The Army’s brightest young men, handpicked to be engineers, found themselves on the front lines in the Battle of the Bulge
Palm Beach (FL) Post Staff Reporter
Florence Dukes’ hazel eyes gape wide with amazement.
Her husband of 58 years, Richard, is recalling what he survived in the bitter winter of 1944, during World War II with the 99th Infantry Division, deployed in the dark Ardennes forest of Belgium on the very border with Germany.
He describes digging foxholes in snow-covered earth, then the nightmarish advance of Nazi hordes at the Battle of the Bulge, the concussive blasts of the 105mm howitzer he fired, the harrowing retreat, the subsequent advance and fighter planes in deadly dogfights overhead. The moment-to-moment struggle to stay alive.
Now 85, his voice is soft, halting, but the memories from 65 years ago are still vivid.
“I’ve never heard one word of this before,” his wife says in complete wonderment, gazing at her spouse like a stranger sitting across their living room in Boynton Beach FL. “Not one word. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Her gray-bearded husband simply shrugs and falls silent.
That shrug would be repeated by other surviving members of the 99th who retired in Palm Beach County. They rarely discuss those difficult days near the end of “the big war.”
The men cited in this article have another thing in common: Not only were they “citizen soldiers” who served in the 99th, they all arrived there via the same unusual path.
Before finding themselves in the front lines – at exactly the most dangerous time – they were serving their tours of duty on U.S. college campuses as part of the Army Specialized Training Program. Only men with IQs of 115 or higher qualified.
“It didn’t matter what we were studying before, the idea was that we would become engineers and then do what was needed by the Army,” says Dukes, who was majoring in marketing at Temple University in Philadelphia when drafted.
Dukes was sent to Hendrix College in Arkansas, where he spent much of 1943 taking classes, sometimes with comely coeds.
“Oh, yes, there were girls,” he remembers with a mischievous smile. “I was in the Army, but it was great duty.”
After the D-Day invasion at Normandy in June 1944, all that changed.
U.S. generals wanted the war over by Christmas. By summer’s end the ASTP men had attended their last college mixers and were ordered to Camp Maxey TX, to prepare for “the real war.”
At Maxey they got some “special treatment.”
Jack Lamb, 84, of Boca Raton FL, recalls how a sergeant had all the “college boys” take a step forward from the other men. Lamb, fresh from the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, did so.
“Now we’re gonna have them pick up all the cigarette butts in the camp and the rest of you can watch them and learn how it’s done,” the sergeant said.
The ASTP men drew much of the guard duty and KP – washing dishes on Kitchen Patrol. But that razzing didn’t last long.
By November they were in Belgium for what their superiors hoped would be a quick push to victory. The first few weeks were relatively quiet, but cold. Morris Kantor, 84, of Boynton Beach, was on the balmy campus of Baylor College in Waco TX, before being sent to frigid Belgium.
“It was the bitterest winter they’d had in many years,” recalls Kantor.
For weeks, Allied forces and Nazis dug in and gazed across several miles of open land at each other. There were occasional patrols and potshots, but no serious fighting.
Louis Gainey 86, of Lantana, had grown up in Rayville La, hunting rabbits, squirrels and birds to help feed his Depression-era family before enrolling at Louisiana State University.
“I had my own .22 rifle from the time I was 7 years old,” Gainey says.
“I was one of the better shots in the regiment.”
Nazi patrols sometimes dared to come within firing range of the 99th.
Gainey recalls shooting at two Germans. Given the screams he heard, he figures he hit them both. One ran away. The other died where he fell.
Then came Dec. 16, the surprise attack by the Germans and the Battle of the Bulge, the largest single conflagration of the war. The Nazis alone poured in 500,000 troops, including many tanks.
Kantor was a radioman working with a forward spotter for artillery batteries.
“At 5 a.m. the skies opened up and everything was blowing up around us,” he says of the Nazi artillery barrage. “They were firing lots of flares, too, so they could see us.”
Kantor and his colleagues were forced to retreat, but in doing so left behind a map. Kantor volunteered to go back for it. In the process he took a bullet through his helmet and helped save a wounded man, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. But he sees nothing heroic in his actions.
“I was just lucky to get out of there alive,” he says.
The 99th, vastly outgunned and outmanned, was overrun.
“We ended up surrounded in the woods, but loosely surrounded,” recalls Dukes. “We sneaked out through their lines at night walking single file.”
Lamb recalls retreating across an open field in daylight and being targeted by mortars.
“The land was white with snow and our uniforms were almost black,” he says. “We stuck out like sore thumbs.”
“Occasionally one of their mortars hit one of our guys,” Gainey recalls with horror in his eyes. “You knew something like that could happen, but you didn’t expect to see it right in front of you.”
As Kantor retreated he saw many dead soldiers.
“I said, ‘Boy, we killed a lot of Germans,’ but then I realized they were Americans,” he says solemnly.
The 99th, including the “college boys,” retreated several miles and regrouped on Elsenborn Ridge, a crest whipped by blizzards where, for weeks, they helped slow down the vastly superior German forces. Many suffered frostbite.
Eventually, the tide turned and they participated in the final march to victory in May 1945.
Robert Humphrey, author of “Once Upon a Time in war: The 99th Division in World War II,” emphasizes that the men of the 99th were dealt very tough cards, especially for amateur soldiers.
“It was a terrifying situation but they dug in and held out,” he says. “They are to be admired for that.”
Back in Boyonton Beach, Florence Dukes is still amazed at her husband’s story.
“When I met him in 1950 he had manicured nails and was dressed to the nines,” she says. “I can’t imagine him digging his own foxhole.”
“Well, you were there to help me,” Dukes says with a gentle smile.