The Metro West Daily News shares the story of Bill Campbell, a World War II veteran. At the time, the 18 year old rifleman was on a rescue mission to locate a man who was unlucky enough to step on a mine made of phosphorous. At that time, the Germans started firing off mortar rounds once they noticed the Americans put the injured GI on a stretcher.
The first round missed.
The second round missed.
The third… Did not.
Campbell felt an excruciating pain in his arm and saw pieces of flesh covered with blood. “I’m hit! I’m hit!” A medic climbed over him while in the snow and then pointed to a man whose, still to this day, Campbell does not know. The man agreed, moments before the mortar hit, to switch positions with Campbell to carry the stretcher because Campbell’s left arm was hurting. Campbell recalled: “He was laying on the ground and his head was almost severed, his shoulders were blown wide open.”
Someone else took the man’s place to carry the stretcher. The group was able to get back to an ambulance. “I wonder if that guy on the stretcher knows somebody died today rescuing him,” Campbell remembered thinking while they loaded him inside the ambulance. He said that he could never forget the face of the unfortunate man who died and thought that if it weren’t “for the grace of God,” could have been him.
“It haunts me,” Campbell stated. He lost the youthful zeal for war quickly after he realized what war really meant. “Everybody wanted to go [to war],” Campbell said, himself included. The high school senior was elated when he was drafted. It was only five months later that he found himself on a hill in Germany, hugging the ground “like it’s my mother” after he experienced his first bout of artillery fire. “The sergeant was standing over us saying, ‘Get up that hill,’” Campbell recalled. “I didn’t want to get up. That’s when I knew I was in trouble.”
Campbell was thrown into the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. The battle was located approximately 50 miles off the Belgian-German border. Overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge, Hurtgen was one of the longest and the bloodiest struggles of WWII. The Americans suffered 33,000 casualties during the three month long battle. This was seen as a massive failure because the Allies weren’t able to gain much headway onto the German lines.
The battle started in September in 1944. Campbell reached the battle late in October when the 28th Infantry Division and was brought in to replace the 9th Infantry—who just suffered a casualty of 4,500 troops. “I lost a lot of friends,” Campbell recalled. He says that it was possible for him to remember the sound of “screaming mimis” (German artillery shells).
“It never leaves you,” Campbell shared. It was a few years later when he dove into an alleyway in East Boston after he heard a trolley make the same noise. Campbell said he witnessed a lot of “bad stuff” and a lot of bodies during the battle. He said he was only one of just 300 of the 900 soldiers to make it out of the forest. They didn’t have much time to rest. A short time after the division fell back to like their wounds, Campbell was part of many scouting teams that reported heavy mobilization on the German front.
December 16, 1944, Campbell was able to make it back to the American lines.
And so began the Battle of the Bulge.
“They came so fast, with so much strength,” Campbell described the Germans. “Everybody was just helter skelter.” Campbell said that the cold Hurtgen Forest had been incredibly brutal. The Battle of the Bulge was intolerable in comparison. He said they couldn’t create fires because the risk of the Germans finding them was too great. Instead, he dug a small hole and covered up with a tent. When he woke up one morning, he saw all white. He thought he was blind. Soon, he realized the white was snow and it covered his face. “How cold is your skin if snow won’t melt on it?” he asked.
Campbell survived the Bulge; however, in February, his feet froze so badly that he couldn’t walk. A medic believed Campbell had appendicitis and placed him in a French hospital nearby.
Then… The Army lost him.
Campbell said that he awoke three days later with bandages on his feet and there were no signs of communication from anyone in his division. March 13, 1945, Campbell’s mother received a telegram from the Army that expressed deep sympathy that her son was missing in action. “Everybody thought I was dead,” Campbell said, including some of his friends who were surprised to see him when he got back home. After several weeks of staying with a German pilot and a German infantryman (“they were great guys as long as I had my cigarettes”), Campbell was able to get a French student to alert an Army truck and tell them where he was.
Unfortunately, the ordeal hadn’t ended. Campbell recalled being closely interrogated because he lost his dog tags and didn’t have identification. “A lot of German spies were dressing up like Americans,” said Campbell, who remembered answering a lot of questions about his home, athletes, and even Babe Ruth. Campbell was awarded a Bronze Star and a Prisoner of War Medal for the time he spent in the hospital that was located in a German controlled area. “I think the Army was embarrassed about losing me,” Campbell said. Campbell has lived in Framingham since 1961 with his wife, Marie. After Campbell worked for General Electric, he ran his own appliance repair business for several decades.
Although the time he spent in the war wasn’t as glamorous as he hoped it would be, Campbell said there were moments of levity. He specifically remembers a night he and others were sent on an important scouting mission. The mission placed the team in a wine cellar—instead of Germans. The 18 year old was the only soldier who didn’t drink the wine. He was known for trading his coffee rations for lemonade.
“I got ‘em all back up the mountain,” Campbell recalled with a smile. “But it was like a circus.”