MEET OUR VETERANS : Earl Clark WW2 vet (Wills Point)
“I fought in the Battle of the Bulge and If it wasn’t for God’s grace I would have died instantly, and I know that.”
Earl Clark was drafted and inducted into the Army on June 14, 1944. “I was 18 years old and a student at Wills Point High School. They were needing men and they were needing them bad. I had more work than I could handle. My family farmed 600 acres and kept nineteen mules. I was born north of Highway 47 near Wills Point, on a hill in Van Zandt County called Magbee Hill. Our first car was a Model-T and we didn’t have a shed so we parked it in the chicken house,” laughed Earl. “I played one year of football in high school, and still have my letterman’s and Army jackets. I weighed 179 pounds back then, now I run 243 and neither fit.”
When Earl was drafted in the Army, he wanted to join the Navy but they had no openings. “The main thing was you had a good place to sleep, good food and you didn’t have to worry about sleeping in the snow. They said, don’t worry the Army will take you. They took me.” Clark went to boot camp at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. “They trained me and I was good on just about every weapon I qualified for. The Army hurried me up and put me on a ship to England and it took eight days.”
Earl was shipped out on December 12, 1944, aboard the USS Wakefield from Fort Meade, Maryland. The USS Wakefield (AP-21) was a luxury ocean liner (SS Manhattan ) prior to the war. It had the reputation of being the fastest cabin ship in the world. “After the long boat ride they put me on a slow-moving train headed to the front lines. We were stuck on the boxcar for days and couldn’t go to the bathroom. They wouldn’t let us go into a building either, so we just hopped off and went to the back of the train. We fixed it,” he laughs loudly.
Earl travelled on railroad cars called 40 men or 8 horses.He travelled thru Paris and stayed about a week in the Grand Duchess Castle in Luxembourg, Germany. During the German occupationthe Grand Castle was used by the Nazis as a concert hall and tavern. Large swastika flags were hung down the front. With the return of Grand Duchess Charlotte from exile in 1945, the palace once again became the seat of the Grand Ducal Court.
“The next day it was ten degrees below zero. They sent me to the front lines in a truck. We entered near the southeast of Bastogne, a small Belgian town that served as a vital road junction. From there we unloaded and walked the last mile. The snow was sixteen inches deep.”
Little did Earl Clark know but he was about to enter one of the fieriest battles of World War II. He was in a combat zone called the Battle of The Bulge. The battle was fought from December 16, 1944 thru January 25, 1945. The Battle Of The Bulge was fought by the Germans and the countries under the Allied flags including the Americans, Brits, and Canadians with most of the allied force being Americans.
It was the last major German offensive campaign on the western front during World War II. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France and Luxembourg.
“They issued us a rifle, a pack, a gun belt, and a knife.” Earl was a private in George S. Patton’s 3rdArmy, 80thDivision, 317thInfantry Regiment. “When I got to the front line, it was a wild situation. There was one opening for a machine gunner, I took it.”
I then asked Earl to close his eyes and take me back to 1944 and tell me what he saw at the Battle of the Bulge. Tell me the sights and sounds of what you are seeing. Take yourself back if you can do that, I asked.
Ted slowly closed his eyes. “I was on a 30-caliber machine gun most of the time. Sometimes I was on the 50-caliber, man that thing was heavy. Machine gunners had a bullseye on their chest, and I knew it. I saw a lot of things. I had a lot of men I was supposed to kill, but I didn’t kill them. It was moonlit and I can see them coming. There are two men down in the creek and they come out on the banks. I couldn’t shoot em. I asked the other guy if he wanted to kill em, and he said yeah. He got over there and he said, it don’t feel right to kill em. Well, I said they had their M1 grand rifle on their shoulder, they are coming up the hill. Let them come on up and we will take them prisoner. They staggered on up, and some of the other guys took them prisoner. A lot of people wanted to kill them, but they just did not have the heart to do it. There were several times like that.”
Earl paused to gather his thoughts, “I was in a snowstorm. The wind was howling around sixty miles an hour. I am in my foxhole with my machine gun. I went up and down the line to wake the men up and then I slept an hour, well as much as you can sleep in a foxhole. The snow was up to our shoulders. They told us to shoot anything that moved. Nineteen men came thru my camp and I was sitting in my foxhole with a blanket over me and the gun. They got about 50 feet from me, I yelled halt, they stopped, looked and kept coming. When they got close I just threw the blanket off. There were nineteen men in no man’s land. If I had shot em I would have shot a good bunch of Americans.” With that, Earl opened his eyes and looked at me and stared.
During the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler ordered English speaking German soldiers with captured American weapons, jeeps and uniforms and had the men slip behind the U.S. lines and pose as American G.I.’s. It was difficult for the Allies to identify the enemy.
Earl continued his story glancing across the room. “On the other side of the road was a tank that was knocked out and on fire. The Americans tried to get out, but every time one came out the Germans shot him. There was a barn next to it and I wanted to shoot it up so bad. The Germans were in there with a good fire going. I knew if I shot I would have a whole Army on me, so I didn’t shoot. We were there for business, it was kill or be killed.”
Along with his 30-caliber machine gun, Earl was also carrying an M1 Grand rifle, his helmet, bayonet and knife along with a 75-pound pack on his back. “I wasn’t on the front lines for long, it seemed like an eternity. We would move to another place that might be about 30 miles away. We changed positions and we would go to another place. We kept moving and moving. We went up to guard one old town, we were in front of it. It was a moonlit night. We climbed that mountain all night long. We walked about 10 miles. We would climb two steps and slide back one. We got on the top and dug a foxhole. We woke up in morning and looked down that mountain and saw the back of that same old town we were at the day before. Our guide was lost.”
On another mission Earl describes a house in the countryside his company was checking out. “There was a house that had a hallway that ran all the way thru it. When you went in you would have a living room, maybe the kitchen, and the hall would go down and there would be another room or rooms. In the back was a kitchen on the side. They put cows in back room because it was so cold. And they would milk them in there.” The soldiers could tell the family inside were starving. Each one started removing food from their backpacks. “We gave them all our spam. I put the cans in a sack and carried it to the backroom. The woman didn’t know what it was and told her husband and he yelled good, good, that is food. They had nothing, no place to shop. They got the spam and they were happy, they were really happy.”
Earl, why were the Americans able to win at the Battle of the Bulge and able to defeat Nazi Germany? “We had some pretty tough soldiers. In the Battle of the Bulge, you had this forest, they had gun turrets. The Siegfried Line, they called it.
The “Siegfried Line,” known in German as the West Wall. It was a German defensive line built during the 1930s opposite the French Maginot Line. It stretched more than 630 km, and featured more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. From September 1944 to March 1945 the Siegfried Line was subjected to a large scale Allied offensive. German troops retreating from France found it an effective barrier for a respite against the pursuing Americans. This helped the Germans mount their counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest, and the Allies did not break through the entire line until early 1945.
“The Bunkers were bigger than a 20 x 30 room and about 15 feet tall. They had an underground tunnel and it ran to the next one and then to the next one. All along there they would set up a machine gun. The Germans were in concrete bunkers high as your head, and when the Americans got there they took a Dozer and pushed dirt and covered them up. The Dragon teeth on the front of the Dozers went over those bunkers. That is how they got the better of the Germans. They drove right over them. It was a hard go.” He pauses several times as he reminisced.
Earl described a time when he was pounded by German “Screaming Mimi’s ( pronounced me-me ). “Each rocket weighed 22 pounds and each gun had 6 rockets full of explosives. They hit several times near where I was standing and I would move, and they would fire another one. I was on a hill and they spotted me. They were coming in every 5 minutes. I had to go to the bathroom. There was a stand of bushes about 20 feet from me. I thought I could make it in two and a half minutes and make it back. The Mimi hit and I ran for the bushes. I started counting off the seconds. Something touched me, I don’t know what it was. I jumped up and grabbed my clothes. I told the boy in the foxhole, move over I’m coming in. When I hit the bottom of that trench, the rocket blew up. I looked up and the bushes were no longer there. I knew since I was a machine gunner they were coming after me in that foxhole. I just jumped over him and laid down, and that rocket hit right where I was standing. They raised their rocket launcher one point and it hit on the other edge. They raised it another point or three feet and another three feet until they shot six rockets. It happened a lot of times that way. If it wasn’t for God’s grace I would have died instantly, and I know that….I know that.” Earl slowly shook his head.
“I saw a column of American soldiers walking from the front lines. We met em and they were young soldiers. Their hands were bandaged, their head was bound, they had bandages all over em. I cried when I saw how young they were, to put kids in there and hold down the front lines. I was in some pretty tough stuff. They were only school kids but they were men,” said Earl, his eyes starting to water.
An estimated 19,000 American troops were killed during the Battle of the Bulge. Another 23,000 were listed as MIA (Missing in Action).
“I am an ordained chaplain now. ( pointing to his hat ) I wasn’t a chaplain in the army but I know I was granted grace many times at the Battle of the Bulge.”
For Earl Clark his war was over. Both feet were badly frozen and he could barely walk. “My time was done. Two hours later the Army ambulance picked me up. You see all this dried skin on my hands. I have places on my back, it itches. Your skin when it freezes over and over, it itches.” Earl shows me the back of his wrinkled hands.
“I left Germany and was transferred somewhere in France. I was staying in this two-story house in a French village. Downstairs was the Calvary and upstairs were the riders. I stayed there for about eight days, it was freezing. They didn’t want you to thaw your feet out too fast. Once the heat started thawing your frozen feet, you couldn’t stand it. Man they hurt. I was hit with shrapnel, it hit my shoes, my hands and feet were frozen. I could fight no more.”
The end of the war for Earl Clark was left on the frozen grounds in Luxembourg, Germany on January 25, 1945. He proudly served his country at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II as a machine gunner under General Patton. Earl Clark is 93 years old and is a 100% disabled veteran with two purple hearts.
I asked Earl if there were any do overs in his life, anything he would have changed? “There is nothing really about my life that I would change. I wouldn’t want so much of what I have already done.”
It was an honor to talk with Earl Clark. I could hear the strain in his voice. We are losing brave soldiers, who like him, have fought some of the toughest battles in faraway lands and come back to tell their stories. I thank you Earl Clark for your service to our county.
God Bless our Veterans and God Bless America
Excerpts from “The School Boy Goes To War” by Earl F. Clark. February 6, 2016 contributed to this story. Earl’s recollections from “The Battle of the Bulge” now reside in our Museum at the Van Zandt County Veterans Memorial.
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