Pa. woman shares dad's account of his fighting in Battle of the Bulge
For years, Sharon Schell tried to get her father to talk about his experiences in World War II, but he kept them to himself.
He never wanted fanfare, never displayed the medals he received — she only recently saw his Purple Heart and Bronze Star — and didn't want to hear that he was a hero, instead describing himself as lucky enough to make it home and have a career and a family.
"My mom said she tried to get him to talk about it when they first got married, but he didn't really want to discuss it with her," said Schell, of Cherryville in Lehigh Township.
So while growing up in Columbia County, Schell and her siblings knew their dad was in the war, but that's about all.
"When I had children of my own," she said, "I started to ask him more questions and realized I wanted to preserve this important history."
About 25 years ago and at her urging, Charles F. Remington spilled out details of his Army service and the Battle of the Bulge on 30 typewritten pages.
"After my father's passing June 24, 2015, shortly after his 90th birthday," Schell said, "I took time to reread the things that he had written down about the war and to read some books about the 94th Division in which he served."
Remington was raised in Luzerne County and enlisted in June 1943 while still at West Pittston High School. A bright recruit, he entered the Army Specialized Training Program, had basic training at Camp Hood, Texas, and studied at the University of Florida.
But with the need for more soldiers for the impending invasion of Nazi-occupied France, the 18-month program that would have made him an officer was scrapped. He joined the 94th Infantry Division and, at age 19, arrived in France in the fall of 1944.
Excerpts from his story
In November of '44, our sector on the front lines was quiet, with neither us nor the Germans attacking. However, both sides were conducting reconnaissance missions to keep tabs on each other. Our battalion commander asked an old-time Army sergeant named John Desko to form a four-man squad to go into the enemy lines for information. Desko was my squad leader and asked me to join the group.
For about a month, we went out into the enemy lines about twice a week. The missions would start at 11:30 in the evening, and we would try to be back by 4 a.m. We would go to find out where the Germans placed mines or booby traps. Then we would darken our faces with charcoal and cross over our lines in darkness. We tried to get as close to the enemy's position as possible to observe where they were, if there were any heavy cannons or mortars, and what farmhouses and sheds were occupied by troops.
At Christmastime in '44, our division was on the southern flank of the Allied advance into Germany. Just after Christmas Day, with the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, we were assigned to Patton's 3rd Army and moved north to put pressure on the Germans just south of the bulge. The weather was frightful with cold and snow.
As the bulge was reduced, our battalion was assigned the mission to cross the Moselle River and seize several small towns on the other side. It was very cold and the Moselle was frozen solid. Our artillery had shelled the enemy on the other side of the river for about a half-hour before we were told to advance.
We thought we would have it pretty easy because of the intense bombardment, but halfway across the river, the Germans opened up with machine-gun fire and we all lay flat as we could on the ice. Bullets whistled over my head. Our artillery immediately opened fire with smoke shells and laid a smoke screen down on the enemy's side of the river so they couldn't see where to shoot. We got across with minimal casualties and assaulted the town of Berg and captured it quickly.
A homesick reverie
There were times when you would be back from the front, back from combat, in what today is called R&R, rest and relaxation. This would be an area far enough from the front lines so that you were free to move about without any fear of shelling. We would pitch our two-man tents, clean up ourselves and launder our clothes and get re-provisioned in clothing and ammunition. And new recruits would arrive to replace the men that had been killed or wounded.
At this time you would also get all the mail from home that had accumulated while you were in combat. But it was at these times that I would get intense feelings of homesickness — not the kind of homesickness you had when you first left home and entered the service. That was the kind when you thought of going AWOL just to get home, when all the glory and hype of going into the service, the patriotism and esprit had quickly disappeared and reality had set in and what you thought the Army would be like turned out to be devastatingly wrong.
Instead, these periods of homesickness were of a different type and much deeper. You were emotionally drained from combat: the fears, the terror, the not knowing whether today is the day you "get it." But now, in this muddy and cold rest area, you are sitting quietly, perhaps in your small tent or in some place where you can be by yourself and you have finished reading all the letters from home. It is now that you wish with all your heart that you could escape from all this and see your mother again and eat her food and go up to your bedroom and lie on your bed, safe and sound, and everything would be as it always was, nothing changed.
And you would feel the protection and comfort and warmth that comes with being home and under the protection of your mom and dad and the world's being normal. No more killing and cannons going off and being cold and dirty and tired and scared. Then you reread the letters again and dream of what all your folks might be doing at this moment. But then a command would be shouted from somewhere to get on your feet and report to someplace, and your homesick reverie is quickly broken. Now reality surrounds you.
In the middle of January '45, we pushed off one morning to assault some German positions supposedly a mile or two away. The ground had 4-6 inches of new snow. Our platoon was selected as the lead platoon to go up a draw between two hills. I was the lead scout for my squad and started through this draw with the rest of the squad and platoon following. We were not under fire and so were proceeding rather cautiously but without hesitation.
I heard a couple of explosions behind me and turned to find out what was going on, but I heard the lieutenant yell, "Keep moving!" and so I proceeded forward. Several more explosions occurred, and then I was told to hold up. We had run into a "shoe mine" field. These were quite small mines that couldn't be detected by normal mine-sweeping. They would be laid on top of the ground when snow was expected, and the snowfall would conceal them. When you stepped on one, it would detonate and pretty well break all the bones in your foot. It would not blow your foot off, but the damage was un-repairable.
So there I was, having walked through most of the minefield, and now I was told to come back. I carefully placed my feet in my previous footprints and walked back through the minefield unscathed. However, six or seven men of my platoon had their feet crushed with these mines and had to have their feet amputated.
Hopping for a mile
On Jan. 27, 1945, our battalion was on the attack. It was bitterly cold, with about 10 inches of snow on the ground, and I had just finished a sleepless night on guard duty in a mini-blizzard. During the day I had dug two foxholes in the frozen ground as best as I could, and then about 6 p.m., our company was moved up into a wooded area to relieve I Company on the front line. A lot of noise was being created as orders were passed forward and back to effect the changeover. We had hardly settled down when the Germans started to shell our position. Apparently all the noise had alerted them.
The shells, when they hit the tops of the trees, would explode and shower the ground with shrapnel. Digging a foxhole would not provide much protection from this type of shelling, called tree bursts. We lay flat on the ground, and there is no more naked feeling than to be without a foxhole during a shelling. I lay on my left side sweating and praying, with shells landing all around, when suddenly a shell apparently hit the top of the tree above me. My right leg went numb, and for a minute I was stunned.
When I got my wits about me, I felt a sense of joy in that I had been wounded and was still alive. (The shell that wounded me killed a very good friend of mine, Sgt. Eddie Staub.) At first I thought my leg had been blown off, but I wiggled my big toe and knew the leg was still there. I lifted my leg and thought it wasn't broken, so I tried to stand up and then found my foot had been hit.
I was an acting sergeant at the time and two fellows from my squad were yelling "Medic!" I crawled to the one guy and he said, "Rem, I'm dying." I felt his clothing to see if any blood was oozing out but found none, so I told him that he was going to be OK. I gave him some wound tablets and crawled out looking for a medic. When I found one, I told him about our wounded up there, and then I went to Capt. Brightman, our company commander, and told him I had been wounded. He told me to wait for some litter bearer to pick me up, but I didn't want to wait. I was alive then and was afraid if we were shelled again, I might not be so lucky.
One fellow who had been wounded in the arm said he would help me back to the aid station. I wrapped my arm around his neck and hopped about a mile back to the station, where they cut my boot off my right foot and bandaged it temporarily. I had a cup of hot coffee, my first drink of anything in over two days — our canteens were frozen and we ate snow to quench our thirst.
We were loaded on the ambulances and taken to a rear surgical field hospital near Thionville, France. I was taken to an operating tent, where they worked on my right leg and foot. Then I was taken to an airfield and loaded on a DC-3 litter plane and flown to England.
Initially, I went to the 34th General Hospital near Winchester, where I was treated for wounds to the right foot, four broken toes and frostbitten toes on both feet. I spent February there, using crutches to get around. In March, I was outfitted with a walking cast for the right leg and transferred to the 827th Convalescent Center. On May 1, I was told I was well enough to rejoin my infantry division, which was somewhere in Germany.
Before leaving, I was given a three-day pass to London, and I was there when the war officially ended in Europe. There was no place in the world to be than at Piccadilly Circus on V-E Day, and I was there. Every building had millions of flags out, people wore flags around their heads and waists. The crowds just surged back and forth, singing, dancing, shouting.
On top of a five-story building, a bunch of kids kept throwing buckets of water on the crowd below. The dignified bobbies joined in the frolic. The American Red Cross units served meals free of charge. All the beer in all the pubs had run out by 6 p.m. Around 10 p.m., all the searchlights in London that were used for air defense were turned on and swept back and forth over the skies.
I had a fantastic time.
Remington rejoined the 94th Infantry Division in Nuremberg, Germany, and had occupation duty in Czechoslovakia, where Gen. George S. Patton came to review the troops on July 17, 1945.
"He walked down the line of soldiers and stopped to look at the soldier next to me. He turned to an officer who was accompanying him and said, 'That's what I like to see on a soldier — sweat.'"
The division went on to Bavaria, Germany, where Remington's company stayed in a former SS barracks in Oberammergau.
Of the 45 men in his platoon of L Company, 376th Infantry Regiment, a dozen had been killed in action, two died from injuries, 20 were wounded and 10 were injured.
"One man made it all the way through unscathed," Remington said. "Then he got drunk and fell from the second story of a bombed-out building in Germany and broke his neck."
Remington received a Bronze Star for scouting German positions under cover of darkness in November 1944.
He was sent home in January 1946 on a Liberty ship, on which he drank fresh milk — something he sorely missed — for the first time in almost two years. From New York he went to Fort Indiantown Gap, where he was processed out of the Army. He took a bus to Wilkes-Barre and another to West Pittston, walking the two blocks to his home. His father was at his job as a bank secretary.
"I walked in the back door and our dog, Muggsy, started to bark and my mother screamed. After hugging me, she called my father at work who ran all the way home."
Remington made his living in telecommunications, working as a top manager for Bell Telephone, AT&T, Verizon and Commonwealth Communications. He belonged to service clubs, did volunteer work for the American Cancer Society, helped the elderly with their tax returns and was a leader in the Boy Scouts, earning Scouting's highest adult award.
Surviving him are his wife, Alice, 82, in Berwick, Columbia County, and three children besides Schell: Stephen in York; Jeff in Palmyra, Lebanon County; and Diane Creme in Lancaster. There are 11 grandchildren.
Schell, 55, is a registered nurse care manager at the Allentown Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. Her husband, Brian, retired in 2014 as a history teacher at Northern Lehigh High School, where he coached the softball team to victory in the 1988 state championship. He works part time at the Center for Vision Loss in Allentown. The couple have two daughters, Erin and Allison, in Delaware County.
"My dad's story is his own perspective of his role in the Battle of the Bulge," Schell said, "but also he was very much like other men who survived the war. Those men believed they owed a debt of gratitude to God, and to their brothers who died, to make the most of their lives when they got back home."
Remington kept a poem with the line, "Choose to live a life that matters." He had a wall hanging that said, "To whom much is given, much is expected."
"My dad chose to live a life that matters in the way he raised his family, but also in the way he did his job and in the many, many organizations and charities that he became a part of. He inspired me to do the same with my own life, which has led me to become a nurse and very involved in my church and community."
Schell said she was awed by the "incredible responsibility" her father felt toward the men who served under him.
"In recent years, I asked him what accomplishments he was proud of in his life. Without hesitation, he said first and foremost was that he never lost any of the 11 men under his care as sergeant.
"He was very accomplished in life, but this was truly his greatest feat."
A letter home at Christmas
Dec. 25th, 1944
If anyone would have asked me a week ago what X-mas day would be like, I'd have said "Just like any other day." But now that it is just about over, I find that it was as close to Christmas Day as could be expected. I came in from a ... patrol late Christmas eve and with only 8 hrs sleep in 48 I didn't feel much like sitting around so I hit the sack at 9 p.m. I got up at 11 o'clock this morning and sat around a stove until dinner time — 2:30. It was really a feast — turkey (11/2 pounds a piece), dressing, potatoes, cranberries, peas, asparagus, bread, fruit cocktail and cake. After stuffing myself thoroughly, we had mail call and, this is a coincidence, I got a package from you, dad and [brother] Gordy — 3 swell packages on Christmas day. I can't begin to tell you how swell they were — everything was perfect, from cig. lighter to that cap that covers your head and face.
Then my Jewish friend Migdal asks me to go for a walk so we stuck some candy and coffee in our pockets and went to a farmhouse of some people he had struck up an acquaintance with. They asked us to stay for supper and we had crepe suzettes — a very delicious dish. By the time I got back to my sleeping place some fellows had a party going with food and wine galore. So that topped this wonderful day off.
It is typical Christmas weather — the streams are frozen over — mud is frozen, too. Everything is covered with frost so it looks like snow has fallen. I bought 7 cigars today thro our PX system. I enjoy them occasionally for they last longer than cigarettes and are nice to smoke while reading or writing. In fact I'm smoking one right now. The gloomy war news probably put the damper on an otherwise cheery Christmas but like we said last year, "Perhaps the next Christmas will be different." Anyway —
Lots of love,
Sonny [Charles F. Remington]
©2016 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
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