Editor’s Note: Local business owner, Kentucky State University instructor, and writer Marlene Browning-Wainscott has spent nearly a decade interviewing local veterans, a passion that began upon meeting World War II veteran Jarl Lee Harris. The following story is the result of an interview with Harris reflecting on The Battle of the Bulge from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25, 1945.
Called “the greatest American battle of the war” by Winston Churchill, the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region of Belgium was Adolf Hitler’s last major offensive in World War II against the Western Front. The German troops’ failure to divide Britain, France, and America with the Ardennes offensive paved the way to victory for the allies. The assault, also called the Battle of the Ardennes, took place during frigid weather conditions, with some 30 German divisions attacking battle-fatigued American troops across 85 miles of the densely-wooded Ardennes Forest.
As we near the 78th anniversary of the battle, we remember and honor the heroism of the approximately 19,000 U.S. and allied casualties and the thousands who lived with the memories of the battle for the remainder of their lives.
We especially honor our late local hero, Jarl Lee, who died Oct. 4, 2020, at the age of 96.
BY MARLENE BROWNING-WAINSCOTT
Sweet Owen Contributor
Owen County native Jarl Lee Harris was 18 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, serving as a paratrooper and a member of the 101st Airborne Screamin’ Eagles. The 101st participated in many battles during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans needed to seize the main roads in eastern Belgium, which would give them a significant advantage against the allied troops. All the main roads converged in the small town of Bastogne. As a result, control of the crossroads in Bastogne was vital to the Germans.
On Dec. 16, 1944, the 101st Airborne, under the command of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, entered the area near the town of Bastogne to protect it from the German Army. When the troops arrived, the Germans surrounded them, resulting in one of the largest and deadliest battles of the war but also a pivotal turning point for allied forces.
“When we went in, an artillery outfit came out, and then the Germans surrounded us,” Harris recalled. “We were surrounded.”
The winter conditions were harsh on the troops. The snow lay thick on the ground, nearly 2 feet, and the air was bitterly cold. The soldiers were given clothes for the frigid temperatures—wool pants, boots, long johns, wool overcoat, and wool socks.
“Nothing could really keep you warm when you were continually exposed to below-freezing temperatures,” Harris said. “So many men got frostbite, which is why I always carried my suitcase with extra supplies, like dry socks. I always wore two pairs of socks. I think that’s what helped me survive.
“We stayed in our foxhole most of the time. There were four of us. It was so cold. We couldn’t build a fire or anything because it would give away our location, so we were lucky that we found a haystack and put the hay to cover the ‘floor.’ It helped quite a bit to keep us warm. We found some fence posts and used them to put over the hole. It kept the snow and wind out, but it was mostly to keep the shrapnel from the artillery from coming into the foxhole. One of the guys had a harmonica. He would play, and we would sing. We only did that during the day. We couldn’t do anything like that at night. We didn’t want the Germans sneaking up on us. We would try to sing, but I didn’t sing too well.”
The days immediately leading up to Christmas Eve had been difficult and proved to be the toughest of the battle. Harris’s best friend had been shot in the leg and taken to the first aid hospital outside town.
“We were best friends,” Harris said. “We were both artists. We had decided when we got back home we were going to Chicago to the art institute.”
Unfortunately, that never happened.
“We called him Bed Check Charlie,” Harris continued. “He would fly over us during the strafing [high-speed firing from guns] and dropping bombs. That night he bombed the hospital. I lost my best friend.”
A Christmas greeting from the General
Gen. McAuliffe knew the soldiers’ morale was low. It was Christmas Eve; the troops longed to be home with their loved ones. They needed to understand how important they were to the world. The following is an excerpt from Gen. McAuliffe’s letter to his troops on Christmas Eve, 1944.
Headquarters 101st Airborne Division
Office of the Division Commander
24 December 1944
What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting—it’s cold—we aren’t home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and all the rest? Just this: we have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south, and west. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions, and one German Parachute Division.
The letter continues with a message from the German Commander informing McAuliffe and the members of the 101st that they needed to surrender because their efforts were in vain.
“The General knew that the Germans were bluffing,” Harris said of the letter. “They were running out of supplies. They didn’t have enough gas to run the tanks and were short on ammunition too. When (the German Commander) wrote the letter wanting us to surrender, (McAuliffe) wrote back, ‘NUTS!’ That meant we weren’t going to give up!”
McAuliffe’s letter to the troops ended with these words: “We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.”
Most likely, this was not quite the dinner the majority of the troops would have received on Christmas Day at home, but it was the best that most of them had the opportunity to eat for a while.
“K Rations,” or emergency rations, were a staple in the field, so anything else was a welcome change. Despite the recent events, many troops enjoyed a brief Christmas dinner.
“The cook had been a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York until he had been drafted for the war,” Harris recalled. “It was just ‘C’ [canned rations], but he knew how to doctor up the food. Best of all, it was hot food. It was the first time we had had hot food in a long time. We always had to eat everything cold. It was such a special treat. After the meal, we talked for a little bit. Everybody was coming in and out because we had to take turns.
“The snow and low clouds made it impossible for our planes to come in and drop supplies. We had not received anything in a long time. On Dec. 26, the weather cleared up, and they dropped our supplies. It was like getting Christmas, but (Santa) just ran a little late.”
Not only did they receive much-needed supplies, but Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had arrived to provide relief to the 101st Airborne. The siege at Bastogne ended shortly after Patton’s arrival.
Many things during the Battle of the Bulge made Christmas seem so far away. Artillery continually filled the sky, and supplies ran extremely low, including ammunition. The troops knew that the dream of being home with loved ones was only a dream, and the reality was a frozen foxhole surrounded by the enemy. The young soldiers of the 101st Airborne may not have had the Christmas they dreamed of, but they found comfort, strength, and hope in each other.
Often we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays and forget how blessed we are to be able to celebrate this most joyous time of the year freely. While each of us has different holiday traditions, our common bond is that we gather with those we love. Please remember to thank our veterans and current military men and women who have sacrificed so many holidays so we may have the freedom to spend the holidays with the ones we love.