Battle of the Bulge veterans gathered in Manhattan’s American Legion post Saturday in honor of their service to the country during one of the world’s most harrowing wars.
The event marked the 68th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, which took place between Dec. 16, 1944, and Jan. 25, 1945. It was also the fourth annual celebration for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Northeast Kansas Chapter.
The Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle for the U.S. Army in World War II, began after the Germans launched a surprise offensive through the Ardennes. More than a million soldiers battled along an 80-mile front in Belgium and Luxembourg, and there were nearly 200,000 casualties total. By Jan. 25, 1945, the Americans were able to push the enemy back to the German border, ending the battle.
Eighteen veterans who participated in the battle attended Saturday’s celebration with several more World War II veterans also in attendance.
Tad Pritchett, president of the Northeast Kansas chapter and a Vietnam veteran, praised the gathered veterans for their tenacity, bravery and loyalty during the war.
“They bent, but they never broke,” Pritchett said. “They truly believed in their hearts that some things are worth dying for.”
Here are some of their stories. All men profiled fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Carl Shell enlisted in the Army in 1942 as a coal miner from Kentucky at only 16 years of age.
The largest battle he fought during the war was the Battle of the Bulge. Shell was sitting on the front lines when it broke out.
“It wasn’t a picnic,” Shell said.
Shell, a tank gunner throughout the war, said he was on guard on top of a tank when the firing started, and before he knew it, the enemy was right in front of him.
“I had a couple tanks knocked out, (but) I got my share of them, too,” he said.
Shell went back to the coal mines in August 1945, but said it was not 30 days later that he told his father, “Dad, this is not for me. Gotta go back in the Army.”
After five years of service, Shell decided to make a career out of it.
He retired as a command sergeant major, the highest ranking non-commissioned officer of any unit.
Art Holtman, who lives in Manhattan, was the first draft out of Riley County for one year of military training prior to the United States’ entry into World War II.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 10 months after he became a “selectee,” his term was extended, and Holtman spent nearly five years in selective service.
During the Battle of the Bulge, Holtman was with the 18th Airborne Corps in Belgium. He has two vivid memories of the battle: the bitter cold and the day when the clouds parted and the air corps could resume action once again. He said he stood on the ground cheering them along.
During the war, Holtman also took part in two other campaigns, Rhineland and Central Europe.
In July 1945, Holtman was sent back from Europe. It was intended that he would continue on to Japan after a 30-day leave, but Holtman said that during that time he was at home, the bombs were dropped in Japan.
After the war, Holtman returned to Manhattan.
John Mock of Eureka was drafted in 1943.
Mock fought during the Battle of the Bulge and also spent time as a prisoner of war until gaining freedom after one fateful train ride through Germany.
After being imprisoned, Mock was put in a railroad car, or a “40 and 8,” with 276 other American soldiers. As it approached the town of Berkholz, Germany, American P-47 and P-48 fighter planes fired on the train’s locomotive.
Mock said that about five days later, the train crew came and unlocked the doors, allowing the soldiers to drink some water.
The railroad ran under the main street of the town, and Mock said the soldiers slept on the rocks under the platform that night. It was the first time they could lie down in a week.
The next day, Mock said, the fattest GIs he had ever seen came walking down the main street. At the time, Mock, who is 6 feet tall, weighed 105 pounds.
“When we saw them, the tears really started rolling,” he said.
Mock eventually was taken to a field hospital, where a nurse was at a loss for words upon seeing him standing there in a German overcoat. She was brought to tears upon discovering they were American prisoners-of-war.
He was given a cot, a bucket of warm water with a brand new bar of soap, a razor, mirror and comb and a brand new pair of pajamas to replace his lice-infested clothing.
He said he was also given a coffee cup full of the best sliced peaches he’s ever eaten.
Jim Sharp grew up in Morris County. He received an agriculture deferment to raise food for the cause after both brothers joined the service.
But, Sharp said, after six months of his buddies dying or being captured, he, at 19, was ready to join the service.
His father’s last words before he enlisted were “Don’t let them put you in the infantry.”
Sharp, who went to Fort Leavenworth to enlist, tried to get into the Navy. He told an officer in charge that his brother was in the Navy and liked it, so that is where he’d like to be. The officer told him, “Well the U.S. Army likes men like you,” and pointed him in the direction of the army recruitment.
Sharp was placed in the infantry, where he was a combat infantryman throughout the war.
On the front lines, Sharp said, soldiers were either on patrol in no man’s land, in combat, riding tanks or in foxholes. Though he wasn’t supposed to, Sharp kept a diary.
“My two-and-a-half years was a lifetime of experience,” he said.
After the war, he was chosen as a sergeant of the guard for the Nuremberg war trials.
Sharp has written books on his experiences, including “Sgt. of the Guard at Nuremberg” and “Diary of a Combat Infantryman.”
Arnold Debrick of Paola did not like to talk about the war for a long time after he left the service. The most he would tell his wife was, “Boy, it sure feels good to be in a nice, warm bed.”
Debrick went into service before graduating high school. He had two classmates who were drafted, and he decided he wanted to go with them. All three went to Fort Leavenworth, but only Debrick passed the test.
After landing in Europe, he was put on a railroad car traveling through France. The Battle of the Bulge had just begun.
It was on that train ride that Debrick engaged in a bit of mischief that would come full circle 30 years after the war.
Debrick said that in his railroad car, he told a soldier next to him, “This is no good. Let’s crawl out and get on top of the car.”
The two men climbed on top as the train traveled through the French timberland. Debrick said that the other soldier was a car or two ahead when he saw him take a flip. Debrick immediately dropped down and felt a wire tip the top of his helmet.
For more than three decades, Debrick didn’t know what had happened to that soldier. “I just assumed he was somewhere in France,” he said.
Then one day, 30 years after he was out of service, his cousin invited him over for lunch and introduced him to a man the cousin had met in training.
The man asked Debrick, “Remember that time we jumped on that boxcar?”
The man explained that the wire had caught him but that he had been able to hold on to the car.
During the war, Debrick eventually made his way to the Ardennes and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He also helped to liberate Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp.