By T. Anthony BellMarch 22, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (March 22, 2012) -- The Battle of the Bulge during World War II was a monstrosity of an event. More than 600,000 Americans and thousands of tanks and artillery pieces defended against a German army offensive in its last-gasp effort to win the war.
When the volleys of fire faded in the distance, more than 19,000 Americans had lost their lives, 47,000 more were wounded and 23,000 were captured or missing.
S. Walter George doesn't want those numbers forgotten.
George, a Bulge artilleryman, and members of his group, the Crater Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, met at the Army Quartermaster Museum here March 15 to share experiences and tour the facility. It was only one of a few times the organization will meet this year due to dwindling numbers and falling active participation, not just in the Crater Chapter but nationwide as well.
"At one time there were 68 chapters," said George of the national organization based in northern Virginia. "Now there are 52."
The VBOB serves to "perpetuate the memory and sacrifices" of those who participated in the battle, according to its website. Theoretically, it and similar groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen Association face the prospect of aging members (Bulge veterans who were 17 in 1944 are 84 this year) who are not able to actively participate in chapter activities and, therefore, fulfill its purpose. George referenced the Crater Chapter reunion in Hampton roughly 15 years ago to illustrate the impact age has on its member activities.
"We had 10 veterans there," he recalled. "They were brought by their sons and neighbors. There were only five whose health was good enough to continue with the meeting. We voted in our business meeting that it would be our last reunion."
The chapter does meet once a quarter for the first three quarters of the year and on Dec. 16 in the last quarter, the day the battle commenced.
Today, the Crater Chapter has roughly 35 active members and "of that 35, 15 are actual veterans of the Bulge," said George. The retired Virginia Electric and Power Company employee has been active in the organization for about seven years and assumed the role as president three years ago when the man he replaced became ill.
"He didn't call meetings," said George of his predecessor. "He didn't have reports (to submit to headquarters). I said, 'Well, we're either going to be (a) non-performing (chapter) or we were going to have to get together as a group and decide whether we want it to collapse or do something about it.'''
At 89 years of age and using a cane for balance, George wasn't exactly in the position to "do something about it." But what he lacked physically, he possessed in doggedness and stubborn determination.
"I just hate to fail at anything," said the Petersburg native. "I always hated to not be able to do something when I put my mind to it."
The chapter's survival, said George, is dependent upon associate membership. Associate members can be relatives of Bulge veterans who also have full voting rights.
"I just hope we can get enough associate members willing to take over some of these jobs," he said. "We need to get younger people who can sit down and do it. They're afraid they can't do it. They can do it."
During the museum visit, most of the group who partook in the activities that included a roundtable discussion seemed to be associates. Many joined as a way to honor loved ones or pay tribute to their service. One associate was only three years old when her father left for the war.
"All I can remember is that he came home and he and my mother went out," said Virginia Rosen, a member of four years. "He was AWOL."
Rosen's dad, James H. Coates, went on to serve in the Bulge and was one of 84 American prisoners of war who were shot down in a field by their German captors during the massacre at Malmedy, Belgium.
Rosen, whose sister also attended the museum event, related her father's story to those gathered, how her mother and others "cried and cried" when they received a telegram informing them of her father's death.
Lt. Col. Doug Osborn, the Reserve advisor to the Quartermaster General, was also present for the museum roundtable discussion. He is not a member but was compelled to attend because of his deceased father, a veteran of WWII and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
"It was an opportunity for me to see the face of my father in each and every one of these veterans," he said after the discussions.
Osborn was clearly impressed by the personal accounts shared during the session.
"When you read books like 'Once an Eagle,' you understand what brought them to the edge between life and death," he said of the veterans. "Those are the experiences that bind together men and women for the rest of their lives."
George is a little cloudy on the articulation but clearly understands how the factors of war forge unshakable bonds. He related his membership and activities in another association -- that of his WWII field artillery unit -- and how the love and respect they had for each other as men were borne out of the effort, pain and suffering they endured in combat.
And despite the darkest of times, it made them want reflect on it when they came together and savor it as the sweetest triumph.
"I think the saddest part of the whole thing is that when the reunion was over with, (you were) leaving your friends," he said. "I can't explain what it is, but there's something about fellow Soldiers who went through a lot of unpleasant situations together. It's beyond description. There were 450 men in the battalion. There are about 10 of us still living. I still keep in contact with them."
Like his battalion, George knows there will come a time when the veterans in the Crater Chapter will fade away. That's the inevitable. He's hoping, however, that the battle and especially the souls who fought it will remain worthy of remembrance and honor for future generations.
"They sacrificed everything," he said. "They sacrificed their tomorrows so we could enjoy our todays."