All that could be certain by the end of the day was that 18 panzers had attacked early on Christmas morning, and by 9 a.m., all had been destroyed, disabled or captured."

Since it was impossible to prove that the 463rd had destroyed more than two enemy tanks, Cooper decided that in the official report he would say his battalion knocked out two panzers and captured one.

"Cooper did not want to begin a controversy . . . by insisting that his battalion had actually knocked out eight tanks and captured one ," Graham wrote.

Fortunately, the courageous defenders of Bastogne lived to fight another day as they were relieved by elements of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army which arrived on Dec. 26.

The Siege of Bastogne resulted in more than 3,000 American casualties.

"I got out of it," Walker said. "A lot of guys didn't."

Germans should have played

it differently

Looking back, Walker believes had the Germans approached the Siege of Bastogne differently, they could have won.

"They had the power and they had us completely surrounded with their troops and with their tanks," he said. "But they took turns hitting different sections, different battalions and companies. They never hit all at once. When they couldn't get in, they pulled back each time and hit another section."

"If they had any brains, they would have opened up all the way around us at one time," Walker continued. "We couldn't have done nothing. We couldn't have stopped them. They didn't have brains enough to know that. They're supposed to be smart people. The Germans did dumb things; they could have won."

Becoming a paratrooper

It's interesting to note that although Walker served with the 463rd, he didn't start out as a paratrooper and only made one combat jump during WWII.

Originally, he was assigned to the 34th Division Artillery, which landed in North Africa. He got "loaned out" to the 463rd, which was fighting in Italy, but that assignment became permanent.

Walker's job as a forward observer, which never changed during the war, was to make his way into "no man's land" under the cover of darkness, get as close to the enemy as possible, then radio target coordinates back during the day, so American howitzers could pound the Germans.

Sometimes he spotted German forward observers moving at the same time. "They're headed that way toward our line and we're heading towards their line," he said.

Sometimes he got spotted and the Germans started shelling his position. "Then we had to do what we used to call 'haul ass,'" he said.

When the 463rd was going to make its move from Italy to France, Walker was told he didn't have to parachute in with the rest of them. He was given the option of going by ship.

"You have to volunteer to jump," he explained.

But Walker didn't want to be 'the guy who didn't jump' amongst a bunch of paratroopers.

"I thought I'm not going to be the flunky," he said. "Nowadays, they call it peer pressure. I never heard of that then."

Walker underwent one day's worth of instruction, then made five jumps over a two-day period to qualify for his wings. "Then I was a paratrooper," he said.

Leaping into combat

He made his one and only combat jump on Aug. 15, 1944 as part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France.

"I wasn't scared," Walker said. "I was never scared. For years, I used to tell people I was. I don't know why I did that. Then I decided I'm not going to say that anymore."

He still vividly remembers the plane ride there. "Nobody was talking," he said. "It was dark. You couldn't even light up a cigarette. No lights."

"I remember saying a prayer in my mind," Walker continued. "I prayed differently than I do now. I prayed a young guy's prayer. I prayed, 'If there is a God – see I had that question, I don't now – if I get wounded or die, don't let it pain too much. That was my prayer. I thought to pray to save my life wouldn't be right. Why (save) me? I didn't think that was right. Whatever happened, I didn't want it to hurt too much."

During that jump, Walker was wounded. He fractured his right hip on the way down, possibly on some tree limbs, and once he reached the ground, some enemy shell fragments lacerated his left knee and foot.

Three days after being wounded, a medic gave him a shot of morphine. "If I could have stood up, I would have kissed that guy," Walker said.

He spent three months hospitalized in Naples, Italy before returning to action with the 463rd and facing the Siege of Bastogne.

Walker never regretted this decision to become a last-minute paratrooper. "Every country we went in, the girls loved us," he said. "They loved the paratroopers."

Although he was proud of his service, his wife of 51˝ years, Marguerite Hoard, never knew that he was a paratrooper until 1991 when Lt. Col. Cooper contacted him.

"Until then, I didn't talk about it," Walker said. "I was proud of it. I don't know why I didn't talk about it. For 46 years, I just never talked about it."

Should Americans be kicking people out of their homes?

Looking back at his time in the war, there was one part that bothered Walker initially, at least back then.

When his battalion set foot on German soil for the first time, Walker was informed to get with a group of buddies, find a house they wanted to stay at overnight and tell the occupants that have "10 minutes to get out."

"That surprised me," he said. "I thought, 'We're Americans, should we be kicking people out of their houses?' It didn't seem right. But then I thought, 'Well, they're the enemy. I don't care if they are civilians.'

"To this day, I don't know who were the bad Germans and who were the good Germans – only they know."

Hollywood versus reality

Given that WWII ended 67 years ago, most of what people know about it today is colored by Hollywood's portrayals in movies and on television.

But Walker doesn't much care for what he's seen. "It makes me sick," he said. "It's nothing like what combat was."

All the talking during battle scenes is what bothers him the most. "There wasn't a lot of talk," Walker said. "That's ridiculous. What are they talking about?"

He noted the most accurate and realistic account was the 2001 HBO mini-series "Band of Brothers."

"It's pretty near how we lived," Walker said. "That's about how it was."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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