For Gerry Goolkasian of Newton, the Battle of the Bulge barely lasted a morning.
The week before, Goolkasian had been sipping coffee in a Luxembourg café, secure in the thought that the war was practically over. But then news broke that the Germans had launched an invasion of the lightly manned Ardennes region of Belgium on Dec. 16, 1944.
The tank gunner’s unit was rushed to Noville, a small town near Bastogne. Fourteen tanks went in; just four remained after the battle.
Goolkasian, 98, was among the 600,000 Americans who fought in the nearly six-week battle. They were barely adults when they were swept up by Hitler’s desperate effort to drive a wedge between the British and the Americans, capture the port of Antwerp, and force a negotiated peace.
Few of them are alive today to honor the 75th anniversary of what Winston Churchill called “the greatest American battle” of World War II, one that helped pave the way for Allied conquest of Germany’s Western Front and, combined with the Soviet drive from the east, the Nazi surrender on May 7, 1945. But the Boston-area soldiers interviewed for this story say it was months before they realized the battle’s significance.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said Sam Yanku, who served with a mortar crew.
“It was cold. I mean real cold,” Goolkasian said of his first night in Noville, “a little wide place in the road” with a Catholic church, a school, and a few other buildings. “I had two pairs of pants on, my tank uniform, long underwear, and two pairs of British socks.”
He spent the deceptively quiet night alternating between sleep and watch duty, shivering in his gunner’s seat. At dawn, he spotted three German tanks lined up broadside along the far side of a field. They were rocking back and forth, trying to shake mud off their tracks. The Americans caught them by surprise, knocking out all three.
Next, a German half-track loaded with a dozen or more troops rumbled down the road toward Noville. “We all opened up on it,” Goolkasian said. “Blew the whole thing to hell.”
All was quiet again for what seemed like two hours. Then German shells rained down on the Americans. Manning a 30-caliber machine gun in his tank turret, Goolkasian couldn’t return fire — no enemy was in sight.
Then shell fragments smashed into his left arm, from his elbow to his hand. Despite blood gushing from his wounds, he grabbed his gun and jumped to the ground. Another shell struck nearby, lifting him into the air. “All I remember is one of my shoes splitting apart,” he said. “I prayed to God that if you ever get me out of this, I’ll never do a wrong thing in my life.”
Meanwhile, 30 miles northeast in forests near Stavelot, Dominic Freni was enduring weeks of shelling as he guarded an anti-tank gun deployed to protect roadways against German convoys. None ever came his way.
“We were known as the devils in baggy pants,” the North End native said of his division, the 82nd Airborne. Its commander, Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, released two German prisoners, instructing them “to tell their officers that they’re fooling around with the 82nd now,” not the fresh recruits who had crumbled under the first wave of attacks. “The poor slobs that they broke through were crucified,” Freni said of the initial defenders. “They were new to battle, thinking the war was over.”
After his first night in the battle, Freni recalled, he woke up covered by 3 inches of snow. To heat their coffee and rations, the soldiers put a match to sticks of C-4 plastic explosives. Dinner didn’t blow up in their faces because the claylike substance only explodes when set off by a detonator.
Freni — who retired to the Jack Satter House in Revere after a career in the wholesale food business and is now 95 — already had seen action in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, an airborne invasion of Holland. But while battle-hardened, he wasn’t numbed to danger. “Anybody tells you they weren’t afraid, they didn’t have a brain,” he said. “You had to be afraid.”
David Shonfield was in Paris during the early days of the Battle of the Bulge, on leave from an anti-aircraft unit based in Liège, Belgium. Upon his return, he witnessed the Army’s desperate efforts to respond to the surprise invasion. Hospitals discharged the walking wounded, he said, to reinforce the front.
Shonfield recalled being warned about infiltrators: “They kept telling us to watch where you walk, watch what you’re doing because the fellow you’re looking at might be dressed in a US uniform, but be a German soldier.”
By the time he returned to Liège, he was left with little to do. The weather had cleared, and the Allies dominated the skies. He doubted he shot down any enemy aircraft. “I don’t expect so,” he said. “There weren’t too many German planes left to fight.”
But he did recall the Germans’ unmanned V-1 flying bombs. One came so close, he dived into a puddle, escaping with only his pride and dress uniform sullied. For the most part, he recalled the Battle of the Bulge as “a lot of days of doing nothing” and nights listening to the “woomph, woomph” of bombs and artillery.
The son of a Boston-area cantor, Shonfield slept some nights in a convent. There, he was approached by a woman who asked if he was Jewish. He said yes, reciting a Hebrew prayer as proof.
She told him she was also Jewish, and that the church had taken her in after the Germans killed her husband.
Shonfield lived at 2Life Communities in Brighton after a career in wholesale lighting fixtures. He died in November at the age of 96.
Already a veteran of intense fighting on the French-German border, Joseph Slavet was also with an anti-aircraft unit. After the German breakthrough, his battalion plowed through blinding snow for two days to reach Luxembourg. The weather could be a fiercer foe than the Germans. Not only did it impede travel, but rain, snow, and cold over the previous two months had knocked many of his fellow soldiers out of action. Slavet avoided trench foot, which could have led to gangrene and amputation, thanks to the thick socks his mother had knitted him back in Dorchester.
Slavet served in the Third Army under General George S. Patton. In an anecdote that sounds straight out of the biopic starring George C. Scott, Slavet recalled seeing the legendary commander. “We were bogged down and out of nowhere comes Patton.” He stepped out of his jeep and yelled, “What the hell is holding this up?” and set about directing traffic.
“Although he was a tough guy, he really loved his troops and knew them better than most generals,” Slavet said.
After the war, Slavet became well known in local political circles as the head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. Now 99, he lives in Orchard Cove in Canton.
Sam Yanku didn’t even know he was in Belgium when he spent his first night on the continent in a forest near the front. Had it not been for the German invasion, he would have been bunking down at a peaceful camp in France. Instead, he was digging a foxhole under artillery fire. Part of a three-man mortar team, he carried the shells and loaded them into the tube. An observer linked by phone wire several hundred yards away directed where to aim. “You fire one over, one under, then zero in,” Yanku said. He never personally saw what was hit.
Over the course of the next month, his team changed position with the battle lines. It was only by luck that he wasn’t injured. “The guy next to me had his leg taken off by a shell,” he said. “If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time . . .”
Heading down a road at one point, his unit was mistaken for German by an American pilot. “He machine-gunned the whole column,” Yanku said. “All we could do was run into the woods.”
He suppressed fears for his own safety by not obsessing about them. “The guys who have nervous breakdowns are the ones who think about getting hit,” Yanku said. “You have to have a numb mind and . . . just keep your head down.”
Now living in the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, Yanku, 94, spent most of his adult life as a carpenter in Haverhill.
After the shell explosion, Goolkasian, the tank gunner, hopped to an aid station with the help of a paratrooper. He received two pints of blood and a shot of cognac. Under fire, he was evacuated to Bastogne and then, by train, to France. Some four years and 20 surgeries later, he met his wife, Eleanora, at Cushing military hospital in Framingham.
While his elbow was repaired to the extent possible, Goolkasian lost an index finger. In pioneering surgery at Cushing, Dr. J. William Littler rerouted a tendon in Goolkasian’s hand so that he could grab objects. He didn’t let the injury stop him from doing chores around the house. “I used to change the oil in all three cars and the filters,” he said.
Although surgeons removed much of the shrapnel that penetrated his body, pieces of it would still emerge years later. His daughter Barbara recalled a piece coming out of his chin when she was a child.
She said her father’s friends would tell him, “Gerry, I was a lucky son of a bitch and you got the short straw.”
But her father didn’t see it that way, replying: “Yes, you were more fortunate than I was, but the way I look at it, I didn’t come home in a casket, so considering where I was stationed, maybe I’m luckier than you!”
The man who took the ultimate risk spent his career in the insurance business. The Goolkasians celebrated their 69th anniversary over the summer. They have lived in their Newton home for almost as many years.
Steve Maas can be reached at email@example.com.