1. News
  2. /
  3. Military

Remembering the lost on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge

Historians are in a race against time to collect veterans’ stories like those of Tampa’s Boris Stern.
Boris Stern, one of the last remaining survivors of the Battle of the Bulge, the battle with the greatest American casualties in WWII poses for a portrait in his home in Tampa, Florida on Monday, December 9, 2019. The 75th anniversary of the battle is Dec. 16th. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Boris Stern, one of the last remaining survivors of the Battle of the Bulge, the battle with the greatest American casualties in WWII poses for a portrait in his home in Tampa, Florida on Monday, December 9, 2019. The 75th anniversary of the battle is Dec. 16th. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Dec. 16, 2019
Updated Dec. 16, 2019

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.

Among the U.S. troops that fought the Battle of the Bulge were members of the 1st Army, 6th Armored Division, shown here in St. Vith, Belgium. [Kennth Harman Collection, Florida State University]

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.

RELATED: Carrollwood veteran gets hero’s welcome retrieving dog tags from Normandy

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.

Boris Stern received a medal for being inducted in the French Foreign Legion. Boris Stern is one of the last remaining survivors of the Battle of the Bulge, the battle with the greatest American casualties in WWII poses for a portrait in his home in Tampa, Florida on Monday, December 9, 2019. The 75th anniversary of the battle is on Dec. 16th. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

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.”


  1. It started 40 years ago with a task force of 261 men and evolved into U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. Some 3,000 people work there now. [Times (2011)]
  2. Suzi Goodhope of Havana, Fla., and Shiraz, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois, are helping in the search for an African American cemetery forgotten somewhere on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base. Goodhope trains human-remains detection dogs in Havana, Fla. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
  3. Like the rest of Florida, and Tampa in particular, MacDill Air Force Base treated African Americans as second class citizens in its early days during World War II. The history is surfacing again as archaeologists prepare to search for graves that might have been left behind in a black cemetery when the base was developed. [Times (2000)]
  4. Communication is the goal as a blindfolded Robert Simison, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class, navigates an obstacle course under the direction of fiancee Jamie Boate. The two are taking part in couples therapy for Special Operations Forces families. [WILLIE J. ALLEN JR.  |  Special to the Times]
  5. New Air Force dress guidelines released Feb. 7, 2020 set standards allowing personnel to wear turbans, hijabs and beards. [US Air Force]
  6. Concerns about the boom pod on a KC-135 Stratonker, like the one pictured here, prompted an emergency landing at MacDill Air Force Base while the jet was being used as a flying classroom. [Times (2011)]
  7. FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2019, file photo, a man waves an Afghan flag during Independence Day celebrations in Kabul, Afghanistan. An Afghan official Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, said multiple U.S. military deaths have been reported in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province after an insider attack by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File) [RAFIQ MAQBOOL  |  AP]
  8. National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) [SUSAN WALSH  |  AP]
  9. Sam Flores admires a new statue of his late brother, William Flores, Monday at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector, St. Petersburg. The statue honors William Flores, who helped save fellow crew members on the US Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn when it sank on January 28, 1980. Twenty three crew members died. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
  10. Jessica Purcell of St. Petersburg, a captain in the Army Reserve, was pregnant with son Jameson when she was told at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic not to worry about lumps under her arm. She now is diagnosed stage 4 cancer. Jameson is 10 months old. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
  11. This undated file photo provided by the FBI shows Mohammed Alshamrani. The United States is preparing to remove more than a dozen Saudi military students from a training program and return them to their home country after an investigation into a deadly shooting by Saudi aviation student Alshamrani at a Florida navy base in December 2019, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. [AP]
  12. MacDill Air Force Base now requires all visitors looking to enter the base to show either Department of Defense ID or valid photo ID with a base pass. [Air Force photo] [HANDOUT  |  Air Force]