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World War II veteran recalls battle for Bastogne

By Staff | May 6, 2015

When Earl Wilson woke up, all he remembered was being in a snow bank and seeing his helmet spilt in two.

That is what he remembered on that fateful day in late December 1944 as he lay dazed in a French town of Mandy just north of Bastogne, where one of the most important battles of World War II took place.

Wilson had been hit in the head by an 88, a German round of artillery usually used to fight aircraft, and left for dead. Miraculously, he suffered no wounds except for a headache and was able to retreat into the woods.

Wilson, now 91 and a North Fort Myers resident, told the story of his ordeal during the weekly veterans luncheon at the Southwest Florida Military Library and Museum Tuesday in downtown Cape Coral.

Wilson, who fought in many of the important battles in Europe, earned a campaign ribbon for Europe with an invasion spearhead on it and four battle stars.

The battle took place during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans, looking at their final chance to turn the tide of the war, wanted control of the harbor in Antwerp, Belgium.

In order to reach it, German forces had to seize the roadways through eastern Belgium. Because all seven main roads in the Ardennes mountain range converged on the small town of Bastogne, control of its crossroads was vital.

“Hitler wanted to turn to the west, break the Allies, push them out of Europe and turn east to defeat Russia,” Wilson said. “They broke through Luxembourg and destroyed the 24th Infantry Division, which was a rest and recreation area behind the front.”

Wilson, with the 101st Airborne Division in England and who had also been involved in Normandy, was hurriedly sent to France with his division and to Bastogne, where they established defense positions along the roads into Bastogne.

After being told of Germans positioned to the north, Wilson and his battalion went into and took Mandy. After settling in, Wilson said they were attacked from three directions by German infantry.

Expecting Patton’s army to relieve them, Wilson saw four American tanks approach, only to get blown up by German tanks that had stood down behind them.

“We had to get out of there and back to the woods where we came from. The only way to go was through those burning tanks and up the hill,” Wilson said. “I dashed across the road and jumped to the other side in the deep snow.”

He never made it. Three hours later he woke up in the snow.

“How it split the helmet in half without killing me I have no idea. I still think it was impossible,” Wilson said, adding he got no purple heart because there were no officers with him to witness his being wounded, since they were all killed.

“When you parachute behind enemy lines, you don’t have officers or an Army ambulance to take you home. You had to deal with yourself,” Wilson said. “We had to pick the shrapnel out ourselves.”

Wilson was one of eight Company C soldiers out of nearly 200 who survived the attack.

Thanks to the new proximity fuses used in American artillery that exploded an incoming shell at a set height above the ground, much of the German army was wiped out, allowing Wilson and his fellow troops to march north to Houffalize without resistance.

Wilson was going to go to Japan and became a pathfinder in the Pacific, but the war ended before he could begin his work there.

After the war, he attended Harvard and took a job in oil exploration, going to Latin America and Africa. But nothing could compare to his ordeals behind enemy lines during World War II, for which he sacrificed a lot and asked for nothing in return.

“I had just taken the West Point entrance exams, which I passed. I was deferred, but I volunteered for Airborne and did four terms.” Wilson said. “In those days, it was our duty. Everyone was mad after Pearl Harbor.”

The Southwest Florida Military Library and Museum is at 4820 Leonard St., in South Cape. For additional information about the facility and its programs, please call the museum office at 239-541-8704.