Sunday, May 20, 2018
Military News

Howard Altman: Battle of the Bulge survivor recalls friendly fire during heroic holdout

Boris A. Stern was a 19-year-old Army sergeant from Chicago when German forces came pouring westward on Dec. 16, 1944, in the snowy hell of Belgium’s Ardennes Forest.

He’s now 92 and living in Carrollwood and I’ve been lucky enough to catch up with him a couple of times since Veterans Day. As a history geek, I always think this time of year of what we now know as the Battle of the Bulge. It is a tremendous honor to share his story.

"I was right on the line when the attack first happened," Stern said, talking over the noise of the annual Veterans Day parade at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

Two days after the attack, he was sent to a town called Winterspelt, where he was assigned to take charge of the regimental food and ammo dumps.

"I did that during a war game in Indiana before I went overseas and got an award for it, so they sent me to Winterspelt," he said with a laugh.

That’s where he was on the morning of Dec. 16 when more than 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch effort to win the war. Stern was in the Ardennes, a 75-mile stretch of the front marked by dense woods and few roads, held by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoning.

Stern was sleeping in the basement of a "dump hotel with my clothes on, obviously" when there were "tremendous explosions.

"We didn’t have any idea of what was happening. I went up to the second floor with field glasses, looked around and saw Germans setting up mortars."

Stern said he called down to a lieutenant on the first floor and told him about the Germans.

"He called in an artillery strike and wiped them out," said Stern, who later wound up in the town of St. Vith, a key target of German forces.

"The weather was terrible. My left foot was freezing. The best way to put it is that we held them off for six days."

That holdout against superior forces helped turn the tide, Stern said.

"It gave all the other outfits a chance to get in there."

On Christmas Day, Stern was in the town of Manhay when artillery started raining down.

But they were American, not German, shells and they were falling short of their target.

Stern and three other soldiers went out after the shelling stopped looking for American bodies.

"We found a bunch. One of them was still alive."

The soldiers drove back, at times raked with German machine gun fire, and found their way to a field hospital. As they carried one survivor in, "the floor was full of blood and we were sloshing around."

Stern said that the most frightening moments of the battle came toward the end of January 1945.

Once again, the Germans were not to blame.

"I can tell you, the most scared I ever was was when we were bombed and strafed by American P-38s. I have never been so scared in my life, because there was nothing we could have done. I would later find out it was not their fault. They were given the wrong coordinates."

I asked Stern what lessons he learned from the 10 days he spent in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge.

"I learned a lot," he said. "The basic thing I learned is that if you get in a war, you win. Don’t tell me what I can or cannot do. I’d still be in jail if they had the same rules back then as they have today."

I asked him to elaborate.

"We caught three Germans dressed in American uniforms trying to go through our lines in a jeep. We started asking questions. ‘Where were you born?’ ‘What is the name of the baseball team?’ ‘Who is the mayor?’"

The men in the jeep had trouble answering.

"We caught them lying and shot them on the spot. I don’t know if we could do it today."

There was one more takeaway, and it had to do with context.

"I found out later that we lost over 8,600 guys in 10 days, killed, wounded, captured, missing in action."

By contrast, the U.S. has lost about 7,000 troops in the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks.

"I was one of the lucky ones," Stern said.

He pulled up the left leg of his pants and pointed to a scar where he was hit by shrapnel.

"I just got a little scratch."

•••

The Pentagon last week announced the death of a soldier supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

Staff Sgt. David Thomas Brabander, 24, of Anchorage, Alaska, died Dec. 11 in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, as a result of a non-combat related incident. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 48 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 41 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

Comments
Trump announces he will nominate acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to become department’s permanent leader

Trump announces he will nominate acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to become department’s permanent leader

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Friday that he plans to nominate Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie to become the department’s permanent leader, noting that the decision may come as a surprise to Wilkie."I’ll ...
Published: 05/18/18
McDonald’s giving away free food to military members today

McDonald’s giving away free food to military members today

TAMPA— All current and former military service members in central Florida can stop by their local McDonald’s and grab a free burger today.In celebration of Military Appreciation Month, McDonald’s is giving away a "Taste of Thanks." All veterans and c...
Published: 05/17/18
Howard Altman: MacDill chosen to sell new Army-like Air Force uniforms

Howard Altman: MacDill chosen to sell new Army-like Air Force uniforms

Home to headquarters including U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base is at the forefront of a lot of important military action.Now it is taking on a new role — as a prime Air Force clothier.The flying branch...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
MacDill reviewing transportation plans after crowds jam roads for AirFest 2018

MacDill reviewing transportation plans after crowds jam roads for AirFest 2018

TAMPA — Tampa Bay AirFest 2018 pulled in a whopping 150,000 people and more over three days last week, including practice on Friday.But that proved to be more people than the transportation plan could handle, delaying arrival by hours for some and pr...
Published: 05/17/18
Vital military training falls short, New Port Richey veteran says: How to re-enter civilian life

Vital military training falls short, New Port Richey veteran says: How to re-enter civilian life

When Green Beret Brian Anderson got ready to leave the Army in 2011, after eight years fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, he followed the path taken by tens of thousands of service members each year.Anderson, now 36 and living in New Port ...
Published: 05/14/18
Clouds can’t dampen crowd’s enthusiasm at packed MacDill Airfest

Clouds can’t dampen crowd’s enthusiasm at packed MacDill Airfest

TAMPA — With his 4-year-old son Tyler on his shoulders, Ryan Wick watched the Navy’s Blue Angels aerial demonstration team scream over the MacDill Air Force Base flight line at about 400 miles an hour.An hour or so earlier, the two struck a similar p...
Published: 05/12/18
US jets intercept pair of Russian bombers off Alaskan coast

US jets intercept pair of Russian bombers off Alaskan coast

Two Russian long-range bombers were intercepted off the coast of Alaska by a pair of F-22 Raptor fighter jets on Friday, the military said.The Tu-95 bombers were flying in the Air Defense Identification Zone in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Is...
Published: 05/12/18
Agencies are told to step up use of special powers to hire military spouses

Agencies are told to step up use of special powers to hire military spouses

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump has issued an order aimed at boosting hiring by federal agencies of spouses of military personnel, who often face career difficulties as a result of being relocated frequently.Military service "often impairs the sp...
Published: 05/12/18
WWII planes, their wings overlapping, take to the air at MacDill festival this weekend

WWII planes, their wings overlapping, take to the air at MacDill festival this weekend

TAMPA — As a formation of World War II trainers cruised 1,000 feet over Tampa Bay, a 60-year-pilot flew one of the single-engine propeller planes so close to another that their wings overlapped by three feet.The tight maneuver is old hat to Steve Sal...
Published: 05/10/18
Updated: 05/11/18
Watch: Times photographer takes a wild ride in MacDill Airfest plane

Watch: Times photographer takes a wild ride in MacDill Airfest plane

RIVERVIEW — Tampa Bay Times photographer Luis Santana helped take the controls of an Extra 300L aircraft that will be part of this weekend’s Tampa Bay AirFest 2018 at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. With Santana on board, pilot John Kla...
Published: 05/10/18