The Morning Call
Dec. 25, 2007
Army Sgt. Bohdan T. Pacala, a 1940 graduate of Northampton High School, was badly burned in the face and hands the first week of December 1944, in an explosion at Krinkelt, Belgium.
Pacala, a clerk who coded and decoded messages and dispatched drivers for the 393rd Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, was recording a hospital in Cherbourg, France, as Christmas neared and the Battle of the Bulge raged.
Today, in an account he wrote, the 85-year-old south Bethlehem resident remembers Christmas 1944:
On Dec. 24, a nurse said to me, “Your company called. They want you back at the front, and you’re leaving at 5 p.m. today.”
I looked at my watch, which read 2:30 p.m., and stared at her. “Hell, I have no clothing and no military eyeglasses.”
“Your clothing is on the way, and your eyeglasses will be handed to you as you get on the train.”
“Will I get Christmas Eve dinner before I go?”
I got K rations, and at 5 p.m. I was on the train headed for the front.
When I arrived in Belgium, our front line was the Ardennes Forest. The general had one battalion in reserve and put the men to work digging foxholes and tank traps in case of a retreat. This was at Elsenborn Ridge.
We arrived at a small town where the Army had taken over a farm with a chateau and large barn for a replacement depot. Meals were served on the front lawn of the beautiful chateau, which was three or four stories high and had a front that was enclosed in glass. The chateau was off-limits, but on certain days GIs were taken inside, where they could climb the stairs and look out. I really enjoyed that visit. From a small town close by, kids would come and pimp for their sisters.
One day a boy about 13 years old came to me with a gallon can with a wire handle. Our meal that day was lousy – spaghetti with rye bread and butter and a couple of canned peach halves. I did not eat much, but while I was sipping coffee, the kid asked me for the waste to feed his pigs.
I dumped the coffee into the mess kit and washed the spaghetti and peaches into his can. He immediately put his hand against the food, turned the can upside down to get rid of the coffee and began to feed himself. This so upset me that I really chewed him out. “If you’re hungry, say so, and I’ll share my food with you.” I never saw the cross-eyed kid again.
Sleeping in the hayloft was a nightmare. There were no lights, and nobody had a flashlight. We went into the hayloft before dark and placed our steel helmets nearby to use for our waste, which we washed out in the morning. There were thousands of mice in the hay, and when you fell asleep on your back, the mice would run all over your face and keep you awake. The only way to keep them off was to sleep on your belly with your face in the blanket.
Since the Bulge went through our division, there were a number of new men in headquarters, but my old squad was about the same. I settled myself in the cellar where all the equipment was located and where I would sleep. Then I went upstairs and heard incoming artillery. As I started for the front door to see where the shells landed, a GI grabbed me and pulled me back.
“Don’t you know where you are?” he asked.
“I just got back,” I replied.
“You’re at the upper corner of the bulge, and they throw shells over the house, and then wait for someone to appear in the doorway, where they kill him with a shell from the other direction. That’s the way the colonel’s driver was killed. Wait 10 minutes, and then you can go outside.”
My station in the cellar was across from the colonel’s office. One day the general paid him a visit. Even with the door closed, I could hear the general ask the colonel what reason he had to issue an order that forbade the men from burning gasoline in one-gallon cans half full of dirt. The colonel told him the fires gave off soot that made the men’s faces black and made them a target in the snow. The general told him that no matter what, the men wanted warmth – even if they did get killed – and he made the colonel rescind the order.
The front line was a valley with Americans dug in on one side and the Germans on the other. During the day, the Americans and Germans sat outside their foxholes to get some warm sun. At night, all one saw was fire shooting out of the stovepipes from the foxholes. We could have shouted to each other.
The evening hot meal was brought to us in a jeep. Only one man at a time could go to the jeep to get his meal. If two men appeared, the Germans would throw a shell at the jeep.
I had to spend 24 hours every second day in a foxhole. The jeep driver and I would get to the area, park our jeep where the snow wasn’t deep and walk through the deep snow to the foxhole. The men we released from duty would go to our jeep and return to the regular headquarters. The front was stabilized and quiet, and life was boring.
One morning, the driver and I went to the jeep. There was a heavy, freezing rain, and we realized it was impossible to drive and see where we were going. It was so bad that even shielding our eyes, we could hardly see the road. The rain froze on my face and beard, and I had to pull the ice off with my fingers, and that hurt.
Our forces had pushed the Germans back, so we moved forward to another foxhole. On entering it, we found one of our drivers sleeping in three inches of cold, melted snow water. The foxhole was small, so I sat on his stomach and another man sat on his knees. Shortly, the captain called us out and told me that we were going back to the old headquarters for a two- or three-day rest. Unable to lift the sleeping man, we pulled him out by his shoulders and laid him in the back seat for the return to the old camp.
Somewhere around this time we got to the Siegfried Line, which I did not see. The intelligence and reconnaissance squad fired artillery rounds on the hay piles that covered concrete pillboxes. When the shells hit, they bounced off. The only way to capture a big bunker was to explode a lot of dynamite at the steel door, which would cause such a concussion that the soldiers inside would then surrender.
We stopped at a shelled village in Germany at dusk and spent the night there. The only place three of us could find was a room at the top of the stairs of a house. The outside wall was gone, the floor sagged. We decided this was to be our bedroom; if we rolled off, the ground below appeared soft where a bulldozer had tried to dig a trench to bury the dead, bloated cattle lying around with their hooves in the air.
Upon awakening, we took our mess kits and walked downstairs, where the kitchen had been set up and GIs had made a hot breakfast. The three of us went outside, trying to decide where to eat. At the yard fence, it appeared that two snow-covered logs had been placed against it. We decided to clear one log so that we could sit down.
I went first and with my boots started to remove the snow, when I realized these were not logs but American soldiers. I called for some officers, who lifted the men out of the snow. Their overcoats were buttoned but pulled over their shoulders.
They were in stocking feet with their hands wired behind their backs and a single bullet hole in their foreheads.
Six men were eventually found, all from the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion. The Germans who lived in the house, who had spent the night outside in a root cellar, were brought out and questioned. They reported they were forced to see the killings and warned they would lose their lives if they reported the incident to anyone.
Pacala served with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 393rd Regiment. He participated in the Rhineland, Ardennes and central Europe campaigns, and has a Purple Heart for the burns he suffered in Belgium 10 days before the Battle of the Bulge began.
It happened the night of Dec. 5 while he and other soldiers were staying in a farmhouse at Krinkelt. He heard what he thought was an incoming shell and ducked, covering his head with his hands. “I saw the concrete floor suddenly was on fire. The wall in front of me was burning up to the ceiling. I fell for want of air.”
He escaped after another soldier fleeing the fire crashed through a first-floor window, allowing Pacala to breathe again.
It wasn’t a shell that hit the house, he learned, but apparently fuel tanks from a British Mosquito bomber the Germans had shot down. “The falling plane hit the ground,” he wrote, “whereupon the auxiliary fuel tanks tore loose and, I guess, hit the stone house, exploding and throwing gasoline everywhere.”
Pacala came home to the Lehigh Valley in January 1946.