Veterans’ Reflections: Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge

WASHINGTON — John Reep almost missed out on his chance to serve. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japan­ese bombed Pearl Har­bor, he was turned away at his local Marine Corps recruit­ing sta­tion in Chica­go.

Alexandria National Cemetery, Va.
Vet­er­an John Reep dis­cuss­es his Army ser­vice from 1943 to 1952 dur­ing a Sept. 11, 2010 inter­view at Alexan­dria Nation­al Ceme­tery, Va.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

The med­ical per­son­nel test­ing new recruits said he had tuber­cu­lo­sis and was inel­i­gi­ble for ser­vice, so he went to the Cook Coun­ty San­i­tar­i­um to seek med­ical assis­tance. “I was in there for six weeks before a doc­tor said, ‘Get the hell out of there, you ain’t got TB,’ ” Reep said. It would take years before the cause of his plight would be dis­cov­ered.

“Final­ly, when I was liv­ing [in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area] – I had asth­ma – a doc­tor asked me if I’d ever been hit in the chest as a kid,” he said. “My old man was drunk, he came home one night want­i­ng to fight, and he hit me in the chest and knocked me out. But what hap­pened is there was a spot on my lung, and appar­ent­ly it stays with you for life – but I nev­er had tuber­cu­lo­sis. I’d prob­a­bly have been in Guadal­canal with the Marines.”

After a year of med­ical check­ups, Reep was draft­ed into the Army in 1943. The spot on his lung hadn’t changed, but he had med­ical records stat­ing clear­ly that he didn’t have tuber­cu­lo­sis, so he was allowed to serve.

“They asked me if I want­ed to join the Air Corps, and I said, ‘No, infantry,’ and boom, there I was, in the infantry,” Reep said.

His unit, the 30th Infantry Divi­sion, “Old Hick­o­ry,” was sent to Southamp­ton, Eng­land, to sup­ple­ment infantry forces after the June 6, 1944, D-Day inva­sion of Nor­mandy. The casu­al­ties of the inva­sion were so high that his divi­sion had to be sent in to replace the troops who were killed on the beach.

“We had three-day pass­es to Paris,” Reep said. “We got up in the morn­ing and the sergeant says, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ We said, ‘We’re going to Paris,’ and he said, ‘Like hell you are. You’re going to Bel­gium. The Ger­mans broke through.’ ”

Reep’s next steps would take him straight into the Bat­tle of the Bulge. His unit start­ed mov­ing from one city to the oth­er, sift­ing through the wake of repeat­ed Ger­man assaults and retreats as they head­ed toward the Siegfried Line, a series of for­ti­fi­ca­tions on Germany’s west­ern bor­der.

“In [one vil­lage] we saw a lot of bod­ies – women and chil­dren,” Reep recalled. “[Ger­man forces] came through and said they were trai­tors in that town.”

They also came upon the after­math of the Malm­e­dy Mas­sacre, in which 84 Amer­i­can pris­on­ers of war were mur­dered by their Ger­man cap­tors. Reep said the men had been cap­tured and grouped in a field, where a Ger­man truck backed toward them, osten­si­bly as a trans­port to take the pris­on­ers into cus­tody. When the can­vas was lift­ed, a machine gun opened fire. “It was just a slaugh­ter,” he said.

Reep said the most mem­o­rable thing about being in Malm­e­dy was the time an Amer­i­can sol­dier in his unit took out what appeared to be three Amer­i­can tanks and 17 U.S. sol­diers on Dec. 21, 1944. The Amer­i­can sol­dier, Sgt. Fran­cis Cur­rey, had been sus­pi­cious of a ruse and asked a sus­pect sol­dier if he was excit­ed for the Rose Bowl that year.

The man’s response, “No, I’m not inter­est­ed in flow­ers,” was enough at the time to tip Cur­rey off that the sus­pect sol­dier wasn’t Amer­i­can, Reep said.

“He machine-gunned them all down – the kid was crazy,” Reep recalled. “He had a bazooka and a lot of rounds, and he took out the three tanks.”

Cur­rey earned the Medal of Hon­or that day. The tanks he destroyed were Ger­man tanks repaint­ed to look like Amer­i­can tanks, and the sol­diers he killed were ene­my sol­diers who had tried to infil­trate his unit.

Though the fight­ing even­tu­al­ly land­ed Reep in a Dutch hos­pi­tal for a few weeks – the wet cold of north­west­ern Europe in the win­ter had giv­en him pneu­mo­nia and frost­bite – he would con­tin­ue to fight until he left the Army as a staff sergeant in 1952 and returned home after 10 years of ser­vice.

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.)

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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