A Christmas Story: 1944 in Germany - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Christmas Story: 1944 in Germany

By December 1944, the U.S. Army’s 29th Division as part of the Ninth Army was situated on the west bank of Germany’s Roer River holding the battlefront from Koslar to Kirchberg across from Julich. During the previous six months, the division’s soldiers, including my father Frank Sempa (a sergeant with the 175th Infantry Regiment), had fought their way from Omaha Beach through the hedgerows of Normandy to the French port of Brest and pierced the Siegfried Line. Early December was spent planning and training for crossing the Roer, but the German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge which began on December 16, stalled those plans.

Throughout December, the 29th Division’s front was “quiet,” meaning that there were no large-scale combat operations in their sector, but artillery was fired back and forth across the Roer, and German warplanes occasionally bombed the 29th’s sector. The American soldiers in the Bulge were not so fortunate — they were engaged in the most deadly (for Americans) campaign of World War II.

On December 3, 1944, my father wrote a letter to his parents which informed them that he met up with his brother (my uncle) Eddie. “Got good news for you today,” he wrote. “Saw Eddie today and let me tell you he is looking swell.” My father told his parents that he spent three hours talking to his brother and “talked about most everything under the sun.” My Uncle Eddie fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

On December 17th and 18th, German planes bombed and strafed the division’s sector causing several casualties. By sheer luck, my father was in Paris on a 5-day pass. (I remember my grandmother telling me about what she considered the “miracle” of that 5-day pass.) My father returned to the Roer front on December 22. That day, he wrote a letter to his parents enclosing a medal and rosaries from Notre Dame Cathedral. And he also mentioned as an aside that he was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a combat decoration established by the War Department in 1943 to recognize infantry soldiers who engaged in active ground combat with enemy ground forces.

The War Department’s official history of the 29th Division in World War II noted that for the division’s soldiers “it wasn’t a bad Christmas” in 1944. “There was no German counterattack … and no offensive action” by the Americans. On Christmas Eve, soldiers heard church bells ringing across the Roer Rover. But there were also the sounds of war. “At four o’clock in the morning,” one soldier remembered, “the night ceased to be silent. Machine guns roared and cracked tracer over Julich, while our mortars crashed into that roofless city…”

That evening, my father wrote two letters to his parents. “Here it is X-Mas Eve, the third spent overseas.… It’s far from any X-Mas I’ve had so far but I’m thankful to be here to spend it. For certain we will all be together by next X-Mas.” He closed that first letter by writing, “Hope tomorrow is a day of happiness to you and Dad. Be thankful we are all alive, even though not together.”

In my father’s second letter on Christmas Eve, he told his parents that “Things so far are quiet on X-Mas Eve. Just finished decorating a X-Mas tree and it sure does look good. Of course surroundings aren’t the best here in war torn Germany but we are making the best of it. Before the night is over the guys intend to sing a few X-Mas carols. Tomorrow is just another day in this war but that certain something will be there in everyone’s heart.” He concluded this letter with a Christmas wish: “Hope today and tomorrow are happy days in your lives. Rejoice in that we are all enjoying good health though circumstances do not permit a reunion.”

On Christmas Day, the soldiers of the 29th Division were treated to a turkey dinner, which my father noted included gravy, potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and coffee. “It was one of the best X-Mas dinners we had in my four X-Mas’ in the army.” He also attended Catholic Mass that day. Meanwhile, across the river German loudspeakers broadcast Christmas carols and appeals to surrender. The 29th Division responded to those appeals with what the division’s official history called “an effective serenade by … artillery.”

The brief Christmas interlude for the 29th Division did not last long. Throughout January and early February 1945, the division carried out 60 patrols across the Roer River, engaged in firefights and skirmishes with German troops, took prisoners, destroyed enemy outposts, and made further plans for Operation Grenade — the forthcoming crossing of the Roer which began in late February 1945.

Merry Christmas!    

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