Survival in the Bulge : Fifty Years Ago, Houk Earned Silver Star in World War II Battle
The citation with the Silver Star said Lt. Ralph Houk deliberately exposed himself to “the withering fire” and “calmly moved from one position to another directing his men. . . .” It doesn’t say how scared he was, or how cold he was or how much he felt for the men beside him--just as scared and cold--with the Tiger tanks looming out of the fog.
They were in the Ardennes Forest region that stretched across Belgium and Luxembourg, with Allied forces moving well toward Germany when the devastating Runstedt counter-offensive we now call the Battle of the Bulge burst on them. It was Dec. 16, 1944. Houk earned his Silver Star on Dec. 21. Fifty years ago. At Bastogne.
“I thought about the Bulge for a long time afterward,” Houk reflected last week from his home in Winter Haven, Fla. “It seems like a dream now, the things you did because you had to do them. If we couldn’t hold them back that day, we’d all (have) been killed. It’s amazing what you’ll do.”
Before the German offensive was stopped it was the first week in February, and the Allies had suffered 81,000 casualties. Houk was 22 years old.
He was nicknamed The Major when he managed the championship Yankees in the early ‘60s. Whitey Ford changed the name of his dog from Casey to Major. Houk got that rank at his discharge, and he was made a captain late in the war. He got his reputation as a lieutenant. All the while he never thought about baseball. “I just wanted to get out of the war alive,” he said.
He was attached to Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army on occasion. “I never did like it,” Houk said. “He always moved so fast, with men getting killed. The 1st Army had fewer casualties. I’m not a Patton man.” Maybe that experience was reflected in Houk’s managing.
“I remember those little bitty villages there with homes demolished and the towns demolished and the smell--it was hard to believe,” Houk said. “We did those things, more than anything, because we believed if we didn’t win the war, they’d come to America and to our homes.
“You were frightened for your life, and you did what you were trained for. The first time I saw dead Germans they looked just like Americans, except for the uniform. And then you started to think of them as animals. I had this Jeep driver out of New York, and I was sitting next to him and he was driving and a shell hit him. It used to come back to me a lot.”
What he recalls first now is the terrible unrelenting cold, trying to get warm by a fire in the cellar of a destroyed farmhouse or huddled in a foxhole. “I look back and I can’t believe it; you never took your clothes off. The snow never left the ground. We stayed in the open those nights in the foxhole and we kept digging; if we coulda, we’da dug to China. Scared.”
They ate K rations, packed with calories enough, except for the times the rations got mixed up and he’d get one with nothing but cheese. “We drank a lot of wine,” Houk said.
It wasn’t all combat every day. The reconnaissance platoon he was commanding stayed for a time in an elegant hunting lodge near the town of Waldbillig, a beautiful lodge with a fine wine cellar. “But then the big push came and they ran us out of there,” Houk said.
He was commanding 60 men because the two adjacent platoon leaders had been killed. From behind the rubble Houk could see 200 Germans behind six huge Tiger tanks emerging from the fog and advancing along the road toward him and his men, and a breakthrough. “Their Tiger tanks were better than our Shermans,” Houk said. “They had better machine guns too. They fed bullets with metal links; we had web belts that froze with the mud and ice.”
Against the Tigers, Houk’s guns were popguns, so he commandeered anti-tank weapons from an adjacent unit and directed fire. He took a bazooka, scrambled into a ditch and took aim at the lead Tiger. The lead Tiger was knocked out, blocking the road and stalling the attack long enough for the American troops to move back. “To this day I’m not sure I hit it,” Houk said. “I was so close and I shot and I saw the explosion.”
When his platoon collected itself, Houk saw his trench coat had seven bullet holes.
On one mission he took a platoon across the Auer River to check for minefields, and while they were on the German side, the bridge was destroyed. Three days later, they found some small boats and he led them back across to the unit. The closeness of a team in competition is often likened to that of a small unit in combat, but that’s really only a literary allusion. “You felt very close to people in the unit, and I lost a lot of men there,” Houk said. “I had gotten to know them pretty well. Some were kids I had trained with, and I saw a lot of them go out of their minds. And some tried to get hit so they could go home.
“You almost hoped you did get hit in a minor way--lose a finger or something--to get out. But as scared as you are, you’ve been taught and you learn to say, ‘I got to do this.’ You think, ‘we got to take a hill’ because you’ve been told to. In a recon unit you’re told to get to a certain place, so you’d go there. That’s the way it was.”
There were laughs in combat too--nervous laughter in the dark. Houk was leading the unit near Waldbillig when they spotted a German soldier who looked as if he was digging in, leaning on his shovel in the haze. “We opened fire with all kind of stuff. It must have cost a lot in taxes,” Houk said. “When we got there we saw that he had frozen, and the Germans had propped him up there as a trick to see where we were firing from. We laughed. There were a lot of those things.”
When the Runstedt offensive was blunted, there was still war to be finished. Houk was at the Remagen Bridge too, carrying a heavy automatic rifle across his lap because it made so much noise that even if he missed, it scared the Germans. They were searching for snipers when a sniper found them. Houk slumped in his seat, a bullet hole in his helmet. The driver skidded the Jeep to a stop behind a barn and Houk lifted his head. The sniper’s bullet had penetrated the front of his helmet, run around the liner inside and exited in back. Houk wasn’t scratched. “My guys captured the sniper too,” he said.
“We were fighting because we believed they’d come to America, and when the war ended, it was the damnedest thing to see the German soldiers who survived walking in the streets, out of what was left of their homes; here’s the guys who’d been trying to kill us, and we couldn’t get home.”
He never did get to Berlin; he did get to Paris on leave after the Bulge, “and that’s another story,” he said. “I won’t get into that.”
Well, it seems that Houk’s recon squadron went through the town where Leica cameras were made. “When they found out I had leave to go to Paris, the guys brought me bags of Leicas,” he said. “You could sell them to the Air Force guys for anything.
“I sold them, and had a hell of a good time.”
Later, he thought about getting back to baseball.