Voices of the Battle of the Bulge: 'Do you want to surrender?'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a 10-part series about asking the same five questions to 10 World War II veterans who served during the Battle of the Bulge Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945. The veterans returned to Europe for 70th anniversary observances of the battle in Belgium and Luxembourg, Dec. 9-18, 2014. 

'The Greatest Victory'

Robert Thompson
2nd Infantry Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, Company A

Born in Philadelphia Oct. 17, 1924, Thompson was inducted into military service March 1, 1943, in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. Shipping out for Europe aboard the Argentina in mid-June 1944, he came ashore at Utah Beach in mid-July, joining the 2nd Infantry Division's campaign through the hedgerows of Normandy. Following the divisional arc through Central France to the Bulge, he was captured during the Rhine campaign, spending the remainder of the war as a Prisoner of War. His personal war ended at Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Germany. In addition to earning the Combat Infantry Badge and Victory in Europe Medal, he was also recognized with the French Legion of Honor and Jubile de Liberte Medal in the post-war years. Now a resident of Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, he retired in 1989 after 40 years as an engineer in the foundry industry.

Where were you during the Battle of the Bulge?

December 15th [1944] we were in pup tents getting brand new sleeping bags near Camp Elsenborn, but we weren't inside the camp. We had been there, I guess the 14th or 15th - two days of euphoria. And then, all of a sudden, they rousted us out. We were also having Christmas packages, food and having a ball. When they rousted us out of there, the night of the 16th, Saturday night, we left our sleeping bags, tents, Christmas packages, everything and just left.

It was a quiet night. We were in positions that were pre-dug by the 99th Division as back up. This thing we were in was, apparently, to be an anti-aircraft emplacement. A 20-foot round depression, and a foxhole--the kind up to your chin. Well, we weren't about to stay in a foxhole, and there was a farmhouse in the immediate area. We made that platoon headquarters. We were all in there, sleeping that night - there wasn't much left of that night, to tell you the truth, for sleep. Sunday the sun was out for maybe an hour, I have no recollection how long. ... We were looking down this draw, and a bunch of tanks down there--five. Then all of a sudden, we saw P-47s, and there were five less tanks; got all five. I pulled the chain, and the lights went out. The overcast came in, and at that point, there was never another airstrike.

Obviously, we hadn't heard of the 'Battle of the Bulge.' We had been there since Normandy. We weren't a 99th or 106th - a brand new one. We weren't the least bit excited about this. In fact, we were s sure it would blow over. Well, Sunday afternoon, the stuff hit the fan, and our beloved farm house became a mortar target. We left that thing in a hurry through the windows and any other way we could get out and into those foxholes! Miraculously, no one was wounded even. We all got positions, and then it died. We never saw anybody shoot at us; we hadn't fired a shot. Then everything quieted down again. I never understood exactly why. But Sunday night, just before midnight, our jeep driver, Maloney, arrived and said 'The situation is untenable. We're surrounded. We've got to get out.'

Five men stayed behind--I was one of them. ... We went into a town that I thought was Büllingen ...  By now, it's pushing Sunday night after 3 AM. We were told to hold our position from midnight to three. That was easy - nobody shot at us, we didn't shoot at anybody. Again, we didn't know there was a war on. At 3 o'clock, we went into town. There was supposed to be a truck to pick us up. Now, there wasn't, but that's understandable. The whole road up to Krewinkel had been a mass of Tiger tanks and Sherman tanks and GI trucks. You hear all kind of wild stories, but one fellow told me the roads were so crowded, the [Germans] couldn't even shoot at you. ...it must have been a madhouse.

We were in this basement. Monday morning, we decided to leave. We went out, but we had no map. The smog was so bad, you couldn't see where the sun should be. We couldn't orient in the least. We started out of town, and then there were some strange things and then we realized we were being shot at, but from a distance, which bothered us because there was no such thing as distance! Anyhow, we decided to go back into the basement where we had been early Monday morning. We were pretty tired, but we spent the rest of the day asleep in this basement. The next day, we decided we'd leave at night. Unfortunately, the town suddenly became occupied, and the [Germans] moved in upstairs, and we were in the basement.

We realized we were in a rather untenable situation. We decided we had to get out of this basement. Two of us - Daryl Holida and myself - put on white cloths at the end of our [Browning automatic rifles] and the steps were wide enough that two of us could go up abreast, which we did. A couple [Germans] were sitting in the front door with their backs to us. They were having breakfast. We didn't know any German. I just cleared my throat. They turned around, and I think they're still running. Their breakfast went flying. I called the rest of us up from the basement and trying to figure out what we were going to do. If we did run out the door, we had to have a plan of where we were going to run. When, all of a sudden, this German officer appears - about six-foot-five and as skinny as a rail - and his pistol was holstered. He walked up the front walk, and he says 'Do you want to surrender?'

I didn't shoot him, and nobody else did. So, from that point on was the next chapter: POW.

'The Greatest Victory'

How does it feel to be back 70 years later?

The response over here in Belgium and Luxembourg has been overwhelming. Most of us are just nonplussed. The re-enactors, of course, we have re-enactors in the states. Maybe it's just the occasion, but there were so many, generally interested in WWII. I mean, this was 70 years for gosh's sakes. Of course, I don't know how many Civil War buffs we have in our country. I don't think we have many WWI buffs--at least, I don't know where they are. They don't get much publicity. My wife and I came over on the first VBOB tour in 1984 for the 40th anniversary. And, gee whiz, I don't recall quite the outpouring. We had a great trip, but I just don't recall the outpouring of others.

What was the proudest moment of your military career?

Back in Normandy, I was made squadron leader. I never lost a man after. Lucky or not, I didn't do anything heroic. I never saw anyone do anything heroic. We trudged along. We heard the shells come in, and we hit the dirt, said a little prayer.

For whatever reason, we didn't lose a man... until the 16th of December.

What got you through some of the toughest of times?

[What got you through as a POW?] I had already gotten through them. Being a POW was cake. Hell, no one was shooting at you, and you had a bed. You shared a bed with a few lice, but the fact that you shared your bed with another guy in a bunk--the bunk was three-high, so you were sleeping two-four-six. Things were bad - the food.  I think the [Germans] were doing the best they could. We were raising havoc with their supply lines. I don't think the guards were eating a lot better than we were.

'The Greatest Victory'

What advice do you have for the men and women in uniform today?

For God's sake, stay off drugs. Get educated--if you don't get it in the service, the G.I. Bill, take advantage of everything they give you. It's pretty obvious, to get by today. You're in trouble if you're not educated.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thompson's biography provided by the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.
Video by Senior Airman Rusty Frank
Photos by Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden and Senior Airman Rusty Frank
Thompson's full story of his war experiences can be read in his 2013 book "World War II Scrapbook: European Theater of Operations"