I’ve written many stories over the years, mostly for special occasions like Easter Sunrise Service. I wrote this story in 2002 for Christmas Eve. It is based on detailed research into the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, which I detail here: Backstory for ‘Home for Christmas’
“Preacher” Tom Wilson: Platoon Sgt., 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion of the 502nd PIR, 101st Airborne Division.
John “Murph” Murphy, Pvt 1st class, 1st Platoon, Company C
And the actual officers and men of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (not all mentioned in the story):
LTC Steve Chappuis, 502nd Regimental commander
LTC Patrick J. Cassidy, 502nd XO
Captain James C Stone, 502nd headquarters commandant
Major John D. Hanlan, 1st Battalion commander
Captain Wallace A. Swanson, 1st Battalion, Company A
Captain George R. Cody, 1st Battalion, Company C
First Lieutenant Samuel B. Nickels Jr., S-2 of the 1st Battalion
LTC Thomas H Sutliffe, 2nd Battalion commander
John Francis Webb – Private first class, Company B
I’ve been your preacher for a little over ten years now, but I haven’t told you much about what happened during the war. You may know that I came to real faith in Jesus while I was in the Army in Europe, but few of you know the details. Most of us who were there would rather leave all that behind and get on with our lives. But God was at work and I think Christmas Eve is a good time to tell what happened.
I was a paratrooper, back in the days when jumpers were just being added to the U. S. Army. I trained in Georgia, at Fort Benning, and my unit, the 502nd was the first full battalion of qualified paratroopers in the whole Army. Later we were expanded to a full regiment as part of the 101st Airborne Division – the Screaming Eagles. We trained hard at Fort Bragg. We learned to jump, first off towers and then out of Gooney Birds, C-47’s. We learned to fight as a rifle company and to endure. One of our companies set a record when they marched 150 miles in fifty seven hours.
I was Pvt. 1st Class John Murphy, of Company C, 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. We were a proud group in September, 1943 when we sailed for England on the SS Strathnaver. What a trip that was! Six days out we found that our fresh water tanks were contaminated. We had to make port in Newfoundland for repairs. Then, as we tried to leave, the ship hit some rocks in the harbor and we had to go back. The next time we tried to leave we took on 28 inches of water. Finally they put us on another ship and after 44 days we arrived in Liverpool.
It was on those ships that I first got to know my buddy, Preacher Wilson. His name was actually Tom, but everyone called him Preacher because he was always talking about being a Christian. Preacher was from Illinois, like me, but he’d grown up in Chicago and attended a church he was always telling us about called Moody Bible Church. It didn’t sound anything like the Methodist church in my rural home town, Petersville. Tom and I became best friends despite his always preaching to me. We shared a foxhole or a tent half all through training and in England.
Before I met Preacher I hadn’t really thought much about eternal things. I was your typical small town kid, and things like fishing and hunting and chasing girls were a whole lot more important to me than the sleepy church with it’s even sleepier preacher. Oh, I’d heard Bible stories, but they all seemed out-of-date. Nobody I knew was much interested in church stuff. Until I met Preacher. Here he was in the Army, but he was still serving God. He was so enthusiastic about what he called ‘being saved’ that I couldn’t help but be intrigued. After all, he was from the big city and must know something.
During the trip to England I listened while he talked about sin and salvation, about the fact that everyone needed Jesus to go to heaven, about how Jesus became a man, lived a sinless life and died on the cross to pay for other people’s sins. Then he rose from the dead and promised eternal life to all who believed. I wasn’t sure how much of that I bought. I didn’t feel much like a sinner in need of salvation, and I wasn’t very concerned about what would happen to me when I died. Despite the fact that I was headed to Europe to fight in the biggest war in history, I didn’t really believe in death – I just couldn’t conceive it would happen to me. Other guys might mess up and take a bullet, I was good. Anyway I didn’t want to give up the rivers of beer on leave, or the English girls that flocked to dances at the American bases.
We trainedin England, at Aldbourne for seven months, and we thought it was hard work. There was more PT than any of us thought necessary. There was a lot of night training – crawling over fences and through woods, wading creeks. We knew each other so well that even at night I could tell each member of our platoon by the way his helmet sat on his head or how he slung his rifle. We became closer than family.
In late May, 1944 we left Aldbourne and went to southwestern England, to live in an open field beside an airstrip. There, on June 5th, we boarded planes that would take us to Europe. One trooper spoke for all 13,000 when he faced east before boarding the plane and said “Look out Hitler, here we come.” As we crossed, we could see the unforgettable sight of the invasion fleet, 6000 vessels strong, headed for the coast. Twenty minutes later we jumped – much too low, from planes going much too fast.
Just prior to the jump the Germans had lit up the night with every bit of flack they could throw at us, and dozens of C-47’s were hit. Our plane wasn’t hit, but our pilot was spooked and turned on the green light short of the landing area.
“Go, go, go,” yelled Sergeant O’Brien. It was the last time I ever saw him.
Preacher went out in front of me. The familiar shock of my chute opening brought me to reality. My feet would be among the first to touch French soil. Machine gun fire started up during our short drift to earth. Freddy Franks, behind me, caught a tracer on the way down and landed dead. Preacher and I were untouched and spent the night connecting with others in the dark and trying to get to our rendezvous area. Around dawn our lead scout, Tom Burgess turned past a hedgerow and encountered a German. A bullet hit his cheekbone, went through the cheek, tore away the hinge of the jaw and came out the back of his neck. He nearly choked to death on the blood. One of the medics who jumped with us had joined our little group a few minutes before, and he stayed behind to care for Tom. Amazingly, both survived.
Was I scared? You bet. The sudden reality of death seemed at times to be all I could think about. My friends, my buddies, were dying in the most horrible bloody ways and I alternated between hot anger at the Germans and frozen fear of being next to die. A few times I was so scared that I cowered when I should have been fighting.
But my buddies did the job. We joined the 502nd in the attack on Carenten, the town that was the bottleneck for the boys coming ashore. We were in combat constantly until June 29th and finally in July we went back to England to prepare for a new jump. Of the 140 who had left only 81 returned, though many rejoined after their wounds healed.
D-day changed my life. I left England a reckless kid, a thoughtless fun hound, but I returned as one who had looked death in the eyeball more than once and escaped seemingly only by dumb luck, while my buddies caught the rounds meant for me. It was during the days of our refit at Aldbourne that I finally decided to talk to Preacher about my soul. The reality of the death and suffering I’d seen made what he said more important. He told me that Jesus was born as a baby in the stable, and yet was still God – God in the flesh. He told me how the tyrants of his day had ganged up on Jesus to put him to death, just like the Germans were doing to so many in the countries they occupied.
But Preacher also told me that it was really our sins that sent Jesus to the cross. It was my sins that deserved death, and he had given his life for mine, just like some of my buddies back in Normandy had done. One night at Aldbourne, Preacher challenged me to put my faith in Jesus, and receive the gift of eternal life. I told him I wasn’t ready yet.
That was when we got news of our next jump, something called Market Garden.’ After Lieutentant Jeffries gave us our briefing, I walked between the tents under the stars, and watched a flight of B-17’s forming up to bomb Germany. I realized I was terrified to face all that again. Suddenly, I knew I needed what Preacher had. I needed assurance of eternity. So I prayed, in stumbling words of my own since I couldn’t remember a childhood prayer that would do the job. I told Jesus that I believed on him and that I wanted the life he offered.
It was the beginning of a new life. Did I change immediately? I knew almost nothing about being a Christian, and I did continue habits I should have been ashamed of. But I had a peace and an assurance that made a huge difference, especially a few weeks later when the 101st jumped.
The campaign in Holland was a disaster – especially for the British airborne units that were supposed to seize the bridge at Arnhem. The plan was for the Airborne to hold open a long stretch of road and bridges that would allow the armored divisions to reach the heart of Germany. It didn’t work, though we held ‘Hell’s Highway’ for 67 days, beating off German attacks and counter-attacking to gain crucial ground. We jumped in September, and stayed in Holland until winter closed in – the most miserable months any of us had ever experienced. In the longest stretch, I lay so long that my foxhole conformed to my prone shape. I helped fight off five German counter-attacks from that foxhole.
And I was better off in Holland than in Normandy. The paralyzing fear of death was mostly gone. I was still afraid, but not of dying itself because I knew where I’d go at death – to be with Jesus. Even if I hadn’t known, Preacher kept telling me:
“To be absent from the body, Murph,” he’d say, “is to be present with the Lord.” He loved 2 Corinthians 5: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal home in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” Most of us groaned for other reasons, but Preacher genuinely lived with an infectious longing for heaven.
The other thing that stands out from those 67 miserable days between showers was the longing that developed in the whole division to go home. We’d jumped with the idea that we might be ending the war, that we might be home for Christmas. We were infected with fantasies of clean sheets, of our mom’s home cooking, of meals we had had or were planning to have, of girls we’d known or wished we could have gotten to know, of hunting trips, vacations, nights on the farm and nights on Broadway. During those ten weeks a million sentences were started with ‘When I get home.’ Preacher’s plan was to go to school and then preach. My plan was just to sleep.
We were finally pulled off the line in November, but instead of going to England we went to a little French base called Mourmelon, closer to wherever we would jump next. After that first wonderful shower we recovered quickly, though we were missing a lot of guys, and our equipment was mostly expended or destroyed. In the first weeks of December we had more football helmets than combat helmets: we’d become obsessed with organizing for a major game, to be played Christmas day.
Then on the night of December 16th all passes were suddenly canceled. The Germans had launched an offensive into a weak spot in our front lines, and had achieved both surprise and penetration. Our intelligence had thought there were four German divisions on seventy miles of front line in the Ardennes forest, facing five green or worn American combat divisions. But in reality the Germans had amassed more than 25 divisions, first rate Panzer divisions, more men and tanks than they had used to conquer France in 1940. Their goal was to break through to the North Sea.
President Eisenhower, then supreme commander, looked for someone to throw into the gap, and who did he find? The 101st. We got orders on the 17th to head to the front. We went forward in supply trucks, not planes, packed in like sardines. We finally ended up in Bastogne, the key crossroads town in the path of the German advance. We arrived on the evening of the 18th and we could already hear artillery and small arms fire. We marched through Bastogne and out the other side, setting up a defensive position in a little town called Champs.
Our sector of the front was relatively quiet during the first part of the siege – we endured only German artillery, the occasional bomber, and a series of sharpshooters and machine gunners who pinned down anything that moved. We suffered more from lack of supplies. We had left Mourmelon with few weapons and almost no ammunition. We would have arrived on the line in the same shape, except that an enterprising major from one of the units looted a weapons supply depot for all the grenades and M-1 ammunition we could carry. But we couldn’t eat ammunition, and we didn’t have much in the way of winter kit. By the time we arrived we were already hungry and cold.
By December 19th the Germans were cutting the roads we had used to reach Bastogne. By the 20th we were surrounded. On the 21st it began snowing. Each day the Germans attacked some part of the perimeter, struggling to break through into the town. On the 22nd the Germans sent a party under a white flag to demand that we surrender. General McCauliffe, commanding the 101st in the absence of General Taylor, sent back his classic one word reply: “Nuts.”
Those of us on the front lines weren’t quite so confident. We were cold, we were wet, we were up to our faces in snow in our foxholes. One of the most discouraging things was knowing that our artillery was almost out of rounds. On the 19th, on the 21st and on the 22nd they fought off German thrusts at Foy and at Marvie, but we didn’t have enough ammunition to keep doing that. Our part of the line, which had been quiet, had to keep shipping artillery and bazooka rounds to the parts that were active.
The morning of the 23rd dawned cold and clear. Our C-47’s came over and made a real pretty supply drop, so we got a few more K rations, and the artillery got a few more rounds. We heard that Patton was leading the 4th Armored Division north to break the siege. We hoped we could hold on a couple of days until he got to us. Even that meant being in a foxhole for Christmas, and we were all quick to blame that on the Germans.
It was miserable, but it was also beautiful. I hadn’t had a white Christmas since leaving Illinois in 1941, but the snow that started on the 21st gave us twelve inches of white powder and covered the muddy Belgian landscape with aura of beauty and peace. Our regimental HQ was at a chateau – a rich French guy’s house – called Rolle. It had an ancient chapel where the chaplains held services. It also had a shed where a lone bony donkey was tethered. The donkey and the shed and the snow reminded us all of a nativity scene – and made us think more about Christmas.
Some of the guys regretted having to cancel the Christmas football game. Most missed their moms and their wives and their girlfriends. They missed home cooking and Christmas trees, fireplaces, and warmth. As we fought frostbite we’d have given a lot for a nice warm bedroom with the steam making the pipes ring as Dad turned up the furnace. Now don’t get me wrong – our morale was OK. We were one of the best rifle companies in the world, and we were not going to be defeated. But we were young, and we wanted to live and go home.
C Company’s losses in Bastogne had been low so far. The most significant was when our platoon Sergeant, Sgt. Butler took shrapnel in his +from an incoming round as he was on his way up to company headquarters. That meant that Preacher was given a set of stripes and made acting platoon sergeant. Lt. Jeffries, was also a believer, so he and Preacher got along.
Then our relatively free ride through the siege changed dramatically. Christmas Eve itself was quiet. The third of each company not in forward positions were allowed to go up to the Chateau – only about a thousand yards behind the line – for services. We sang Christmas carols, and appreciated the chaplain’s message about how Jesus spent Christmas far from home – how in the Incarnation he left his Father’s side to go to the front lines and live and die for us. Then Col. Cassidy read us a Christmas message from General McCauliffe. He said “What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home. All true. But what the Eagle Division has accomplished is to stop cold everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied armies. We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present, and by being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms we are truly making for ourselves a merry Christmas.”
As we left the chapel we saw that someone from headquarters company had lit a lamp in the little shed, so it looked even more like a nativity scene. I stood there wondering if Mary and Joseph and Jesus had been as cold in their stable as Preacher and I would be in our foxhole.
Preacher roused me by punching me in the arm, saying “C’mon Murph we got people to take care of up front.” As platoon sergeant, he made the rounds of all the outposts and made sure everyone was secure. Then he settled beside me in the foxhole and we stared out at the moonlit snowscape. In the quiet of that night we could hear a few church bells calling people to midnight mass. We could also hear the sound of German vehicles moving behind the hills.
Preacher and I talked in quiet voices, as we had dozens of times in foxholes all across Europe. We talked again about going home – him to preach, me, I thought, to farm. I told him what I’d been thinking, about how far Mary and Joseph were from home that first Christmas Eve. Preacher said he hoped the chaplain’s message would reach the hearts of our buddies who hadn’t yet found Jesus.
At that moment, shortly after the moon had set off to our right, the Germans decided that the 502nd PIR was the place to make their final breakthrough into Bastogne. We started taking artillery fire – the heaviest artillery we’d seen since Holland. Not just German 88’s, but larger stuff as well. Much of it fell into A Company, just to our left, and they took casualties. Some also came in on us. It was a scene out of war’s most potent hell. Then we started hearing shouts of ‘infantry’ and ‘tanks’. Apparently the Germans were trying to infiltrate through Company A, which would allow them to flank our position. And they did, breaking through into the town of Champs so that we had to pull back to keep them from rolling up the right flank of our perimeter. Lieutenant Jeffries ordered us to form a defensive line facing west, ready to help our guys in the town.
Fortunately there were no tanks yet in Champs and A Company, with a couple of platoons from the battalion reserve, were able to fight the German infantry to a stand-still. As dawn broke on Christmas Day, C Company began to reform on the road, hoping to reclaim the front. Preacher left the platoon for a few minutes and conferred with Lt. Jeffries about our next move. Then he came back at a run and started ordering us to face left and take up positions at the edge of the road. A rumble of tanks off in that direction encouraged us to make this move quickly.
It turned out that everything that had happened on our front was small change compared to the attack on the 327th regiment to our left. The Germans had broken through their lines with about eighteen Panzers and a bunch of infantry, and rather than heading south toward Bastogne they had turned east – toward us. We hurried to prepare for them. Captain Jim Stone, the headquarters commandant gathered a group of walking wounded and chaplains to defend the road to Rolle Chateau. Four of our tank destroyers – 57 millimeter tracked guns – were also in the area, but as soon as the first panzer crested the opposite hill it took two quick shots and took out the two tank destroyers that were moving up the road. The other two were already setting up in the woods. That’s all we had against eighteen panzers and probably a battalion of infantry. There were fifteen to twenty infantrymen riding on the outside of each tank.
Captain Cody decided to fall back to the edge of the forest. There we turned to harass the Germans with rifle fire, machine guns, and bazookas. Our first volleys brought down many of the German infantry clinging to the tanks, and soon the whole German force began to shy away from us. That was the moment our tank destroyers in the woods had been waiting for. Three of the Mark IV panzers were caught in the flank and knocked out quickly with accurate shots.
“Whoo Hoo” Lt. Jeffries shouted. “Pick them off, boys. Aimed fire only; we don’t have the ammunition to waste.”
“Preacher, do you think you can get a shot at that one?” He pointed to the nearest tank. Our platoon had one of the few bazookas in the company. Oh no, I thought, Medal of Honor work.
Preacher nodded. “Murph, get Jones and Schwartz, and bring four rounds.”
The four of us, covered by as much rifle fire as the company could mount, crawled out to get a shot at the nearest tank, some 200 yards away, and facing Captain Stone’s scratch group on the road to Rolle. It was long range for a bazooka, but if we could catch a track, we could immobilize the vehicle. Jones was our best rocket guy, and the new M9 bazooka made his job a little easier, though it was gruesomely heavy.
“Fire in the hole,” he yelled. Smoke poured from the back of the tube, and the shot arced away toward the tank, but deflected off the angled armor behind the tanks engine.
“One more round before we move,” Preacher yelled. Schwartz and Jones reloaded in an amazingly short time as the tank began to turn toward us. The second shot must have gone right through the tracks and into a soft spot of the underbelly. Not only was the tank de-tracked, but it began to burn.
“Great work, let’s get out of here,” Preacher yelled.
The other German tanks caught bazooka fire from Captain Stone’s group, and a few more came under fire from Company B. Without intending to do so, we had drawn the entire German spearhead into a fire sack, and we were able to cut them to pieces. None of their tanks escaped, and only a few of the infantry were able to retreat over the hill, where they were rounded up by elements of the 327th.
That was the battle of Christmas morning for the 502nd PIR. The Germans had thought to give Bastogne to Hitler as a Christmas present, but the staunch troopers of the 101st Airborne gave them back more than they could swallow. Preacher and I joined the general hoopla as the last of the German tanks was taken under fire by a variety of units and exploded in a blaze.
If only it had ended there. But next we had to move forward and take back the perimeter. Otherwise we’d leave a clear path for the next attack. So we reformed and got orders to proceed north, past the chateau and back to what had been the front lines. There was little ground resistance, but there was a lot of artillery. The familiar whistle of 88’s was combined with the freight train roar of the larger stuff as they accurately targeted whatever patch of ground we happened to be crossing.
Preacher and I were advancing by turns, providing cover for each other while he oversaw the movement of the left side of the platoon. Lt. Jeffries was over to the right. We had crossed a little hill and tucked ourselves down in the hollow on the north side when shouts came from the left, as Stinky Webb – John Francis Webb – advanced. Stinky, who was later killed in our counterattack against the Germans in January, had spotted a German machine gun nest waiting to hinder our advance. Preacher scrambled back over the hill to the left and would have flopped down next to Webb except that an artillery round – a simple German 88 like hundreds that missed me during the war, exploded a yard or two in front of him. The shrapnel took him right at chest level, and filled him so full of knives that he never had a chance.
I heard Preacher’s muffled scream after the artillery explosion and knew at once what it meant. Yelling for a medic, I careened over the hill and down toward the prostrate form of my friend. Webb ran to get help while I went to my knees and cradled Preacher’s head in my arms. “It’s okay, Preacher, it’s okay. You’ll make it.” Preacher looked up at me with a froth of blood forming on his lips. “I don’t think so, Murph. . . I’m all cut up inside.” “C’mon Preacher, hang on. Stay awake. You got yourself the old million dollar wound, buddy. You might be home by New Year’s.” I knew as I said it that it was a lie, but I wanted to keep his hopes up.
As his breath grew more ragged, my own wail of despair broke through. “Don’t do this Preacher. Don’t die on me. I need you.” Preacher took another breath and said “You’ll be fine, Murph – you’ve got Jesus now. That’s all you need. Just go home and be faithful to Him.” I looked up past the blood stained snow, looking around for the medic, and spotted the little stable by the chateau off in the distance. It had been blasted to smithereens. God what a miserable place this was. I felt the cold bite of the air as Preacher’s body shuddered in my grasp. “But what about you Preacher? What about all God is going to do through you? You gotta go home and tell people about Jesus!” Preacher shuddered again, and then spoke once more: “It’s okay, Murphy, it’s okay. I’m going to be with Jesus. I’m going home for Christmas.”