The holidays are a time to relax with friends and family, to be grateful for all of the good we have in our lives. However, our nation’s servicemen and women often don’t have the same luxury and spend their holidays deployed protecting the country. In his recent memoir, “A Tourist in Uniform,” Art Schmitz, a 95-year-old World War II veteran from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recounts Christmas Eve 1944, which for him was just another day trying to survive.
While his book covers his story beginning in childhood, Schmitz describes one of his most harrowing experiences on Christmas Eve 1944 in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Schmitz had initially been in the United States Army Signal Corps, but in October 1944 he was assigned to the 101st Airborne division and would certainly see combat. In December, the unit traveled to Bastogne where Schmitz was assigned to outpost guard duty. His responsibility was to keep an eye on the landscape for German soldiers.
Christmas in Combat
On Christmas Eve 1944, Schmitz found himself in a house with five or six of his comrades. The group had been hearing Christmas carols on German radio and began singing the carols in English. Then, something terrifying happened.
“The place lit up like a Christmas tree with thermal flares being dropped by German Luftwaffe, and right after that the bombs started coming down, and that’s when we made a dive into the basement,” Schmitz said.
At 9 a.m. the next day, Schmitz and his fellow soldiers emerged from the basement to discover that the house had taken a direct hit from a 500-pound German bomb. Fortunately, the bomb had been a dud and remained intact, but had destroyed the only working toilet in the area. The impact had obliterated the entire house. Miraculously, none of the men were seriously wounded. Although it was Christmas Day, Schmitz was still very much in a combat mindset.
“I don’t think we even thought about that. We had been there since the 17th of December, so we were kind of conditioned to the idea of combat. Christmas Eve was just another day of taking it. We were getting shelled 24 hours a day by the Germans,” Schmitz recalled. “It’s a strange part to explain to civilians, but after a certain amount of time of this kind of thing, you become numb. It’s just another day of combat.”
The Greatest Generation
Later on, some of the men thanked Schmitz for praying during the bombardment, even though he was unaware he had done so. Nevertheless, the violence was unrelenting. Several days later on January 3, 1945, a German artillery gun hit the mess hall at their unit’s headquarters, which was a formerly Nazi-occupied Belgian Army base, killing the entire kitchen crew, including one of Schmitz’s close friends.
Schmitz survived the war, earning a Purple Heart, and in 1987, returned to Bastogne with his wife for a peaceful Christmas, just as he had promised himself in 1944.