story and photos by Kim Souza
Just one year through college, a 21-year-old Forrest Strickler knew his draft number was up so he joined the Indiana National Guard and fell in with the 106 Infantry Division in the fall of 1942.
That’s what countless young men did back then, answer the call of the duty.
But Strickler had no way of knowing he would have a front row seat in what would become the Battle of the Bulge, one of the biggest and bloodiest battle fought during World War II. At the time, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the battle was “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
Fought over the winter months of 1944-1945, the Battle of the Bulge was the last major Nazi offensive against the Allies in World War II. The battle was a last ditch attempt by Hitler’s Wehrmacht to split the Allies in half in their drive toward Germany and destroy their ability to supply themselves.
But Strickler remembers a more different, personal story.
Strickler’s unit departed Boston Harbor on Nov. 10, 1944, arriving in England seven days later.
The unit trained for 19 days before they were assigned to VIII Corps, United States 1st Army, 12th Army group. They marched through France into Belgium, and Strickler said by Dec. 12 they went to the front lines relieving the 82nd Airborne Division who had been there since landing at Normandy on D-Day.
ATTACKED IN THE ARDENNES
“Our military intelligence was pretty bad and the German Panzers were lined up and entrenched throughout the Ardennes. We were stormed at 5:30 a.m. on December 16 near St. Vith,” Strickler said. “I was 23 years old, a sergeant over 92 soldiers, and I was the old man, they were 18 and 19 years old, and all of us were green.”
In snow up to their knees, Strickler said they held on through three bitter days of fighting, scared to death but somehow avoiding capture. Two other regiments in the 106 were surrounded and captured during this initial attack.
Strickler said his unit kept moving forward to the bulge in the line, in the wet and cold winter.
“I told my men to keep their extra socks under their armpits at night and when they changed socks if they saw a black toe to get to the medic immediately. We had no antibiotics, only sulfa and the only way to stop gangrene was to cut off the toe. Within three weeks I began losing men, 18 in all during the six-week battle, eight of these had rot foot,” he said.
GERMANS IN THE FOOD LINES
As General George Patton attacked with his 3rd Army the line from the south, the Allies basically cut off the bulge at the base trapping the Germans so they could not refuel or get back to Germany for more supplies.
“We had them encircled and we starved them out over the next three weeks,” Strickler said.
He remembers that everyone was hungry, as the K and C rations were dwindling.
“Every few days the kitchen truck would come around and we would line up to eat. I would watch carefully for Germans sneaking into our food line. They would wear the issued olive drab overcoats and helmets belonging to the American’s they had captured and then pose as U.S. soldiers. In the face, the looked just like us, but the way they cut their meat and how they held their cigarettes gave them away,” Strickler said.
During the six-week period, Strickler said his men captured a dozen Germans in their food line.
He said by February the Germans had fled their posts and the Allied troops marched further into Germany. Strickler and the other men in his unit saw firsthand the horrors of Nazi Germany.
“I will never, ever forget coming upon a gas chamber and smelling and seeing naked, stiff bodies piled upon each other. It was horrifying. We radioed for a bulldozer and watched as those bodies were buried in mass graves. There was nothing more we could do,” Strickler said as he shook his head in dismay.
He said one of the best memories he can recall from that period in his life was how good it felt to get a warm shower and put on fresh clothes after six weeks in the field.
“They set up circus-like tents and pumped water from a nearby stream that they were able to warm. Our filthy clothes had to be burned they reeked so badly,” he said.
‘THE TWO BOMBS’
Shortly thereafter, Strickler said his unit was split to fill assignments in the occupation phase of Germany.
“I was selected to join the 35th infantry division, which was Truman’s old outfit from World War I. When President Truman came over for the Potsdam Conference I served in the honor guard for the meeting between Truman, (Joseph) Stalin and (Winston) Churchill,” he said. “I remember noticing Truman was left-handed when he shook his finger at Stalin.”
Strickler was then stationed at Fort Campbell (Kentucky) awaiting deployment to Japan.
“But Truman dropped the two bombs instead,” he said.
Strickler went back to Monmouth College and majored in accounting. He worked as an auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue and retired to Bella Vista in 1986.
HONOR GUARD SERVICE
He continues to command the local honor guard at age 91. The unit has about 40 members and performs an average of 100 military funerals each year.
“We average two or three funerals a week,” he said. “On top of 25 to 30 special programs we participate in each year.”
It’s been 68 years this month since Strickler was deployed to Europe to fight in a historical battle, share the stage with three world leaders and witness one of the greatest atrocities on earth – the holocaust.
Strickler knows that he was trusted with an extraordinary responsibility, which is why is still willing share his story so many years later.
“You can’t witness what I did as a young man and it not shape the rest of the your life,” Stickler added.
“That’s enough,” he sighed, signaling the end of the interview.