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Vet's WWII memories of holiday Ardennes

Fort Myers (FL) News Press, Klollar@news-press.com

Southwest Florida’s weather forecast for Thanksgiving: sunny, with a high near 76, northeast wind between 3 and 8 mph.

Almost perfect, and it’s fine with Herbert Netter of Lehigh Acres FL. As a rifleman with the 99th Infantry Division during World War II, Pfc. Netter endured a different kind of Thanksgiving weather.

Netter and the 99th had arrived in France on Nov. 6, 1944, and in late November were in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

“On Thanksgiving, it was raining hard, rain, flecked with snow,” said Netter, 86, an Indianapolis native. “It was about freezing. We were in a pretty high altitude in the woods, and we could look off for miles over a valley.”

Sounds picturesque and pleasant, not unlike Thanksgiving in some northern part of the United States, except that Netter and his buddies were fighting a war, far away from their families, without a fireplace to get warm by, without even a watertight roof.

“We had two holes, a living hole and a fighting hole,” Netter said. “The living hole is where three of us kept our cigarettes, ammo and sleeping bags. The ground was hard but still muddy from the rain.

“We had logs over our living hole, and branches and such, but it was raining so bad that everybody was hunting for shelter. We’d try to get under the mess truck, but there was only so much room.”

To keep warm, Netter and his buddies stole gasoline, poured it into dirt-filled C-ration cans and lit it.

“It gave off heat,” Netter said. “But it would smoke. Oh, it would smoke.”

Despite the harsh conditions, the men of the 99th were looking forward to Thanksgiving because the word had gone out that they would enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad, weather permitting,” Netter said. “I can still see it: We had ponchos on over our heavy Army coats to try to keep warm. We slung our rifles over our shoulders, muzzle down to keep the rain out.

“We were holding our coffee cups in one hand and mess kits in the other, and the cooks just slopped the food in there. It was boiled turkey, dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pluss pudding, all mixed together.”

The men ate standing up under the dripping fir trees, rain dripping from their helmets into their mess kits and Thanksgiving dinner.

“The more you ate, the more you had because of the rain,” Netter said. “It wasn’t too tasty, I tell you.”

As bad as Thanksgiving 1944 was for Netter, Christmas 1944 was even worse.

On Dec. 16, the Germans launched a massive counteroffensive that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge; during intense, close-in fighting the next day, shrapnel from a hand grenade tore into Netter’s left leg, and the young private first class was taken prisoner.

He and other POWs arrived at Stalag XIII-C near Hammelburg on Christmas Day – interestingly, the television program “Hogan’s Heroes” was set in Stalag 13 near Hammelburg, but the real American POWs didn’t have nearly as much fun as the fictitious Col. Hogan and his pals.

After two weeks in Stalag XIII-C, Netter and the others marched around the countryside cutting trees on work details.

In early May 1945, just days before the Germans surrendered, Netter and Bill Heroman of Baton Rouge LA, hid out in a basement near Nuremberg and escaped.

They were picked up by the 45th Division; Netter, who had infections in both ears and had lost 50 pounds, was sent to Wurzburg, Germany, and then Nancy, France.

He returned to the U.S. on May 27 and to Indianapolis May 30.

“The first Thanksgiving home, my family was there – my first family; my second family are my Army buddies,” Netter said. “My brother wasn’t home yet. He’d been wounded in Okinawa. He went the Japanese way.

“My father had a grocery store, so we ate well.”

Last week, Netter sent a brief e-mail description of his Ardennes Thanksgiving to the News-Press and was reluctant to be interviewed for a story.

“I wasn’t hunting for recognition,” he said. “I just thought it was time for a little recollection, on everybody’s part, of what Thanksgiving really is.”

Last modified Feb. 12, 2010

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