On Christmas Day 1944, Gus Epple was driving an Army Jeep through the traffic jam leading to the German lines. The 19-year-old suffered of dysentery, which forced him to stop the car every 15 minutes or so. It was indeed a white Christmas and it felt like it. Young Mr Epple fought the terrible cold of that day wrapped in two layers of uniform pants and longjohns, a jacket and an overcoat.
That same night, him and his unit started a fire in their stove and shut it down in less than ten seconds, to make sure it won’t give away their position. “You couldn’t believe how brilliant that little gas stove was,” said Gus Epple, who now lives in Cape May Court House, aged 88.
He was just one of the 610,000 Americans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s final major battle of the Second World War. The fight began December 16, 1944, ended January 25, 1945 and killed 81,000. Four months later the war was over and Epple and the rest of the soldiers returned home after a winter without Christmas.
Some decades later, they would still gather together to share memories and have lunch, most of the time during Christmas. Their numbers, however, have decreased over the past 10 years. Even those who are still alive, sometimes find it impossible to leave their houses and attend ceremonies, while others are now confined to nursing homes.
Elmer Umbenhauer is another Battle of the Bulge vet and survivor, now aged 88. Talking about the annual gatherings, the former Army rifleman confessed that “there’s a common bond there that means something to us.”
Umbenhauer is also a Cape May Court House resident and lives near his fellow veteran, Gus Epple. During Christmas 1944, he was in Bastogne, Belgium. He remembers hiding in a foxhole and hoping the Nazis won’t find him. Whenever he got the chance, he tried to dig a trench and lie in it but that night it wasn’t possible. Together with other two soldiers, he snuggled in a snow bank and stayed there.
He recalled hearing the German Panzer tanks driving around, only miles away from where they were. “If they decided to come after us, I wouldn’t be here — we were totally unprotected,” said Umbenhauer.
He found out about the group and joined it, after one of the members mentioned the 8th Armored Division, which was his division, in the newspaper. There is where he met another survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, who flew six operations during the battle.
Ewing Roddy likes to say that he fought the Germans above the grounds and not on the grounds, like some of the others. Roddy is 89 years old and lives with his wife in a Linwood nursing home, the PressofAtlanticCity reports.
The president of the group is Ed Steinberg, a former New Jersey Army National Guard reservist and son of a Bulge veteran who died in 1992. Steinberg, 70, insisted that he enjoys more spending time with the vets and hearing their stories, than with people of his generation.