Many years later, when Bill Arrington finally talked about the Battle of the Bulge, he told two stories -- one about the screaming Belgian woman, the other about Christmas Eve in a rancid box car filled with light from the sky.
So haunted was he by the woman's screams that he would tell that story only after years of prodding by his son, Jeff, and then he would speak of it only in brief. He more willingly told the second story, writing it down when someone asked him to share a "Christmas memory." That was in 1971. He died in 1984.
We have Bill Arrington's memoir today because the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge is here, and a son offered it as testament to what happened to his father and other young American soldiers caught in the path of the massive German counteroffensive that would be Adolf Hilter's last gambit to turn the tide of World War II.
The Battle of the Bulge took place in the forested hills of the Ardennes, where Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg meet. By December 1944, it was the weakest-held section of the Western Front, and Hitler's plan was to regroup his retreating armies, breach the American line with Panzer divisions, sweep westward as they had in 1940, cross the Meuse River and reach the port of Antwerp. The battle was launched with earth-shaking surprise in the foggy darkness before dawn, Dec. 16. Twenty-five German divisions struck along 70 miles of Ardennes front held by six American divisions with lots of green troops.
Bill Arrington, a 20-year-old kid from Sykesville was among them.
He had left the United States Nov. 9. Just five weeks later he was a sergeant with Company B, 81st Engineer Battalion, 106th Division, near a place called St. Vith. The 106th was under vicious attack along the north of what became the "bulge" in the American line. In Sir Basil Liddell Hart's history of the war, this is said of the 106th: "Completely inexperienced and suffering from frostbite and 'trench foot,' they were to prove easy meat for the attacking Germans."
Panzer divisions encircled and captured two-thirds of the 106th at St. Vith. Throughout the Ardennes, there was great slaughter. There was a machine-gun massacre of 100 American prisoners by an SS group at a place called Malmedy. There was a bloody and courageous defense of a crossroads called Bastogne. There was confusion and panic. There were traffic jams that delayed reinforcements from reaching units that had been surrounded by German forces. Everywhere, German armored divisions breached American lines, at great cost to both sides. Between the first surprise attack and Jan. 31, 1945, when the last of the bulge in the Ardennes had vanished, 81,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured, according to Liddell Hart. German losses were estimated at up to 120,000 soldiers.
Though much of it had been liberated in September 1944, Belgium was pulled back into the Nazi nightmare with the battle in the Ardennes. Some 11,000 houses were destroyed and 2,500 civilians killed. The screams of one Belgian woman, a woman who had tried to help him, haunted Bill Arrington for the rest of his life.
Like many elements of the 106th Infantry, Arrington's company had been surrounded by German forces early on the morning of the first day of the battle. So Arrington, a private and a lieutenant went off toward St. Vith in search of help.
They never got there. Encountering German units, they decided to hide overnight in a Belgian house; a woman there gave them bread and milk. But before midnight, there was a rap at the door. The place was surrounded by a German company. Arrington and his two comrades surrendered. As the Germans led them away, Arrington heard the woman screaming from somewhere behind the house. He never learned what happened to her.
"That's why he never wanted to tell us that story," says his son, Jeff Arrington, of Cockeysville. "Her screams."
A week later, as Christmas approached, the Germans were still advancing toward the Meuse, and still demanding the surrender of Bastogne. Americans had withdrawn from St. Vith, but reinforced units were fighting stubbornly at dozens of other places in the bulge, and fighter bombers in clearing skies were pounding German supply lines. Twenty miles from St. Vith, near Prum, Germany, Bill Arrington and 60 other prisoners were locked in a wooden box car on railroad tracks. The box car had been used to transport horses.
"There were about 4 inches of horse manure covering the floor," Arrington wrote in his memoir. "We used our helmets to scrape it into one end of the car. When you put 60 people in a place built for 40 not all can sit at the same time. In shifts we sat on the floor or stood in the manure.