Alfred “Whitey” Birdwell and Cornelis “Neil” Berghout sat on a green sofa at Waldenbrooke Estates on a recent Tuesday, swapping stories.
To strangers, the pair — Birdwell, 94, and Berghout, 86 — appear to be lifelong friends: They even sometimes finish each other’s sentences.
Though they didn’t meet until roughly three years ago, their bond actually started some 64 years earlier during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
World War II was headed toward a close, when, in December 1944 a German offensive was launched against Allied Forces on a mountain forest in Belgium. Birdwell was serving in the U.S. Army and Berghout, a native of the Netherlands, was a soldier in the British Army.
Against a common enemy, they shared the same mission: Freedom over tyranny.
Friends met on the battlefield came and went over the decades as both moved on with their lives post-war.
Birdwell, a Henderson native, and Berghout, the European who was forced to leave his combat-torn country at the age of 17, eventually met up in the retirement center off Memorial Drive in Bryan. There, they learned not only that both were World War II veterans, but the one-time soldiers shared the same war story.
They have been friends ever since.
“Destiny brought us together,” Birdwell said. “We just kind of banded up together.”
‘Never go home’
In 1940, the Germans occupied Berghout’s hometown of Roosendaal, which is in southern Holland near Belgium border. His fellow townsmen didn’t have military training, but they organized against the invasion.
“No one had names – we had code names so if one of us was caught, he couldn’t tell who the other guys were,” Berghout recalled. “We weren’t really fighting, but [rather] sabotaging everything we could.”
He was among a group of men who late one evening carried out a plot to smuggle weapons inside the town’s borders. Then a teen, he went with the group into an open field where they accepted weapons dropped off by a plane. Everything had gone fairly smoothly by the time the crew split up to return home.
It was 2 a.m., well past the nationally enforced curfew, as Berghout slipped through the streets on his way home and ran into a patrol.
“One of the patrolmen was Dutch and an ex-neighbor who recognized me,” Berghout said.
Berghout was let go without any trouble, but he said he immediately knew he could never go home. If he did return, he said he would have risked the lives of his family.
“At 4 o’clock the same morning, the Germans had surrounded my home,” Berghout said he learned later.
He went into hiding at the home of a friend where he stayed for the next three weeks until he was moved to France. His life at the time was the stuff movies are made about: He changed hide-outs every few days. One night, the woman hiding Berghout in Paris brought him, along with a group of American and British pilots, to a field in “the middle of nowhere.”
“We could hear the plane coming in really low,” Berghout said. “We got on it, and that’s how I got to England.”
After his arrival, he chose to officially fight the enemy that drove him from his homeland. He enlisted in the British Army.
‘Just what you did’
In January of 1942, Birdwell shipped out of Boston to join the fight in France after he was drafted into service leaving behind his wife, Patsy, and their two children.
“I didn’t mind being drafted — everybody else was gone — that’s just what you did,” Birdwell said.
His deployment was delayed, however, because several weeks after he began basic training, he got word that his 22-week-old baby had dysentery.
Initially, he was not allowed to go home to check on the welfare of his wife and child, but eventually was given permission.
“They said, ‘let the Red Cross do it, that’s what they’re for, we’ve got business on the other side of the ocean,'” Birdwell recalled grimly.
“They only let me go home to bury the baby,” he added.
Three weeks later, he returned to finish training.
“It was hard to leave my family,” he said, with Patsy sitting nearby at Waldenbrooke. “But, I’m an American and I didn’t want to have that black mark against my name.”
Birdwell started out in Le Havre, France, and drove a tank that moved on through Belgium and Germany, while Berghout landed in Caen, France. They travelled along different parts of northeastern Europe before ending up on opposite sides of the German forces during the big battle, also known as the Ardennes Offensive in the forested Ardennes mountain region of Belgium.
The major German offensive was meant to split the Allied line of the American and British troops.
“We had orders to attack [the Germans] from the back,” Berghout said.
Gesturing toward Birdwell as he continued, Berghout said: “Later on we found that those guys were fighting the same division, but on the front so we had them pinched in.”
The battle that started on Dec. 16, 1944 was over in late January the next year. The Germans surrendered a few months later.
The Battle of the Bulge claimed the lives of more than 20,800 Allied soldiers; another 42,800-plus suffered injuries. Roughly, 23,500 were either captured or missing.
‘Job I loved’
“They told us not to have a close friend – it’ll mess your mind up,” Birdwell said.
Both agreed that aside from the Germans, the weather was one a major enemy.
“You could not get out of your tank with bare hands,” Berghout said. “You would stick to the tank.”
During the frigid winter amid heavy snow fall, the soldiers suffered weeks without a fire, cup of coffee or warm meal.
“It seemed like a lifetime,” Birdwell said.
Berghout nodded in agreement, adding that they had to be extremely cautious to not light anything because it could attract German soldiers, who he said were “all over the place.”
The two smiled when recalling the end of the war, when they went “through the country rounding up Nazis.”
“That was a job I loved,” Birdwell said as Berghout chuckled in agreement.
As the war wound down and their jobs as soldiers turned into humanitarian aid, both said they witnessed many atrocities.
“I’ve seen bodies that were stacked high because they’d run out of gasoline to burn them,” Birdwell said.
Berghout slowly nodded and added, “When you see a person pick up a child and throw them into a furnace — you never forget that.”
There were many sights that neither have been able to get out of their head, many memories that still seem so fresh.
After the war, the two moved around for work — Birdwell did construction jobs within the U.S., and Berghout, an airlines mechanic, traveled throughout Canada and America — before health, old age and their families moved them to Bryan.
Both have daughters who live in the area. Berghout’s wife, Maria, passed away two years ago.
In Birdwell’s apartment, a wall is dedicated to his military service, the centerpiece of which is a shadowbox with black and white photos of him in his uniform. Next to the encased pictures are the medals he received, including a Purple Heart.
The war stories aren’t the only thing the pair have to talk about it. They share family memories, tales from their jobs, life after the war. And they share a similar sense of humor.
“When I came here, I met this guy,” Berghout chuckled.
“And he’s been sorry of it ever since,” Birdwell jokingly retorted.
WWII vets become friends after fighting in same famous battle more than 60 years later