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By SOFIEA CLERICO
One night in the final months of World War II, Al Bussell of Bakersfield found shelter from the intense December cold in a church basement along with a part of his unit, 4th Infantry Division, 22nd Regiment Combat Team, B Company.
The Huertgen Forest was quiet at first, but soon the Americans could hear German-speaking voices nearing the church. The GIs hoped they would move away.
They didn't. The voices seemed to grow in number, and after dawn the surrounded GIs surrendered. It was either that or watch enemy grenades roll down the basement stairs.
But before they surrendered, the GIs had to hide a Luger pistol that one of Al's buddies had liberated from a dead German officer. Rumor had it the Wehrmacht enforced a strict rule: When a GI was caught with a sidearm taken from a German officer, dead or alive, it was a quick bullet to the head. After a frantic search yielded an acceptable hiding place, the Americans marched up the stairs, arms over their heads.
This was the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, a five-month fight that began the fall following the Normandy landing, from Sept. 19, 1944, through Feb. 10, 1945. Some have called it "an Allied defeat of the first magnitude." On this Memorial Day weekend, it is right and fair to remember those who fought and suffered in defeat as well as in triumph. For U.S. forces, Huertgen Forest was one such battle.
The dark, wet forest was a unique place to carry out a war, as the Americans soon discovered.
Leading the U.S. forces were Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, First U.S. Army; Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, V Corps commander, First U.S. Army; and Joseph Lawton Collins, VII Corps commander. The German forces were led by Field Marshal Walter Model, regarded as the Wehrmacht's best defensive tactician.
The Huertgen Forest was uncommonly dense with closely set trees and thick foliage. Winter mornings often brought sleet, rain, overcast weather or snow, so much so it could be difficult to see daylight. The forest floor was continuously soggy and wet.
The Germans blasted their artillery into the treetops, causing shell fragments and wooden splinters to rain down on U.S. troops -- huge splinters which could kill and frequently did.
After Al's unit surrendered that December night, destined to be forced onto a train bound for the Luckenwalde POW camp, another hazard emerged as they walked along a dirt road.
On Dec. 3, the sun broke through and U.S. planes were at last able to take off and resume their domination of the air war. As the captive Americans marched along the dirt road, U.S. P-47 Thunderbolts roared through the sky to provide cover for Allied troops.
Suddenly the captive GIs saw American planes flying low and right toward them. Then they realized the pilots had unknowingly overflown them and, mistaking them for Germans, shot one of Al's buddies dead.
It was a tough moment for Al -- one he would relive many times.
Facing enemy officers was the worst humiliation. "You are an American, while he is the enemy," Al said later. "While he holds a gun, to survive you must salute and take orders.
"You feel sick inside, broken."
When they reached Stalag III-A -- Luckenwalde -- the GIs were ordered to bathe in icy water. Then they dressed and went to the exercise yard. On the other side of the wire fence were British soldiers.
A less-than-diplomatic American soldier called out to the Brits, "Don't worry guys, we're here. You have nothing to be concerned about! We'll be in Berlin in no time."
A British soldier, even less diplomatic, yelled back, "Where have you Yank bastards been? We've been fighting for four years. You always wait until we've done the dirty work, then you show up like the bloody cavalry to take the credit!"
Both sides broke through the wire fence, shouting insults and throwing punches -- Americans and British in full riot mode. Though weak from hunger, they fought with a fury for their respective country's honor.
"We sure shook up the guards," Al said much later. "They were running and shouting -- didn't know what to do. They couldn't stop us for quite a while."
The next morning, the British soldiers had been moved to the far side of the compound. "I never again saw a British soldier," Al said.
But were the Brits OK? They most certainly were, Al said: The German officers understood they would need enemy POWs to trade for theirs: soldiers from the U.S., Britain, Norway, Canada, Poland, France -- any Allied country.
Over those next few months, Al contracted dysentery, common to POW camps. A severe respiratory condition from his childhood was reignited by the constant cold and damp. One crisp morning at roll call, Al passed out.
He was taken to the camp hospital where a well-trained medic, Jeeko, a Serbian national, treated his infections and stole food for him. Soon he was gaining strength.
One lovely April morning, sitting in his hospital bed, alert and listening intently, Al heard noises in the far distance that could only have been one thing: Liberators were approaching. He had quietly expected this ever since news of a decisive Allied victory in Belgium, at the Battle of the Bulge, had reached the POWs' ears. (Al's brother Virgil had agonized over the fact he was in the Ardennes Forest, only 16 miles away from Al's prison camp, and yet could do nothing.)
Al looked up as a German guard slipped quietly into his room, looked around fearfully, then asked a question Al had never before heard: "I hope you understand I was just following orders."
Al was stunned into silence. A guard who just a few days earlier was slapping, kicking, humiliating, sometimes bayonetting Allied captives, was now asking -- pleading, actually -- for forgiveness. He was hoping Al would put in a good word for him with the Allied liberators.
Al remained silent for a time. He looked at the now-humbled guard and tried to think of something to say, even as the many past images of atrocities overwhelmed him. He wanted to say something blunt and crude, like "Screw you, pal," but such was his rage that he could not speak.
It was not the Americans but the Soviets who liberated the camp on April 22, the day after Field Marshal Model's suicide. The prison camp guards ran to hide in the surrounding countryside, sans insignia. After a heated discussion with the Russians about whether they were Russian or American, Al and his buddy, another Kern County GI, started the long walk west.
But Al wasn't necessarily eager to get home to Mom. "I wanted to find my unit and keep fighting until the war was over -- and do whatever I was assigned afterwards," he said.
He found his unit, but having been liberated only a few days before the war ended, there was no time for him to do anything except receive treatment for his wounds.
Hitler killed himself on April 30 with a pistol shot to the head. On May 8, 1945, the unconditional surrender between the Allies and the Axis forces was signed. The European war was over.
Forever changed, Al Bussell came home.
Sofiea Bussell Clerico of Bakersfield, retired from various careers, has written extensively about her four brothers' contributions during World War II.