West Virginia WWII vet still remembers cold, frostbite

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — For Bernard Whittington, an enduring memory of his service as a U.S. Army corporal during the Battle of the Bulge was enduring bone-chilling cold.

Seventy-five years after the Kanawha County man took part in the bloody, but ultimately successful, effort to counter Nazi Germany’s last major offensive campaign of World War II, he is still plagued by symptoms from the frostbite that damaged tissue in both feet.

“It caused an infection in my left foot that caused problems I’ve never been able to shake,” the 99-year-old said.

Whittington arrived at the vicinity of Bastogne, Belgium, in early January 1945 as part of a relief column made up of elements of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, shortly after 25,000 American soldiers fought off a weeklong siege of the city by a German force more than twice as large. Bastogne was considered a key objective in the German offensive, since seven major roads radiated out from the city, making it an ideal staging area for Panzer units spearheading a planned breakthrough of Allied lines.

The winter offensive, launched on Dec. 16, 1944, caught Allied leaders by surprise, initially allowing the Germans to advance rapidly. But after the confusion accompanying the early days of the attack died down, the Allies dug in, held their ground and began to push back.

“We arrived from the south and were attempting to push the Germans north,” Whittington recalled. “The Army planners didn’t see the German attack coming, and when it came, we didn’t have the proper clothes and equipment for fighting in the extreme cold.”

While the Germans soldiers were equipped with top-notch cold-weather gear, “we about froze to death,” Whittington said. “When it got down to 20 below zero, the only way to keep from freezing was to keep walking, sometimes all night.”

On one such subzero day, Whittington’s unit established a position that turned out to be closer to the German line than they had realized.

“When the wind died down, we could hear them talking to each other,” he said. Whittington assumed that the Germans could hear their American voices at similar times. But the two groups of enemies decided the night was too cold for any combat other than fighting to keep from freezing to death.

“They were just trying to get warm, too,” Whittington said. “I guess you could say we had a nonaggression pact in effect that night.”

One of Whittington’s first assignments upon reaching the battle area was to establish a hilltop firing position for the 57mm anti-tank gun he was assigned to operate. Although the artillery piece was normally towed behind a truck, the West Virginia soldier and his gun crew manually pushed the gun up the hill through heavy snow and bitter cold to avoid giving away their position.

It was during that night that Whittington suffered frostbitten feet. The following morning, he learned that the bitter cold that injured his feet also might have saved his life. While looking at the tracks in the snow made by the anti-tank gun’s tires the previous day, he and his crew saw that the artillery piece had rolled over a German land mine. The side of the gun carriage that came in contact with the mine was the one Whittington had been pushing.

A closer look showed that a chunk of ice had lodged under the mine’s detonator. The ice was thick enough to prevent the detonator switch from moving into the “armed” position when the anti-tank gun rolled over it. Had the mine been tripped, Whittington and several of his gun crew members likely would have been killed.

Whittington’s anti-tank unit, assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 417th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Army, suffered its first fatality shortly after beginning a pursuit of German soldiers retreating toward their homeland as their winter offensive began to collapse.

After crossing into Luxembourg and arriving at a point overlooking the valley of the Sauer River, which marks Luxembourg’s border with Germany, the unit established firing positions for its 57mm guns. Then, a 19-year-old soldier, who Whittington recalled as being from a town in northern West Virginia, walked to the middle of a nearby road to get a first look into Germany. He was immediately killed by an enemy mortar round.

By the end of January 1945, American troops had retaken all of the territory lost during the German offensive, and the Battle of the Bulge, named for the ballooning expansion of German lines as they appeared on maps soon after the offensive was launched, had come to and end. It was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by U.S. troops during World War II, described by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the “greatest American battle of the war.”

The 230,000 Allied troops in the battle zone when the offensive began on Dec. 16, 1944, were outnumbered nearly two to one. But within three weeks, American and British strength had grown to 700,000, facing 400,000 German troops.

About 90,000 Allied soldiers, the vast majority of them American, were killed, wounded or captured during the battle as they fought along an 85-mile stretch of the Ardennes Forest. German casualties approached 100,000.

While the battle delayed the planned Allied advance into the German homeland by several weeks, it came at the cost of virtually all of Germany’s infantry reserves, greatly diminishing their ability to defend against the Allied onslaught that followed.

The Germans had had the element of surprise, as well as a superior numbers of troops, at the beginning of the battle, along with better tanks, artillery and winter clothing.

“I was surprised they didn’t push us back to the ocean,” Whittington said. “But we fought like the devil and eventually overwhelmed them” with the large number of troops brought in.

Whittington and his unit emerged from the battle, which they joined in its final weeks, cold and tired but relatively unscathed. But that situation changed in early February 1945, when the 3rd Army crossed the Sauer near the town of Echternach, Luxembourg, and swept into Germany.

Whittington’s anti-tank gun was part of a battery of artillery pieces and tank cannons that fired on enemy positions before and during the crossing, made while the river was at flood stage.

“Fire was coming from both sides, and soon there was so much smoke in the air, we couldn’t see our targets or tell where our guys were,” he said.

Many soldiers from Whittington’s battalion attempted the crossing in inflatable boats, which easily capsized in the high, swift water, or were punctured by German small-arms fire.

“We lost two-thirds of our battalion crossing the river into Germany,” Whittington said. “A 19-year-old friend of mine who knew he would be in one of those boats told me he was sure he would die making the crossing. It turned out, he was right.”

But after fighting their way 5 miles into Germany and pausing to regroup, his battalion and the rest of Patton’s 3rd Army pushed deep into the Third Reich’s homeland at a rapid pace.

Patton’s leadership style was to keep pushing forward after reaching an initial objective, sometimes stretching supply lines and lines of communication to the breaking point.

“At one point, we got so far ahead of the front lines that we got mistaken for Germans and were strafed by our own airplanes,” he said. “Luckily, none of us were hurt.”

Whittington and the 417th Infantry fought their way through Germany for most of the next three months, linking with Russian troops shortly before Germany surrendered in early May.

While the Russians were U.S. allies during the war, “we exchanged gunfire a couple of times,” Whittington said. “They were looting homes and stealing some of our equipment.”

During the months of near constant combat following the Battle of the Bulge, “there were many times when I thought I’d never get out of the war alive,” he recalled.

But survive he did and, after the war, he returned to West Virginia, where his parents lived on part of a 500-acre tract of land a few miles north of Charleston, off Sissonville Drive, that had been deeded to the family when the area was part of Virginia.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in 1938, Whittington drove a truck for The Charleston Gazette’s circulation department, dropping off newspapers in towns from Rainelle to Point Pleasant.

“I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing much longer, so I quit that job and started taking an Army Signal Corps Morse code class,” he said.

Whittington went on to take a three-month Signal Corps-sponsored class on building and repairing radios at the West Virginia Institute of Technology, which led him to join the Army Signal Corps Reserve and resume his studies at Ohio State University. There, he helped conduct experiments on the university’s cyclotron, or atom smasher, which, unknown to him at the time, was used in development of the atomic bomb.

In late 1942, the Signal Corps sent him to Philadelphia, where he learned how radar, then a secret development, worked, and how to operate and repair mobile radar units. In early 1943, he was called to active duty, went through basic training, and began working on a Signal Corps radar station tracking shipping off the Florida Coast.

But once in Florida, he learned that a nearby Army Air Forces base was seeking aircrew trainees, including pilots, and he developed a sudden interest in aviation, and successfully transferred out of the Signal Corps.

By the time he worked his way into a training program for Army Air Force cadets in Minnesota, the War Department decided a shortage of infantry troops existed, and more than 20,000 aviation trainees, including Whittington, were transferred into infantry units.

After the war, Whittington earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from West Virginia University through the GI Bill, and moved back to the Charleston area with his new wife, Jean, whom he met in Morgantown, and continues to share his life with today.

He worked first for Appalachian Power, and later for Union Carbide, where he designed new factories and chemical plant expansions, before becoming an independent consultant. In his role as a consultant, he has worked under contract for such entities as the U.S. Department of Labor, Union Carbide Corp., and as an expert in court cases involving electrical design issues.

Whittington helped found the Sissonville Public Service District and served as its chairman for 31 years. He also helped found and build the Bank of Sissonville, now a Wesbanco bank.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said, as he reclined in a chair and looked through a picture window at a wooded slope of Whittington Hill rising behind the house he designed and helped build on a 40-acre section of family land.

“I’ve always enjoyed learning, traveling and working, and I’ve had a chance to do a lot of each,” he said. “I worked until I was 88, and I still like working around the house and in the yard. But what I really enjoy now is just to sit here and spend time looking at the woods and watching the animals.”