BACK

 

CHRISTMAS TIME IN THE CITY
by ARTHUR J. SCHMITZ, 101st Airborne Division, HQ Signal Co

As appeared in the Winter issue of the Screaming Eagle Magazine in 2005. Published after permission by "Art" Schmitz in 2008.
Reactions to : webmaster - we will make sure "Art" receives them!

"It was Christmas time in the City. The days were short and gloomy, and the area was covered with a blanket of knee deep, gleaming white snow.
It made for a dangerous kind of beauty because anything not white stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were a few similarities to the first Christmas. The first letter of the Belgian city of Bastogne at Christmas time 1944 was a B. There was no
room at the inn for the thousands of men positioned at strategic areas in and around the city. Better off, but not much, were the natives of the place, men,
little children, and women like Mary; expecting their 1st born, huddled, hungry and cold in dark cellars, praying with the men in the surrounding
countryside that the next minute might not be their last on an earth with no obvious peace or goodwill in the place.

The only lights in the starless and moonless night of December 24th, were the frequent eruptions of bluish white artillery fire glowing across the open fields
and woods around the city, followed by varying pitches of sound as missiles of steel hurtled toward their objectives in the city and the Domaine Militaire
nearby. Punctuated by the even more frequent flashes of small arms from men trying to fend off other men, determined to break through to the city itself,
there was no silence in the night.

This was the way it had been for days before Christmas. In an old Nelson Eddy movie - At the Balalaika, he played the role of a Russian Army Officer in
World War I. It was Christmas Eve in the trenches, and for one brief moment, the war seemed to stop as he sang Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht to his German
enemy.

There were few places near this Belgian city where there was light after dark. One was in the military base post office of the Domaine Militaire, where
anyone not otherwise occupied was pressed into service treating a constant influx of wounded and dying comrades. The other was the Message Center of
the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters. Both areas were completely blacked out as far as light being seen from outside.

In the message center, gathered around an old Philips radio, we listened to Radio Berlin doing a request broadcast; civilians in Germany asking for Christmas
carols to be played for their loved soldier sons serving in Narvik, Norway, Monte Cassino, Italy, or Novosibirsk, Russia. For those of us growing up as
descendants of German immigrants; it was a heart-wrenching irony to hear Oh Tannenbaum, Stille Nacht, Kling Gloekchen Kling, and long before Irving
Berlin wrote I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, there was Leise Rieselt der Schnee or Lightly Falls the Snow. All to the background noise of German steel
tearing the city apart and sending more casualties into the Post Office.

Later that evening, several of us posted as outlooks in one of the few intact houses in the area, kept a watchful eye for any sign of enemy activity on the
countryside through the still unbroken glass of the windows on each side of the unheated house. One man, smarting at having heard German carols began to
sing the English Christmas songs we knew.

Everyone, even though most didn't feel much like singing, joined in; anything to feel better about things on this war torn Christmas Eve. There was The First
Noel, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and others before we began Angels We Have Heard on High.

What we heard was the sound of the Angels of Death overhead! The drone of approaching planes above - probably Junkers of the German Luftwaffe stopped
the song. Grabbing our rifles a little tighter, for all the good that would do, we held our breath and waited.

And a bright star lit up the sky! The first planes dropped thermal flares, lighting up the landscape with such a brilliant glare, one could have read the fine
print of any contract without glasses.

Seconds later, without a word, everyone ran to the stairs, literally falling down the steps to the cellar as the area began to rock with the thunderous blasts
of exploding bombs and shattered building parts falling down above us. After checking to make sure we were all there, and everyone was safe, there was
little talk, and eventually we drifted into a fitful sleep.

Awakening on Christmas Day, we saw that our house had taken a direct hit; the 500 pound bomb still on its nose in what had been the only working toilet
in the area. On its descent it had spiraled as it hit the house, just about totally demolishing the place. But, it hadn't exploded!

Clambering our way out of the building, we thanked one of the guys for praying as we'd tumbled our way down into the basement the night before.
His comment was, "Someday I'm coming back here to Bastogne for a peaceful Christmas."
As I understand it, he did."


T/5 Arthur J. Schmitz, Camp Crowder, MO - 1942