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