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Memories still vivid for Wilson twins, Kibbey

The following article is reprinted from the Times Observer, Warren PA.


Times Observer City Editor

Mostly they remember the cold — the bitter, unrelenting, terrible cold that froze their feet and threatened to steal their toes . . . or their lives.

They remember living in a hole in the frozen ground at a place called Elsenborn Ridge.

The fact that they were standing in the way of a German counterattack almost seems an afterthought as they talk about the horrible winter of 1944 in eastern Belgium.

Harold and Howard Wilson, twins from Kellettville PA, were hunkered down in that foxhole determined to get through it all — a couple of young fellows from the Pennsylvania woods, a long way from home and in harm's way.

It was only after the ordeal that they became aware of their place in history. The German counteroffensive that was aimed at overrunning their position will forever be known as the Battle of the Bulge, because of the temporary bulge in the Allied line it caused.

Harold and Howard were attached to an engineering company in the 99th Division (the Checkerboard Division), and in early December 1944 they were going about their business of building shelters and roads as the Allies moved steadily toward the Rhine for a final assault on the German homeland.

They also were unaware that in their division was Merle Kibbey of Pittsfield PA, attached to an infantry company.

These days the Wilson twins and Kibbey get together to swap stories about the war and get caught up on each other's lives.

On Dec. 16, 1944, Kibbey was with a group from his unit in a farmhouse having breakfast.

"I can still remember what I had to eat that morning," Kibbey said. "I had these things like Vienna sausages, but they were longer, and pancakes.

"Then someone came in and said the Germans had broken through, and we got out of there," Kibbey said.

Everyone was moving back and moving back fast.

"There was a lot of chaos," Harold Wilson said, long lines of GIs moving along the frozen roads toward the rear as a German attack was bearing down, lead by tanks and artillery.

The Wilsons' first inkling that something was going on was the thunder of artillery. The Germans were softening up the line in preparation for their attack.

"I heard lots of big shells," Howard said. The shelling was heavy from both sides and the Wilson boys were stuck between the opposing batteries.

"In back of us were 35 batteries firing over us, and the Germans were firing from the other way," Howard said, the shells crisscrossing over their heads.

It was during one of those barrages that the Wilson brothers came closest to being among the hundreds of Americans who died on Elsenborn Ridge. A German artillery round, a big one, landed just behind their foxhole, throwing huge chunks of frozen ground in all directions.

"A big piece of sod knocked Harold to the bottom of the foxhole, but the shell was a dud," Howard said. If it had exploded as intended, there would have been no chance the brothers would have survived.

The heavy overcast skies prevented Allied air support, and the Wilson brothers, Kibbey, and the rest of the Americans standing in the way of Hitler's plan to drive them back into France were on their own.

Over that week and a half in the winter of 1944, the Wilsons and Kibbey fought the Germans and the cold, winning a victory over both.

Kibbey managed to avoid frostbitten feet thanks to rubber boots sent from home.

"One day the captain came up to me and asked me if those boots were new Army regulation, and I said, 'No, these are Pittsfield Specials'," Kibbey said.

"All we had were Army combat shoes," Harold lamented. "They weren't much good against the cold and wet. Both Harold and Howard suffered from frostbite, although neither lost toes.

While Army boots weren't much to brag about, Howard had high marks for their steel pot helmets, which could be used to bathe with and cook in.

At several points during that horrifying week, the Wilsons' position was all but surrounded by Germans, and the German tanks were taking their toll on the 99th.

"There was this one tank sitting up on a hill and every time four or five guys would group together he'd throw a shell into them," Harold said.

Howard remembered the fate of a company chaplain and his assistant, who were caught trying to change a tire on their jeep. Neither survived.

When asked about fear, Harold said he didn't remember thinking much about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "You were just there."

It was at Christmas when the skies cleared and American planes arrived for close support.

"I remember the sky was full of planes, and the next day, too," Harold said.

That air assault and fresh replacements helped to break the German offensive and essentially end the Battle of the Bulge.

That wasn't the end of the 99th's wartime ordeal, however. By March, the division was poised to invade the German homeland, entering the country through the Ruhr industrial region, crossing the Rhine at Remagen.

Harold remembers it was the middle of the night when his and Howard's unit made their way across the bridge under heavy fire.

"There was shrapnel flying everywhere," Harold said. "I don't know how we didn't get hit."

The 99th was the first American unit to cross the bridge, which was subsequently taken down by German fire.

By early May, the war was all but over. Hitler was dead. The 99th no longer had to suffer in the cold and fight Germans.

Harold signed up for occupation duty and got back to the States a little later than Kibbey and his brother. Kibbey got back in November 1945 after about six months occupation duty. Harold and Howard got back in 1946.

Kibbey said he was scheduled to join the battle in the Pacific Theater when two atomic bombs ended that conflict in August. Of the bombs that ended World War II, Kibbey acknowledged there was a lot of controversy about using them, but "I'm sure glad they dropped them. They saved a lot of lives."

Watching over occupied central Germany around Wurzburg, Harold said he had a great time.

He and his wife, Marjory, went back to those now picturesque hills of eastern Belgium a couple years ago and visited the ridge that held so much terror a half century before. The place is calm now, and although it bears little resemblance to the place where Harold and Howard and Merle hunkered down under the force of a full German assault, Harold said he recognized the places he had been.

He and Marjory were surprised to find that the German people they met during their tour through the region held no animosity toward ex-GIs and were very gracious.

During their visit to the region, Harold and Marjory walked among some of the 6,000 graves at the American cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg, and Harold stopped to pay special tribute and offer a salute to Gen. George Patton, who is among the dead buried there.

The three Army comrades get together now and then to talk about their trials in Europe and do a brief accounting of how many of them are left living. Prominent in Harold's living room is the framed collection of his wartime mementos, with the Purple Heart featured prominently in the center. There is also a photograph taken in 1946 when all five Wilson brothers got home from the war: Wayne, Howard, Judson, Harold, and Robert. Three served in the infantry, one in the Air Corps, and one in the Navy, each doing his part to protect his country.