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Battle of the Bulge veterans share memories in Hempfield

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 6:22 p.m.

Nearly 70 years later, Battle of the Bulge survivors recalled the frigid cold and the overwhelming odds they faced as they confronted the German army.

Temperatures dipped below zero back in December 1944 in Western Europe, and frostbite was as much an enemy as the Nazis, former World War II soldiers recalled on Saturday. The battle was waged in the Ardennes region in Belgium, France and Luxembourg from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945.

Veterans of the battle were honored during an anniversary ceremony of the battle at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory in Hempfield.

“What I remember the most is the cold weather,” said Joseph Folino, 91, of Hempfield, an Army staff sergeant. “The battle was bad enough ... but a lot of the soldiers didn't have the proper clothes. It happened so fast.”

German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered the counteroffensive in a last-ditch effort to drive American and British forces from his country's doorstep and sue for peace.

The gamble failed, and the exhausted German army backtracked. The victorious Allies again were on the move toward Germany by February 1945, only a few months before the German surrender.

“We had more frozen feet than we did casualties,” recalled Harry McCracken of Penn Township, a combat medic.

They couldn't light fires to keep warm, in fear the Germans would see them, McCracken said. Eventually, they came upon an abandoned school.

“Guys stayed overnight there to get thawed,” McCracken said.

Eugene Jones, 88, of Latrobe recalled how snowy and cold it was for his Army unit in Belgium.

“Once we got there, it was all snow, and it was colder than hell,” he said.

Jones, a private, said he got frostbite and trenchfoot so severe that he was sent to a French hospital. There, he became aware of other soldiers whose toes were amputated because of frostbite.

“I thought they were going to take me next. But they didn't take me,” Jones remembered.

Instead, he was sent to a hospital in England.

“They started treating me, exercising me, sticking pins in my feet. They did that a couple of days,” he said.

Eventually, “I got circulation back in my feet,” Jones recalled.

To this day, Jones said, his feet are bothered by the cold.

Leroy “Whitey” Schaller, 91, of Fairfield, a founder of the Western Pennsylvania Chapter 14 of the Battle of Bulge, still sometimes flashes back to his time as an Army private.

“I wake up most nights after four or five hours of sleep,” Schaller said. “When I try to go back to sleep, it's on my mind, even after all these years.

“I don't have big nightmares, but it occupies my mind,” he added.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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