Amid the ugliness of war, men must dig a little deeper to find some holiday cheer.
Or just stay alive.
Deep in the Ardennes Forest on Christmas Eve in 1944, American soldiers scraped out foxholes in the frozen ground as German tanks rolled toward them.
A few miles away, a young farm boy from Colville had just dodged a hail of bullets and found salvation that night in a farmhouse.
But something bothered him. Above the farmhouse was a hay bale big enough to hide a squad of Germans.
“So I said, ‘Let’s check it out,’” said Everett Martin, who at 19 years old just wanted a good night’s sleep.
He got so much more that Christmas Eve.
Everett and another soldier tramped around the hay until they felt something firm underneath. “So we eased in a knife and nobody said anything and we dived in there and found three-quarters of a pig, all smoked.”
The soldiers carved out part of the meat and threw it in on the stove. For men who’d subsisted for months on GI rations, it was the smell of deliverance from war.
And not just for the Americans of the 330th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Division. The aroma crossed the no-man’s land of broken trees and shell fragments, all the way to the German lines.
Standing in the dark in the wee hours of Christmas Day, one of Martin’s comrades saw them approaching through the woods, tired and hungry and sick of war.
By the end of the night, dozens came to that farm – “more than we could handle,” said Martin, a mortar gunner whose company commander told his men “not to bring in any more Germans.”
The long road to peace
The war would be over by Christmas, the American soldiers were told as they marched toward Germany in the late summer of 1944.
Hitler had other ideas. In a desperate move, he sent more than a million troops into the snowy forests of Belgium and Luxembourg.
The offensive, which began 75 years ago, on Dec. 16, 1944, caught the Americans by surprise and their airplanes grounded by bad weather.
Some units were overrun, with men fighting and dying where they stood.
By the time the Battle of the Bulge ended a few weeks later, more than 19,000 Americans had died and almost 70,000 more were wounded.
“They’re the ones who paid the price,” said Martin, now 94 and residing in an assisted-living facility in Spokane Valley.
Martin also paid a toll, long after World War II ended in 1945.
Long before doctors had a name for it, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Not long after returning home, Martin awoke in the middle of the night and almost killed his brother, according to his son Tim.
Year later Tim asked about the fighting – the dying – but got few answers.
“I couldn’t talk about it,” Martin said as Tim and another child, Gloria, looked on. “(Tim) asked what war was like. … I couldn’t go there.”
Martin teared up at the thought of six decades of bottled-up emotions. They were finally uncorked 10 years ago, following a heartfelt conversation with a pastor.
“He was a Navy man,” Martin said. “He told me, ‘You need to talk about it; the more you talk about it, the easier it is.’”
Martin talks freely now. His mind is sharp and his recollections clear, of growing up in a large family in Stevens County, of being told by his father that as the son of a farmer he could be exempted from the draft.
Martin signed up anyway, on his 18th birthday, May 18, 1943.
Trained as a mortar gunner, he shipped out to England early in 1944. After more weeks in the coal country of Wales, the 83rd Infantry Division embarked in the English Channel shortly after D-Day.
Owing to stormy seas, they stayed there for 10 days before landing in Normandy on June 18 to relieve the 101st Airborne Division.
Soon Martin was enmeshed in the deadly hedgerow country. He traded salvos with the Germans, once almost left for dead by a fragment that tore off half his clothes.
Praying to the Lord “to please get me home with only a scratch,” Martin got just that. “It skipped my belt and my knee and ankle, but gave me a scratch like from a barbed-wire fence.”
A rendezvous with history
With the rest of the Allied forces, the 83rd raced across France to the borders of Germany, but fuel shortages halted them in their tracks.
Early December found Martin and the 330th in the battle of the Huertgen Forest, where in one firefight his crew killed dozens of Germans.
“They were in a big thicket of trees,” Martin recalled. “They thought they were safe.”
As Christmas neared and the Americans were reeling in the Bulge, the 83rd was pulled out of the line and sent north.
The soldiers got their Christmas care packages – food that was “just crumbs by the time it reached us,” Martin said – and headed for the front.
Ordered toward the Belgian town of Rochefort, the 83rd fought in waist-deep snow, using weapons that froze. They stuck to their guns, sometimes literally, but repelled the German attack.
Two months later, Martin, now a sergeant, was halfway through Germany. Along the way, the 83rd seized so many abandoned German vehicles that it was able to completely motorize itself and raced almost to Berlin before the war ended.
The war won, Martin returned home to Eastern Washington with the rest of America’s Greatest Generation. He worked as a cowboy, lumberman and farmer. He fell in love and raised a family. After his first wife died, he re-married and raised another.
Widowed again last year, Martin has a bright smile and talks more easily about the war. Then he pauses and remembers fallen comrades.
“The real heroes are still over there,” he said.
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