The World War II Battle of the Bulge will always be remembered as one of the biggest battles of American history, and one of the most tragic as many soldiers were captured and imprisoned for years.
One soldier who wasn’t captured and lived to tell about the battle came to live in Rockingham years ago, but still recalls Dec. 16, 1944, as if it were yesterday.
Bunn Tate “B.T.” Phillips, 88, of Rockingham was born in Siler City. He was drafted into the Army. He spend much of his WWII experience on foot across Europe, often as ‘point man’ which meant he was used to attract enemy fire.
“I remember it very well,” he said as he sat reclined in his living room. “Company G was occupying a holding position in the snow overlooking the river. They were there for several days and Company G was relieved by Company F.”
Phillips was in Company G.
“The next morning all hell broke loose. Company F caught the full brunt of the onslaught of the Germany Army. Because we were operating in snow it was impossible to move around,” he said.
Phillips said the 28th division of Company F was spread thinly across the front line, covering a 25 mile front where they would normally cover seven or eight miles. The Germans knew how thinly spread the American soldiers were. The Germans came down on Company F with seven Panzer (tank) divisions.
“I didn’t realize the extent of it. That would have been us,” said Phillips. “I was leading a column of men up through a wooded area when we came under fire.”
Phillips paused to collect himself as he recounted the scene.
“A German stepped out in front of me with a sub-machine gun and cut my belt off on the left side with a burst. I had three holes in my field jacket,” said Phillips. He paused again, for longer, seeming to hold back things he could not express. “It’s a memory I will always remember.”
Phillips said, “It isn’t how long you served or where you went. It was what you did.”
While some service men spent years behind desks or moving supplies, some spent a few months in combat and came home with physical and emotional scars that would last a lifetime.
“There were 20 men behind the lines for every one on the front lines. Everybody couldn’t be back there. Somebody had to serve up front. There are very limited people who looked the enemy in the eye. I’m not a hero. I served with a lot of people who were,” he said.
Phillips came home with two Purple Hearts, by the grace of God and his mother’s prayers, he said.
Phillips suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for years.
“It’s a more different wound to deal with,” he said. “They don’t make a pill big enough to remove that.”
Phillips recalled sitting on the back of a tank with two other men, and suddenly a bullet took out the man beside him.
“Sniper shot him right off my shoulder,” he said, with a hint of leftover disbelief.
When Phillips received his mail package a month later — his mother wrote him a letter each day — the letter she wrote that night described how she woke from her sleep fearing for her son’s life, knowing he was in danger, and fell to her knees praying.
Spending time as a point man was nerve-wracking for Phillips.
“We would just be walking across open fields, not knowing if when I picked my foot up I would put it back down. Your feet get real heavy under those circumstances.”
Phillips said he saw most of Europe through the sights of his M-1 rifle. He watched large air raids sitting in fox holes along the front lines.
“We had a different hole every night, if you were lucky. I was interested in trying to stay alive,” said Phillips.
Phillips described scenarios where men were moved to believe in God in fox holes. Men slept in fox holes with bloating corpses and rats, and grew closer to one another in the short time they had together. He spent some time in fox holes with a lumberjack from Michigan, who said he was an atheist like his father.
“The next morning the orders came to attack the next hedge. It was misting rain. The hedge rows were like a checkerboard. We moved out and were pinned down with machine gun fire, spread-eagle on the ground, him and I. You could hear the mortar shells going ‘thump,’ ‘thump,’ ‘thump,’ and you knew the shells were in the air coming down. They all feel like they’re going to hit you in the small of the back. When we moved on to the hedge row, I asked him who I heard him talking to. I said, ‘you don’t believe like me. I was talking to God. Who were you talking to?’ He didn’t answer and I asked him again and he said, ‘I reckon I was talking to same one you was talking to.’ There are no atheists in fox holes.”
Phillips said the war was a sobering experience, and although he was one of the youngest among the men, he said it matured him beyond his years.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.