Herald Times Reporter
Shell-shocked from shrapnel wounds to his left leg, neck and right shoulder, U.S. Army Pfc. Jerome Nelson somehow mustered the strength to stand up and start walking.
It was either that or be gunned down by advancing German troops.
“Something just takes over inside you, and you do it to survive. It’s amazing the things you can do when you really have to,” said Jerome, reliving the memories of Dec. 19, 1944, the second of two straight days in which he was hit by artillery explosions during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, the war’s largest land battle involving U.S. troops.
Not far from the Germany-Belgium border – thousands of miles from his home in Two Rivers WI, Jerome and another injured buddy, Pfc. John Smith, limped nearly one and a half miles across the Belgian countryside until reaching American troops hunkered down in foxholes near Rocherath.
“Boy, I was never more happy to see our own troops than right at that moment,” Jerome said.
He spent three months undergoing surgeries and recovering in an English hospital before rejoining his 99th Infantry Division unit.
Some shrapnel couldn’t be removed and, nearly 66 years later, remains in the 87-year-old man’s right shoulder. Injuries sustained to his left leg when shrapnel tore all the way through it still prevent him from lying on that side.
Despite receiving a Bronze Star Medal, three Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantryman Badge, Jerome doesn’t want to be labeled a hero of any kind.
“I was only one of 16 million who served in World War II, and I was just an ordinary GI over there, nothing special,” said Jerome, one of the estimated 150,000 men who were killed or wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. “I saw guys laying dead on the ground and other things I don’t always want to talk about. I just did what I was asked to do for my country.”
Joining the fight
Jerome nearly died a few years before joining the fight in World War II.
During the fall of his sophomore year at Two Rivers Washington High School, he developed an illness that forced him to miss the remainder of the school year.
“I was lucky I didn’t die then,” Jerome said.
He returned to classes the following school year and ended up graduating in 1942 with his younger brother, Gerald, who also fought in the battle of the Bulge as a tank gunner with the 7th Armored Division.
After graduation, Jerome tried joining the Navy and Coast Guard, but he failed eye exams.
Then, in January 1943, a bunch of Jerome’s friends said they were going to Milwaukee to join the Army, so Jerome said he’d go along, too, and see if he could join. Before he knew it, he was in the Army.
In June 1943, Jerome became a member of the Army Specialized Training Program, which was established just a few months earlier. The program was designed to identify, train and educate academically gifted men as engineers for post-World War II society. Jerome underwent training at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge LA.
But the need for soldiers in Europe led to the demise of the program, and in March 1944, Jerome was assigned to the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxey in Texas. He ended up with Company E, 394th Infantry Regiment.
In September 1944, Jerome traveled to Boston.
Next stop: Europe.
“My family hardly ever left Manitowoc County,” Jerome said, “and my family didn’t have a car when we were growing up. So I considered it adventurous that I could serve my country and see the world.
“I wasn’t too nervous,” he added. “I was with all these guys I had spent months training with, and you become a family. I didn’t worry about what happens next.”
Getting into position
After 12 days aboard the ship Exchequer, Jerome arrived in Scotland in October 1944. Within a couple of weeks, he boarded an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in Southampton, England, traversed the English Channel, and landed in the French port of Le Havre.
There, he climbed aboard a truck and was whisked across France en route to Belgium.
“We went through the countryside, and you couldn’t even tell there was a war because Paris had been liberated by then,” Jerome said. “The fighting was still up ahead of us a little ways.”
On Nov. 7, his truck pulled into the village of Aubel, Belgium.
“It was a cold, bitter night,” Jerome said. “I was miserable and tired. All of a sudden we came across a farmer’s barn and went to sleep. Let me tell you, I’ve stayed in some of the best hotels during my life, but the place I slept the best was at that barn on that night.”
Jerome, the only sniper in his platoon of 36 soldiers, said he wasn’t anxious, despite being near the German border and thousands of Nazi troops.
“You’re so captivated by all the events around you, your mind is set on the circumstances and the environment and not on being nervous,” he said.
The next day, Jerome’s platoon marched into a wooded area and relieved soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division.
“This was Germany now, and the Ardennes Forest,” Jerome said. “You couldn’t get any closer to the front line. I was on the front line. I could see the Germans.”
Jerome said he’d volunteer to go on patrols with the squad leader.
“I went out with him and brought my sniper rifle,” said Jerome, explaining it was a World War I-era sniper rifle with a five-round clip. “I could look through the scope and see the Germans, but they were far away, maybe 600 yards away. One time, I got one of them lined up in my scope and asked the squad leader if I should fire, but he said not to fire because then they’d return fire with artillery rounds. So we’d just scout the area.”
Jerome said his company received artillery fire nearly every day in the Ardennes Forest.
“The Germans used proximity fuses – they’d explode in the air before they hit the ground – so it was like the Fourth of July,” he said.
Through the rest of November and the first half of December, Jerome and his company stayed in their foxholes along the front line.
“There was a big snowfall one day, and the piles of snow on the branches blocked my sight from the foxhole,” Jerome said. “So, like a dummy, I cut off the branch. When the snow melted, the branch was gone so I was exposed. Next thing I know, they shot a round that came in and was very close. You could feel the force.”
Another time, Jerome set up a tripwire at an outpost utilizing a grenade in a C-ration can.
“So, one morning three officers came over and I told them not to go down that trail because of the grenade,” Jerome said. “A couple of minutes later, I heard the grenade handle click open so I ducked behind a tree. I told them not to go that way, and they did anyway and tripped the grenade. They were about 10 yards away when they hit the ground, so they were lucky they didn’t get killed.”
Yet another time, Jerome left his foxhole for a short time to eat, only to return and discover than an explosion had shattered his shovel.
“I’m glad I wasn’t in the foxhole when that happened,” he said.
On the front lines
At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, Jerome was awoken by the sudden and seemingly never-ending bombardment of heavy artillery.
The Battle of the Bulge had begun.
“We’d been shot at with artillery many times before that,” Jerome said, ‘but this was different. It just kept coming and coming and coming, pounding all over. The noise, the explosions, kept on for at least an hour. When it stopped we didn’t recognize the place. Trees were knocked down all over. No one knew what was happening. I said a prayer – it was about the only time I remember saying a prayer.
“The artillery rounds were landing way behind us. When we talked years later about it, we thought the reason was because the German troops were advancing and they didn’t want them to get hit by shells so close.”
Thousands of German soldiers advanced on an 80-mile front, primarily along the Germany-Belgium border. Luckily for Jerome, however, they didn’t move directly over his position, instead going around both sides.
“We just stayed in our foxholes and waited to defend our position,” Jerome said. “The Germans couldn’t hit the whole front line, so they picked their spots. We didn’t know at the time they were going around the right side and the left side – we were waiting for them to come straight at us.”
The next day, Dec. 17, Jerome and nearby soldiers hunkered down in their foxholes, following orders to hold at all costs. Later that day, they pulled out of the woods and slept just outside the forest.
“Dec. 18 comes, and it was morning, and I said to the other guys that if this fog lifts then we’re going to be sitting ducks,” Jerome said. “So we moved. Someone said there was a little town called Murringen nearby. We got to the town and you could hear Germans yelling, and it was foggy, and no one knew what was going on. Someone said we should get out of there, so we pulled out.
“It was getting dark as we pulled out. There was no snow. It was so dark you could almost feel it. So no one would get lost in the dark, we held on to the belt of the person in front of us. As we were leaving – there were maybe 100 of us – another guy (Smith) and I were told to take up the rear of the line to protect us from Germans coming back at us. We started the evacuation, and word came down that artillery shells would fire over us to help stop Germans pursuing us.
“We were gone about five minutes and artillery landed on top of us,” Jerome continued, saying a piece of shrapnel tore all the way through his left leg. “There was mass confusion. It was pitch black at night. You couldn’t escape. It was just terrible.
“Had I not been at the back, I would’ve been right where artillery landed 30 yards in front of us. We were going over guys in front of us that were hit. I could hear the last groans of the guys who were dying. There was no yelling, no screaming. Just the groans right before they died.”
Shrapnel wounds prevented Jerome and his injured buddy from fleeing the area that day.
The following day, “I didn’t know where I was or what I’d do,” Jerome said. “Then, here it comes again, more artillery rounds, and I got hit again. I don’t know if it was our artillery or there artillery, but this time