TAMPA — Boris Stern woke up on the floor of a basement in Winterspelt, Germany, to the sound of booming explosions.
Stern crept upstairs and spotted German soldiers setting up mortars. He made his way back down, alerted his lieutenant, and U.S. artillery guns fired on the position. The Germans were wiped out.
Stern, an infantry squad leader who was later promoted to sergeant, didn’t know at the time — 75 years ago, on Dec. 16, 1944 — that the Battle of the Bulge had just begun.
The battle was the largest of World War II for the Americans, and Germany’s last major offensive against Allied forces in the west. It was named for the Nazis’ all-out attempt to break through the Allied lines.
Thousands of American troops, many in their late teens, died, disappeared, were captured or injured during the course of the action — which lasted until Jan. 25. All but 18 of the 180 men in Stern’s own company suffered similar fates.
It took Stern, 94, years to speak openly of the bitter cold he felt as he slept in dirt holes and set up roadblocks on strategic paths. Or of the time he stopped three men in American uniform seeking passage through the line, only to gun them down when he realized through questioning that they were Germans in disguise.
Or when he fell flat onto the muddy ground after shrapnel hit him just above his ankle. He was alone, with only snow to clean the bloody wound and a sock to bind it. A thin white scar remains today.
It’s common among World War II veterans that details like these have remained hidden until about 10 or 20 years ago, said Steven Sidebotham, a University of Delaware history professor.
Sidebotham and his wife have been traveling the country collecting oral histories of World War II veterans since 2004. Recently, he came to Tampa to speak with Stern.
Many of these veterans repressed memories upon discharge to move on with their lives, Sidebotham noted. It wasn’t until they reached retirement that some opened up to their families and to others.
Even then, some may be careful about what they disclose. Stern can tell you about Christmas Day in Manhay in 1944 when the U.S. artillery fired short, killing several Americans, and how he searched through the dead to find one man alive. He’d rather not get into too much detail about blood on the floor of the makeshift field hospital.
After interviewing more than 355 World War II veterans, Sidebotham has come to realize that every voice counts. For instance, five men aboard a plane that was gunned down each shared unique details from their own emotional experiences at the time.
The importance of collecting this history and sharing it with others is underscored by a seminar on World War II that Sidebotham conducts, where a class of 15 undergraduates and graduate students use the interviews for their own reports on the conflict. While most of the students know the key events of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge, Sidebotham notes that each new class knows less and less about the war’s details and greater historical impact.
At the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at Florida State University, more than 7,000 artifacts such as letters and diary entries preserve veterans’ stories, said Kurt Piehler, the center’s director.
Yet as World War II veterans reach their 90s, Piehler and Sidebotham recognize the urgency of collecting any remaining material, whether it’s interviews or correspondence tucked away in attics.
“We’re in a race against time,” Sidebotham said.
Meanwhile, veterans such as Stern — who volunteers at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital just a few blocks from his apartment — do their part to remind new generations of the war’s legacy.
Many lessons arise from the Battle of the Bulge. There’s the sheer scope of the action told through casualties, how it served as a turning point for racial integration in the U.S. Army as the need for manpower superseded racial divisions. There’s the costly miscalculation of Adolf Hitler after several months of losses and the interviews with rank-and-file soldiers for the first time as a tool in developing tactics.
But for Stern, the reason to remember Dec. 16 is the one that motivates him to give talks at schools and military bases: “All the guys that didn’t come back.”