By SUSAN DIBBLE
Arlington Heights IL
Ninety-year-old Charles McGowan long had wanted to return to the battlefields of Europe where he helped defeat the Nazis in World War II.
Circumstances prevented it until this June when the resident of Villa St. Benedict in Lisle and his son, Tom, joined four other World War II veterans with their relatives and friends in an 11-day tour of Normandy and the countryside where McGowan survived the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle Americans fought during World War II.
McGowan served in the 99th Infantry Division
“The 99th had the most casualties in the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “I found the most pleasure in going through the area and rehashing what we did there.”
Nicknamed the Battle Babies for their inexperience in combat, the soldiers of the 99th helped defeat Germany’s last-ditch Ardennes Offensive that sought to divide the American and British lines late in the war.
The 99th was sent to Belgium to push back against the northern shoulder of the German advance. McGowan spent four months in combat, sleeping in wet foxholes and surviving several close calls with death, before being wounded.
McGowan might have avoided active military service. He was living in Villa Park and enlisted in the Army Reserve when the draft went into effect. He had an exemption because he was caring for his widowed mother.
But as he saw more and more of his friends go off to war, McGowan felt guilty. He wrote a letter to get his draft status changed and a month later received his notice to report to the U.S. Army.
“I figured it was my duty,” he said.
Placed in an engineering program, McGowan hoped to build on the college education he began before entering the Army, but the program was discontinued because of the need for troops. A severe illness that included mononucleosis should have kept him out of combat, but McGowan didn’t learn that fact until he was ready to be discharged.
Instead, McGowan arrived in Belgium in early November 1944 in the beginning of what would be one of the worst winters Europe had seen for a long time.
“From Nov. 5 to the first week in February, we never had the opportunity to take our uniforms off,” he said. “We were wearing two wool uniforms, a combat jacket plus our field pack and weapons.”
The German shelling began Dec. 16. Ordered to withdraw and set up defensive positions at Elsenborn, Belgium, the soldiers were able to sleep one night in a barn hayloft instead of their wet foxholes.
“It was the first we had been able to sleep with any kind of protection,” he said.
Even when artillery fire started and some of the other soldiers urged McGowan to get out of the hay-