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Caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge

Local WWII veteran remembers close calls

Posted: May 15, 2012 4:56 p.m.
Updated: May 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

(Recognizing the valor of South Carolinians who fought in World War II, 19 electric cooperatives joined Honor Flight of South Carolina in April to fly 100 veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial built in their honor and other historic sites. This is the first of three stories on Kershaw County veterans who served in World War II and who were part of this Honor Flight.)

Henry FitzGerald was just 22 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, but when he arrived on the battlefield in Europe, he was one of the oldest soldiers in his infantry unit.

FitzGerald entered the Army relatively late because he was working in a machine shop in his home of Berwyn, Pa., that was vital to the war effort. The shop made propellers for aircraft, so he received three deferments before finally being drafted and placed in the 90th Infantry Division -- just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

The winter of 1944 was the coldest in 65 years, which didn’t make life any easier for “green as grass” recruits like FitzGerald who struggled to survive against the elements as much as they fought against the German army.

“It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” he says.

He was still adapting to the winter conditions when the Germans launched their counteroffensive against Allied troops on Dec. 15, 1944, and FitzGerald, a machine gunner, found himself in the heart of the battle. He didn’t stop fighting until the war ended seven months later, and along the way, survived countless close calls.

Once, he recalls, he was freezing and hungry in his foxhole. The guy in the next hole was cooking something. “I started walking toward his hole and a shell landed smack in the middle of mine,” he says. “It killed the guy in the hole behind me.”

While crossing a river in Germany, a machine gun opened up on his column. “It killed the crap out of the guys in front of me. I didn’t get touched,” he recalls.

He was wounded once. Shrapnel from an exploding shell nicked him, but he never put in for a Purple Heart. “I said to myself, ‘Better not say a word. Next time you’ll earn one.’”

He was promoted to sergeant, primarily because he managed to stay alive longer than the guys around him, and says he considers himself “extremely lucky to have survived. There were at least eight times I should have been dead, but God was watching over me.”

Thinking back on his service in World War II, he makes a point to remember his Army buddies -- the ones he lost and the ones who survived.

“I think about the people I served with all the time,” he says. “Most are gone now. But I still remember them.”

-- Jeff Wilkinson

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