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Veteran's memories flow from historic battle

Statesman Journal, Published Dec. 16, 2009

Dec. 16, 1944: The Battle of the Bulge begins. Hitler sends a quarter million troops across an 85-mile stretch of the Allied front, from southern Belgium into Luxembourg. In deadly cold winter weather, German troops will advance some 50 miles into the Allied lines, creating a deadly “bulge” pushing into Allied defenses.

January 1945: By the end of the month, the Battle of the Bulge ends. Over 76,000 Americans have been killed, wounded or captured. The Allies regain the territory they held in early December.

— ”The American Experience: Battle of the Bulge”

Like most men who survived combat in World War II, Joe Thimm didn’t feel the need to talk about it when he came home.

One year after he huddled in a snow-covered trench, trying with his buddies to stay alive, he was back in the United States getting mustered out of the Army.

The Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the other medals sat on a shelf. He turned his attention to regaining full use of his injured left leg; getting a good education, courtesy of Uncle Sam; and marrying his sweetheart and starting a family.

In fact, the Salem (OR) resident didn’t even think to look up his old outfit, the 99th Division, until the mid-1980s when he retired from a long career in corrections and social service.

“Why then, Mary?” Thimm asked his wife in their Battle Creek condo.

Mary responded: “I think when people get older they tend to look back more.”

That’s how the two of them came to attend their first division reunion in Dallas TX. There were “600, 700 guys there,” Thimm said. No one had to explain what the Battle of the Bulge was; or that it was one of the costliest battles in American history.

Thimm began writing articles for the division newspaper. He started collecting and reading books on the battle. The details came flooding back:

  • How in the fall of 1944 he’d taken a troop ship to England, then a cross-channel ship to LeHavre, France, then trucks to Kalterherberg, Germany, then marched to the front at Hofen.
  • How relieved the GI he was replacing was to get out of there.
  • How his heart sank when he saw his new home: a muddy trench protected by branches and shared with a couple other men.
  • How they scavenged a door from the nearby town and fortified the trench’s roof with it, staking their lives on the kind of hideaway they had built years before as child’s play.
  • How ill-equipped the U.S. soldiers were, with only leather shoes and canvas leggings in the winter snow.
  • How there would be no baths, no changes of clothes and very few hot means for 2½ months.
  • How, when the battle finally began on Dec. 16, the action was frantic and confused and random, so very different from battles as described in books.

At the Battle of the Bulge, he escaped the pounding artillery fire, the snipers’ bullets and the mines. He didn’t become a POW. He would keep marching deeper into Germany, until his left leg took enough shrapnel to send him to a British hospital and eventually, home.

Over the years, the number of vets at 99th Division reunions has been slipping. This year, the reunion in St. Louis drew just 75 members.

“We’re of an age, we’re dying quickly,” Thimm said.

There still are about 10 infantrymen listed as members of the 99th Division Association in Oregon. But Thimm is the last member in Marion County (OR).

What does he want people to take to heart?

“My message to young people is never for a moment glorify war,” he said. “Whether war appears to be for a good cause, or even a dubious cause, never think that war is a satisfying experience. War will ultimately hurt everyone involved, and you will carry it for the rest of your life.”

Last modified Oct. 21, 2010