Tom Lacey, like many veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, remembers the cold.
“The coldest weather I have ever been in,” the World War II veteran said. “It gets so cold that your mind doesn’t function…it takes so long to get a simple idea across.”
This September, almost 55 years later, Lacey is going back to visit some of the old battlefields. At 93 years old, his mind is still clear, and he sharply recalls the battles and experiences of his two-and half years in the U.S. Army.
Survival wasn’t merely a matter of taking cover from artillery barrages and the violence of battling the German Army during their last offense of the war – enduring through the physical discomfort of living in foxholes, freezing air and dealing with issues like trench foot were all monumental challenges for Allied soldiers as well.
Lacey considers himself one of the lucky ones who lived through the killing barrages at the beginning of the battle in December 1944, and served in combat from November 15, 1944 until April 6, 1945.
He served with the 99th Infantry Division, where he witnessed and participated in some of the most significant battles in Northern Europe, from the horrific battle of the Hurtgen Forest to Elsenborn Ridge, to the crossing of the Rhine River at the battle for the Bridge at Remagen, and on into Germany.
The 99th Infantry also played a significant strategic role in the Battle of the Bulge, when its inexperienced troops refused to buckle under the northern edge of the German advance, blocking their access to a vital road network leading into Belgium. The 99th suffered 2,524 casualties during that fight, 465 of which were killed in action. Lacey’s company of about 200 men had about a dozen left unscathed.
Lacey entered the service in July 1943. He would be spend two Christmases in service; during the second he tried to enjoy his Christmas turkey in a cold foxhole in Belgium. It was a far journey from his hometown of Wheaton, Illinois, located just west of Chicago. The Army took him to basic training in Texas, then on to England, to combat in Belgium and then into Germany. It was a mix of good times, and bad.
Along the way was the typical basic training sergeant, a visit to a Boston nightclub and seeing and meeting Lena Horne, who preformed there that evening. There was also the fierce German artillery barrage on December 16, 1944, which opened the Battle of the Bulge and was as bad as anything he ever experienced.
“They threw everything at us,” Lacey said. “It was so long that it knocked out all of our telephone lines to the regiment.”
There were too-eager officers who fought unnecessary battles, and the seemingly never-ending resistance by German troops, but mixed in, there were good moments like a respite from fighting in the Belgium resort town of Spa, and fresh bread from coming from local ovens.
Even in the worst of situations, sometimes something worth remembering would be born. Once Lacey had to jump into a foxhole to survive a white phosphorus shelling – a dangerous substance that burns when it sticks to the skin. He was joined in the foxhole by a mongrel about the size of a German Shepherd, which Lacey named Herman. The dog provided amusing antics amidst the wartime hardships. In one instance, Lacey was supposed to be woken up by his friend and fellow soldier Bill at 1 a.m., for two hours of mid-night guard duty, but Lacey woke with the sun shining in his face and wondered why Bill hadn’t awakened him. Herman, the dog, greeted Lacey and they headed off to the chow line together, where they were met by an angry Bill.
“‘Lacey, you have to get rid of that damn dog, I tried to awaken you at 1:00 and Herman wouldn’t let me get near your foxhole,’” Lacey recalled. “‘I’ll shoot the critter if he ever does that again.’ From then on, I called Herman ‘Saint Herman.’”
Another time, an overzealous captain tried to turn away a priest from an aid station while he was visiting causalities.
“‘I repeat it Father Hockhaus – you have no business here, you’re not a medical man,’” the captain had said.
Hockhaus had responded that, according to the 106th Article of War, he was entitled to see to the spiritual welfare of the men.
Lacey recalled the captain had stated, “You come on in over my dead body.”
“Well, it’s your choice,” said the priest. With that the padre cold-cocked the captain with a right hook to the jaw.
No official record was ever made of the incident, but Father Hockhaus had continued to make his rounds without interference.
Lacey saw the Father after the war, at dinner at Marquette University where he was teaching.
Lacey brought a fifth of Jack Daniels with him, and he and Hockhaus retired to the father’s room.
They talked about WWII, killed the fifth and said a sad farewell at about one o’clock in the morning, Lacey recalled. He was a more voracious drinker at the time, “but I must tell you that the good padre did his share of finishing off that fifth.”
As time went on, Lacey lost contact with those friends from the Army.
“We got involved with other things,”
For Lacey that was a career in engineering after the war, which including stints working on jet fighter planes – including a version of the British Harrier by McDonnell-Douglas Corp during a 41-year career.
He was slow to begin sharing his stories about the service.
He began visiting classrooms where
students asked about his experiences, but his family said it’s only been recently where the WWII veteran has begun to tell those tales.
“For five or six years we have been
hearing the stories,” said Theresa Lintzenich, Lacey’s seventh daughter.
“Nobody asked,” Lacey said.
There is little bombast about his
accounting of events: It’s a truthful telling from an infantryman who lugged around a 40-pound radio used to provide information to his battalion headquarters, and maybe call in an artillery barrage when things got hairy.
He’s written about them in a 71-page reminisce on his experience called “An Infantryman’s Reflections on World War II.”
The writing was suggested by his granddaughter Julia Larson, who presented him a booklet of about 100 pages and said, “Grandpa, start writing.”
It talks less about battles, and more about the friends he made and the experiences they had.
“This little book is put together in an effort to give the reader some idea of what infantry was like during those most anxious years,” Lacey writes.
It’s not all horrific, and it’s also addressed to his 12 children and family members.
“As you can see I have focused on many individuals to tell the story,” Lacey writes. “This is because in life, it is individual people and their accomplishments that make life interesting and worthwhile.”
“Signed, Love, Dad,” he adds.