The most powerful words in last Friday’s edition of the Enterprise were not found in a news story but in “Veterans Spotlight,” a column written by Falmouth resident Wayne Soares which the newspaper makes available for advertiser sponsorship.
Regular readers of the Enterprise no doubt have noticed the columns, which profile local veterans and their reminiscences of their service.
Among the veterans Mr. Soares has profiled are those who served in World War II.
With the passage of time their numbers are growing fewer and fewer. They now are in their 90s.
Dubbed “The Greatest Generation” by television newsman Tom Brokaw in his book of the same title, these veterans have become known not only for their epic defeats of Germany and Japan, but for their reticence in talking about what they experienced in battle.
Some are talking only now, as they near the completion of nearly a century of life.
In last Friday’s column Mr. Soares interviewed Jerry Anacosta, 97, who grew up in Boston’s North End and was drafted about a week after he graduated from high school.
He was sent to the European Theater and saw major action on a variety of fronts, but he especially remembers the Battle of the Bulge, which began 75 years ago on December 16, 1945.
After the D-Day invasion and the Allied breakout in Normandy, the Germans had pushed back by December into Belgium and eastern France.
Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, however, had an idea: a counteroffensive through the Ardennes, replicating the route of his great success four years earlier against the French. The idea was to drive to the sea, seizing the port of Antwerp and dividing the American and British armies.
The hammer blow fell on the Americans, who were surprised by the attack.
The Germans, hitting the lightly held sector with overwhelming force, gobbled up territory at first, creating a “bulge” in the Allied lines.
But resistance stiffened. The Allies proceeded to flood the area with reinforcements and were able by late December to bring back their dominant air power, grounded by bad weather in the first week or so of the battle.
If you were a young person growing up in the decades after World War II, the Battle of the Bulge was an inspiring story: American defiance in the face of daunting odds, symbolized by the 101st Airborne’s defense of the encircled Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne. “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards,” one American soldier there was heard to remark.
But what the shorthand myth doesn’t convey is how grievous a cost the Americans paid for their eventual victory: about 19,000 dead, making it the third-bloodiest campaign ever fought by the US military.
More than a little of that comes through Mr. Soares’s interview with Mr. Anacosta, who in 1944 was a private in the US Army: a young man deeply worried about his two younger brothers fighting in the Pacific; confronting the terrible cold of the Ardennes winter—“everything was cold; your food, water, coffee when you could drink it”—and burying himself in the snow with his patrol for hours to escape detection while a German armored column took hours to move by on a nearby road.
He took shrapnel in his leg after diving to knock a fellow soldier away from a German grenade (and received a Purple Heart, which of course he doesn’t mention in the interview) and was sent to a field hospital just before Christmas—“[I] awoke the next day and didn’t realize it was Christmas Eve until I heard the nurses singing Christmas carols.”
“They brought in a young kid that looked just like my little brother Johnny…shot up really bad…nurse said he wouldn’t make it through the night,” Mr. Anacosta recalled.
Seventy-five years after that experience, he begins to cry in heavy sobs.
“The kid died from his wounds a few hours later and they brought him to a tent where they put the dead bodies…he was the only goddamn person in there…I asked the doctor if I could go and sit with him so he’d have somebody for a little while on Christmas Eve…[I] wanted him to have someone, even if he was dead,” Mr. Anacosta said.
But Mr. Anacosta also carried the steel of a soldier inside himself.
“We had a great ability to not want to give in…ya know, be defeated,” he said.
That’s the main reason Hitler’s Ardennes gamble failed: Mr. Anacosta and a lot of young American soldiers like him, no matter how cold or scared they were, did not give in.
They were a great generation. Their greatness arose not only from their toughness, but from their humanity.