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Veterans, their admirers mark Battle of the Bulge anniversary

| Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

It seems like it is always cold on the day to commemorate the epic battle.

For the soldiers of the Battle of the Bulge, the climactic winter battle of World War II, the war was a two-front affair. There were two enemies: the German army and the weather, the most severe in Europe in many years.

December 1944 through January 1945 was a hard time for soldiering.

Leroy "Whitey" Schaller, attending the annual gathering of the Western Pennsylvania Chapter 14 of the Battle of the Bulge on Saturday at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory in Hempfield Township, recalled the icy chill of those days when the outcome of the war hung in the balance.

Chester Lapa of Greensburg approached a fellow Bulge veteran, Gust College of Latrobe, before the ceremony and said, "It wouldn't be a Bulge anniversary if it wasn't cold."

"That's right," College said, "but it's not nearly as cold today as it was then."

The ground in Belgium that winter was frozen solid by temperatures that stayed at zero for days on end, Lapa explained. "There was no way to dig a foxhole."

College, 91, said the Germans "surprised us" at the Bulge, so named for the "bulge" the German offensive created in the Allied lines. The enemy objective was, in the process of driving U.S. and British troops back on their heels, to capture the port at Antwerp to choke off Allied supplies.

The plan failed. "We fought our way back," College said. "We finally got a handle on it."

The war against Germany ended in May 1945.

College, who was wounded in the late winter or early spring of 1945 and hospitalized for a month, rejoined his unit in time for the surrender. College, who was hit in the left shoulder by fragments of a German shell, said he still carries shrapnel in his body. "It doesn't bother me," he said.

College attended yesterday's event with his wife, Audrey. A luncheon followed the Armory affair. A crowd of 70 was expected to attend.

Schaller, a Fairfield Township resident and one of the founders of Chapter 14, said it was the largest gathering in years, though most attendees were relatives, friends or admirers of the former soldiers. Schaller said 12 veterans of the fighting were expected.

Schaller, 89, said 86 was the youngest any Bulge veteran could be now. "We're getting up there," he said.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy attended the ceremony, which included a wreath laying, a 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps" by the VFW Post 33 honor guard.

"We haven't forgotten what they did for us," said Murphy, an Upper St. Clair Republican.

Schaller recalled a German guard in the POW camp where he was taken after his capture in the opening hours of battle. The guard, alone with Schaller, cut his own arm and, as the blood trickled out, told the American, "See, we're all the same."

Schaller and other POWs possibly saved the guard's life when one of their U.S. liberators, pistol in hand, took exception to the guard hanging around the prisoners' barracks. Schaller said he and other former captives assured their saviors that the guard was a good man who should be spared.

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