The Battle of the Bulge, which began December 16, 1944 and ended January 25, 1945, was one of the most epic and decisive battles of World War II. In the largest American land battle of the war, the U.S. Army stopped Hitler’s well-equipped force of a half-million Germans and his final offensive in Western Europe. The victory would affect the lives of millions.
Today, we share an article written by historian Kevin Hymel for Warfare History Network about Private Leon Goldberg, who fought off German attacks at the Battle of the Bulge for three days before becoming a prisoner of war.
Captured at the Bulge
By Kevin M. Hymel
Private Leon Goldberg pulled the trigger on his heavy, water-cooled M-1917 Browning machine gun and fired bursts of .30-caliber rounds into the attacking German infantry. The Germans below the forested hilltop Goldberg and his comrades occupied had to cross a stream and charge uphill to engage them. American riflemen added to Goldberg’s torrent of fire as the Germans collapsed in the snow. Goldberg could see a dead German lieutenant at the bottom of the hill, lying half in the stream.
“The current washed his leg up and back,” he said. Those who survived the fire, about 20 Germans, surrendered to the Americans. “The troops who attacked us were certainly not the best troops,” he explained. “They were pretty green and relatively young.”
The Americans, who were also green, felt proud of their baptism of fire. “We thought we had won the war,” said Goldberg, a member of Company D, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division (the Golden Lions). But they had not. The date was December 16, 1944. The attack was just the opening assault of Adolf Hitler’s last gamble to win the war in the West—the Battle of the Bulge—in which three German armies smashed into Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army with the goal of splitting the Western Allies and capturing the Belgian port of Antwerp.
Simultaneous with the German attack had come an enemy artillery barrage that screeched over Company D, which targeted the division’s own artillery, killing Goldberg’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Kent. Major William Moon took over. The weak enemy attack had been a feint, while other Germans encircled the regiment.
But Goldberg knew none of this. He had done his job, repulsing the enemy, yet had little time to reflect on his actions. Soon, the order came to move out. The men pulled back to the outskirts of the Belgian town of Schönberg, where they set up on the edge of the forest overlooking a wide valley that sloped down and then up to another forested hill about 400 yards away.
“We got orders to attack,” explained Goldberg.
He ran with the other men across the valley, but he stopped halfway and set up his machine gun to fire over their heads, while another machine-gun crew leapfrogged from behind him. When Goldberg saw enemy fire coming from an open cabin door, he zeroed in on it, watching his tracers pepper the door frame. He later learned that experienced gunners removed the tracers from their rounds, since the enemy could follow them back to the source.
“I wasn’t in combat long enough to do that,” he said.
No sooner had Goldberg fired on the cabin door than the attacking infantrymen came running back from the woods, calling out that they had seen German tanks. Goldberg could hear the sounds of the attack, but did not stick around to see what was happening. He and his second gunner disassembled the machine gun and joined the retreat.
The men pulled back and set up in another location. “We were just waiting to see what happened next,” said Goldberg. “The enemy approached, and we retreated again.” And so it went for the next two and a half days. With the Germans encircling the regiment, the men ran from position to position, trying to stay away from the enemy. The Golden Lion men dug in, set up, fired at the Germans, then ran to another position. They rarely ate or slept and were running low on ammunition and fresh water. “You tried to close your eyes while other men stood guard, and if you did fall asleep, someone would wake you up and tell you to move,” explained Goldberg. Through it all, none of the men panicked or complained, but “everyone was exhausted.”
Despite the fighting, Company D remained mostly intact. On the third day of combat, December 19, the men were dug in atop a small hill when a German officer approached, waving a white flag on the end of a rifle. Goldberg’s lieutenant went out to talk to him and then followed him back to the German lines. The lieutenant returned an hour later and told everyone they were going to surrender. “He told us the Germans had a lot of armor, and it would take them 15 minutes to blow this area to smithereens.”
“Nobody wanted to surrender,” said Goldberg, “but we had to. We had a habit of obeying officers.” The riflemen removed the firing pins from their rifles and threw them away, then broke up their rifles. “Then we marched out.” The lieutenant led the men out of the woods to a small town where they sat down on the grass beside a paved road. The Germans came by and checked the Americans’ pockets. Goldberg said, “I had nothing to give them, but they did take things from the others.”
Goldberg grew apprehensive as the Germans rifled through his fellow GIs’ pockets.