Streetwise Professor

June 11, 2010

A Family Connection

Filed under: Military — The Professor @ 2:15 pm

Today we saw sites associated with the initial German breakthrough at the south of the Bulge, to the edge of Bastogne.  The terrain in this area was quite different than in the northern Ardennes, which is why larger numbers of American troops could not stem the initial German onslaught.

But the most important part of our day was a trip to the northern shoulder of the Bulge, a part of the battle that seldom gets as much attention.  We went there because my late uncle, Norbert Katarski, fought there.  (Norb died in January, 2009.)  He was a machine gunner, operating a water cooled 30 caliber M1917 weapon, in Company K of the 290th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division. (K Company was typically the heavy weapons company of an American infantry regiment.)

The 75th was a raw outfit that was thrown into the Bulge in a hurried fashion, and it paid the price for its inexperience and the chaos of its deployment.  The regiment attacked on the night of 24-25 December, on a line from Hotton to Soy, towards the south.  My uncle recalled that he and his weapon were loaded onto a jeep, and ordered forward in the dark on a recon mission.  His orders: “See if you can draw fire.”  I’m sure THAT was reassuring.

Norbert remembered driving forward along a narrow road through heavy woods in the pitch darkness and freezing cold, waiting for all hell to break loose any minute, hearing in his mind Germans around every bend and behind every tree.  Nobody knew exactly where the Germans were, and Norbert, his loader, and the jeep driver were sent out as bait for them.

Norb recalled rolling into a small town (the name of which he never knew) while on his mission.  He had been told that the Germans typically utilized church steeples as observation posts, so when he saw the steeple he let rip with the 30 cal, and emptied an entire can of ammo into the steeple.  No Germans were there though.

He reported back that no Germans were in the town, and then he and his unit moved back into the town in preparation for their assault.  In the attack, Norbert crawled forward on his elbows and knees, cradling the heavy machine gun in the crooks of his arms.  While crawling in this fashion, a shell burst overhead in the trees.  The force of the explosion drove the weapon into Norb’s arms, causing compound fractures in both elbows.  He got shrapnel in his wrists and thighs.  One splinter entered his helmet, and split his scalp open from back to front.  A couple of millimeters lower, and he would have been a dead man.

Norb believed his loader was killed.  He didn’t know.  He staggered back to an aid station.  The scalp wound was bleeding profusely, so his face was covered with blood, and bone splinters were sticking out of both arms.  He said that he looked so bad that the corpsman who first saw him became physically ill.  (Given that this was a raw unit, it is quite likely that Norb was the first badly wounded man the corpsman had seen, so perhaps it is not surprising that he hurled.)

Norb spent the next three months in the hospital.  After that, he guarded prisoners in Reims.  The German POWs tried to kill him by cutting the brake lines in his truck.  That crap stopped when Norb put his .45 in the face of the ranking POW he was responsible for.  The big, gaping muzzle of the 45 put the fear of God into the German.  Doubt you can do that today.

We are not sure, of course, exactly where Norb fought.  But there is only one town–Soy–in the area where the 290th attacked, and there is only one church steeple in the town, so odds are we saw the spot.  I took a photo of the place.  The roof is obviously new.  Maybe it is the church a kid from Chicago shot up.  Maybe it isn’t.  But it was pretty amazing to realize that 65 years ago a family member came close to death near to that place, but lived to tell about it.

And he didn’t tell about it for a long, long time.  He let out little pieces of the story over the years, but one Christmas–60 years after the event–he told the whole story.  I am glad he did, and I am glad that I could pay my respects by putting together his story with the official records to try to pin down just where he did his service for his country.  And I am very glad I was able to see that place–or what I am pretty sure that place is.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . said: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention -- — June 11, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  2. you need to encourage any WW2 vets to go to the in New Orleans. Many vets find the museum comforting, and begin to talk about their experiences. they can record them, and the museum will digitize them.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — June 11, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  3. Prof, very interesting and touching posts. Thanks! I understand your uncle’s reticence. I still don’t know where my uncle fought — my mother (his sister) told me not to ask him and not to bring up WWII around the table. Even 25 years later he couldn’t talk about it.
    Looking forward to the next installments. Best to you and your father!

    Comment by mossy — June 12, 2010 @ 2:53 am

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