In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

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In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Gina_Costina on Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:58 pm

This weekend GI44-45 made their way to Bihain, in the Ardennes to retrace the footsteps of the Thunderbolts, the 83rd Infantry Division. A number of living history groups came together, uniting as one group to do their best to pay homage to the Division that served in that area in the winter of 1944.

I made my way down leaving England on the late night ferry, leaving Dover at 0015. My car was laden with a large crate order for the Belgian Friendly 101st Living history group. I made the most of a quiet ferry to get an hour and half sleep before the long drive ahead of me. My Sat-nav was sending me via Brussels and I did not fancy getting caught in any rush hour traffic. Driving for a few hours I eventually found myself in the Ardennes region and with it came a change in weather. Snow was still evident, and to make things worse there was dense fog, a real pea-souper, that made driving really hard. This was further aggravated by a badly pot-holed motorway that seems to have taken the worst of the freezing snow and ice.

I had decided to first visit Bastogne and my route in town at 0600 found me outside Tony McAuliffe’s 101st Airborne HQ overlooking the cemetery that’s seen in so many photos. I parked up and had a few more hours sleep. After a breakfast in Bastogne, and a quick visit to the generally over-priced militaria shop in the Town I headed out to pay my respects at the national monument outside town and also visit the Historical centre as I had not visited this before. Although it was now daylight the fog was still evident. It was so thick it made me wonder how GI’s coped during the war, whilst it hampered my vision it seemed to enhance sounds around the area, and I guessed that many a shot was fired off by both sides who were probably very jittery.

I thought the historical centre was okay, but my favourite site still has to be Diekirch. I made my way over to the National Monument. The snow was really bad under foot, it was over two foot thick in places, coated by a layer of ice about an inch thick, but once I broke my foot through it sunk deep into the snow underneath only to hit a layer of slush and water. Never encountered snow like this before!!!

I was the only visitor to the site, so had a chance to pay my respect in silence. After a while I left and drove north intending to visit Stock Ardennes to see if there were any bargains. The fog was still bad and the country lanes were still hampered by snow and ice. I was amazed at how much the fog had closed in, plus it was deathly quiet.

After a visit to Stock Ardennes and only one “bargain” purchased I made my way to the Hostel in Bihain. I thought it was going to be a hostel, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover we were staying in a half board hotel. I met Gregory De Cock and the guys from the Belgian Friendly 101st and we all spent the evening socialising with two veterans of the 83rd Infantry, and their families.

The two veterans were Captain Leo T Hury aged 91 and S/Sgt William “Bill” Spriggs, aged 86. Bill is incredibly spritely, he doesn’t drink or smoke, and if I could be as on the ball at 86, as he is, I will be a very happy man. It was true pleasure and honour to be able to chat to Bill in depth about his experiences. I asked him was he happy to talk about his experiences, and he said, “You ask the questions and I will tell”, I enquired if he had spoken to people back home after the War about life in Europe, and he told me that he felt like a preacher who had a story to tell, but turned to look at the congregation, and saw there was nobody there to listen, he would have been happy to speak, if only there had been an interested audience. He said life for him after the war was hard, in his words he had been a high school drop-out before the war and came back with no qualifications doing work here and there. He decided to go back to college, and felt like an old man being the much older person in the class. Bill told me had 72 points which allowed him to get shipped back home. He had enlisted at age 17 with the permission of his mum, and began his basic training moving from his home state of New York, down to Alabama. After training he shipped overseas from New York via the Replacement depot, I asked him, “You were a replacement- you came from the Repple-Depple?” He laughed and said that he had not heard that phrase in 66 years. Bill had no idea what unit he was going to join, but as it turned out it was the 83rd Infantry.

He spent a brief time in England based in Chester, he was offered a chance to stay longer by training to become a glider rider, but he declined!

Bill arrived at Omaha Beach , he recalls, on 7th July, due to the storms earlier in month, I believe he could not land anywhere else as the mulberry harbours had been turn up, so he came in shore via landing craft jumping over the side apparently when they got closer to shore.

Bills experience as a replacement was initially not good, he confirmed that some of the vets did not want to talk to him and he and his buddy felt isolated in their Normandy fox-holes. Bills best buddy was 6 feet 2 inches or so tall, Bill is about 5 Feet 2 inches tall. He told me, laughing, that he had said to his buddy, that he wished he had not been partnered with him on account of the fact he was so tall. Bill joked he wished for a shorter buddy, when he was digging a foxhole he could have done it in quick time due to his own short height. The fact that he had a taller buddy made him have to do extra work digging a fox-hole to allow for extra space needed that he was never going to use!

Bill recalled that his buddy later got shot through the cheek badly mutilating his face. He said, “We were not like the marines, staying with our injured- we had to keep going” He explained that he tied his buddy to a tree, so that he was sat up rather than lying down. He figured that by doing this he would have a better chance of survival, reckoning that a passing medic would attend to somebody sat up rather than lying down. Many years after the war Bill found out that his Buddy survived, so I guess his idea worked!

I asked if he had ever drunk Calvados whilst in Normandy, and he grinned and raised his eyebrows! He recalled drinking it in bars.

Bill was involved in the Normandy breakout, and then made his way to the Ardennes and the fighting in the Hurtgen. He got hit by some shrapnel whilst in a foxhole and won a Purple Heart, he also received the Bronze star after rescuing a buddy who had sustained a machine gone wound in his thigh. Bill crawled out of a foxhole, and began to drag his buddy bag by pulling on his webbing; he had to keep his head down as they were at risk of being machine gunned down. Bill said that there were no particular moments in the war that were better or worse, but pausing slightly and seemingly reflecting on that moment 66 years earlier, he said that experience stood out as being pretty bad.

Bill said that when he was in his squad, the first Sergeant ran the show and that they could make decisions without having to seek a higher authority, He never saw the Captain who tended to be in the rear, and occasionally saw a lieutenant.

Bill was asked if he ever acquired and wore German equipment, and he said, “No”, that they would take it off another GI, figuring his need was greater than somebody who was dead or wounded. He laughed about the Germans saying they were really noisy, that a GI could hear them talking and all their kit clanking about long before they saw them. On one occasion a surrendering German ran towards him, with a wooden bowl covering his head. Bill wondered why it was so, and saw that it contained various meats. He said the German , despite surrendering, protested that he wanted to keep the Bowl and meat, but Bill replied, laughing “That’s mine!” explaining that this would be a delicacy in place of a diet of C and K Rations. I gave Bill one of my Costino Industries D Rations, and he laughed saying that he used to keep one in the top pocket of his field jacket (suggesting he wore an M43) and one could last him six weeks. Bill told me that he had been on the “Eastern front”, having crossed the River Elbe and travelled six miles in land where they met some Russians. There was a suggestion that maybe not documented that his unit had met the Russians before the 69th did at Torgau.

I told Bill that my favourite 40’s pin-up was Rita Hayworth and he agreed that she was a looker, but I didn’t get to find out who his favourite was. Maybe next time. It really was a great honour to speak to Bill, and I hope someday, soon, rather than later, I’ll get the chance to speak to him again.

On the Saturday Glen Mallen, Ian “Shady” Saunders and Eric Hudson joined us, and all the various people from European countries formed up in squads outside for some basic rifle drill. The last time I had done this was at Crich with Sam “Double-tap” Harris, and I was a little rusty, but the experience was good, and at the time of the unveiling of a memorial to the 83rd, I think we did pretty well.

The march itself commenced and soon we were in woodland, walking was quite hazardous as again the surface of the snow was caked in ice, but underneath the soft snow was a layer of slush and mud, the like of which I have not experienced before. The snow was deep in places and to walk on the track was difficult and some took to walking through the woods, which was just as hard going. What lay underneath the snow was hard to tell, sometimes there were deep holes filled with water and taking a step through such snow often resulted in breaking and ended up Ankle deep in icy water. A few people went down, me included, as it really was hard to make our way through it all.

As the march progressed we tried to make our way across a stream, but due to the melting snow we faced a wider, fat rushing torrent of water, and so followed the flow of water down where we crossed via a submerged bridge. Unfortunately this resulted in everyone’s buckle boots becoming sodden with water adding to the difficulty of marching.

At the half way mark we stopped for a rest and all the squads were issued a D Ration courtesy of Costino Industries. We continued on where we paused briefly at another 83rd memorial to the fallen, and eventually we arrived back in Bihain, where we concluded with a tactical assault on the small hamlet. Arriving back at the hotel, the place was fall and Bill was Leo was treated like true heroes, chatting to the various nationalities present. This is one of the parts of the “In the footsteps” type trips that I like, making friends with, and socialising with people from various Countries. The end of the evening concluded with a couple shared glasses of Calvados, which I do to pay homage to the GI’s who must have drunk the same some 66 years earlier. I like Calvados but it did nothing to stop the hangover I suffered the next morning!

The next morning we said our goodbyes, and for me to chat briefly to Bill one last time, an absolute pleasure.

In conclusion the 83rd march is a lot shorter than the others, it’s achievable, but the experience and opportunity it brings to meet other people is a match for any of the other trips I have been on. I’m looking forward to next year and hopefully meeting Bill and Leo gain.


A few pictures, there would have been more but I dropped and broke my camera!

Fog closing in




Bastogne Historical Center and Monument




Inside the Center



Meeting Bill Spriggs


Rifle drill! Shady puts us through our paces!



A rare picture of Glen Mallen smiling- he had just stolen my D Rations!



Waiting for the memorial service




With Leo Hury and his Son Thomas




The march..










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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  murph on Mon Jan 10, 2011 4:14 pm

Thanks for an excellent report Paul, looks like you had an interesting time of it. I can see that the ground must have been hard going, well done. Especially liked the interview with Bill.

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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Dantheman on Mon Jan 10, 2011 4:20 pm

Yeah, great photos Paul and loved hearing the stories from Bill. That must really have been really inspiring for the march to have met him and heard first hand recollections of his experiences.. great stuff!

God, can't wait for the 82nd march now!
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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Vic on Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:30 pm

Top stuff
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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Pat on Mon Jan 10, 2011 6:46 pm

Very nice Sarge !! Makes me all excited about the walk in Feb lol! !! It must be a pleasure and honor to speak to veterans about what they did during and after the war.
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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Guest on Mon Jan 10, 2011 7:06 pm

Nice report Paul. Thanks for sharing.

Chris.

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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Gina_Costina on Mon Jan 10, 2011 7:08 pm

Pat wrote:Very nice Sarge !! Makes me all excited about the walk in Feb lol! !! It must be a pleasure and honor to speak to veterans about what they did during and after the war.

I rate my conversations with Bill as being the most pleasureable and relaxed, it was like talking to my Dad!!!!

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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Gina_Costina on Mon Jan 10, 2011 10:55 pm

More pictures courtesy of Gregory De Cock









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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Guest on Tue Jan 11, 2011 9:34 am

Great stuff indeed Paul, thanks for sharing :-)

Cheers,
Ben.

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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  TSgt Willsey on Tue Jan 11, 2011 7:56 pm

That was one of my best reenactment week-end ! First thank's to veterans presence, and the Bill's disponibilty ! As Paul said, we spent hours after the supper, chatting with him, asking questions, which were sometimes funny, but other time more serious and emotive, like questions about Hurtgen Forest !

Anyway, I met Paul, F/Sgt Shady and Captain Mallen ! And I tasted chocolate which came NOT from Belgium, Countrey OF Chacolate... I was quite impressed ! Hahaha

The walk was short, but harder than other I did, cause the snow was in the worst condition to walk on. Mid-melted then frost...And til our knees !
In addition, higher temperatures made a part of the snow melted, so a high quantity of water was everywhere, particulary in little rivers, which we had to pass... As you could see !

But that's was definately a great time together, english, frenc, dutchs, (northen and southern^^)belgians, and our National Jozie, luxemburger...

Can't wait for the 82nd !
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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  murph on Wed Jan 12, 2011 3:59 am

It's the best thing about these trips, getting to know people from different countries and backgrounds.

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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Gina_Costina on Sun Jan 16, 2011 7:50 pm


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Re: In the footsteps of the 83rd Infantry January 8th 2011

Post  Gina_Costina on Sun Feb 06, 2011 7:31 pm


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