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Cold turkey real Christmas treat

The Christmas dinner for the shy farm boy from Wishek, N.D., and his Army buddies was cold turkey, and the Christmas "music" wasn't "Silent Night"; it was the sound of small arms fire.

The Christmas dinner for the shy farm boy from Wishek, N.D., and his Army buddies was cold turkey, and the Christmas "music" wasn't "Silent Night"; it was the sound of small arms fire.

The soldier was Warren Bettenhausen. The date: Dec. 25, 1944. The place: Bastogne, Belgium, during World War II's Battle of the Bulge.

Adolf Hitler had launched his last-gasp attempt at gaining a victory Dec. 16, seeking to destroy Allied armies and force the Allies to negotiate a peace treaty.

Warren's unit, of the 101st Airborne Division, had just arrived in Europe and was assigned to Bastogne, a key road center, arriving Dec. 20.

The troops' first job: digging foxholes in frozen ground under several inches of snow.

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Warren had dug down about

2½ feet when, he says, "There was a terrible screeching noise. We received about 25 mortar rounds on top and around us in a few minutes. The company commander and another man were killed instantly. That was my introduction to combat."

The American units, including the 101st Airborne, an armored division and a tank destroyer battalion, dug in and defended the town so well that the Germans couldn't capture it. So they surrounded it.

Surrender or else

"It was not a very good position to be in," Warren understates, "because we lost our supply line. We could no longer receive medical supplies - fuel to run our vehicles; tanks, ammunition and other combat supplies; food. We had enough supplies on hand for four or five days."

The German commander sent a message to the Americans, saying that unless they surrendered, they would be annihilated. Acting 101st Division commander Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's famous response? "Nuts." And the Americans fought on.

The troops got some air-dropped supplies after three days. But the outcome of the battle was still in doubt.

Then came Christmas Day.

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Cold turkey

"Early in the morning," Warren says, "someone brought a large aluminum kettle full of cold turkey.

"We got out of our foxholes one at a time. We would crawl on hands and knees to this kettle and grab a drumstick or some other piece and go back to our foxhole for our Christmas meal. We didn't walk because that made too good a target. This turkey was a real treat; we were living on K-rations and water.

"There was small arms fire in the woods continually. You could hear the bullets hitting the trees. Also occasionally there would be some mortar fire."

On Dec. 27, Gen. George Patton's troops broke through to Bastogne and finally, after 10 days of continuous combat, Warren's unit was relieved and sent out for R&R (rest and recuperation.)

Warren's unit had started with 60 men. Now it was down to 45. "We were a weary, dirty bunch of men," he says. "Nobody had shaved for two weeks. We hadn't had our clothes or combat boots off in 10 days."

They climbed into trucks. Warren says the 20 men in his truck sat quietly.

"After about 30 minutes," he says, "we started to sing 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus.' Two or three started in, and then everyone else joined in.

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"We sang two verses. Everything was quiet again, and finally we started to sing another hymn, 'Be not dismayed whate'er betide, God will take care of you; beneath His wings of love abide, God will take care of you.'

"Every man in the truck experienced and lived the meaning of the words in that old Gospel hymn," he says.

A better meal

Warren, who with his wife, Ann, now is retired in Fargo, also tells of another Christmas; a happier one.

It was in 1945, and it arrived when he and thousands of other men were in the mid-Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary liner-turned-troop ship.

The war was over. The men were going home.

They had Christmas dinner that day, too. This time, it had all the trimmings. And it was hot.

Was it worth it?

In early January 1946, Warren marched with the 82nd Airborne Division in a victory parade in New York City. "Our rifles were cleaned and shined as were our jump boots," he says. "We wore white scarves and gloves.

"President (Harry) Truman, Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower and other government officials were in the reviewing stands; a hundred thousand people lined the street to cheer us on."

To be part of that, he says, "was a great privilege."

But he looks back to his war experiences and says that yes, he'd do it again - that it was worth it.

"Our nation since it was formed has gone through many trials and growing pains," Warren says. "We have always emerged stronger and more united.

"I firmly believe that this United States of America is the greatest nation on the face the Earth, and I am glad to be a part of it."

And he says it despite being in the Battle of the Bulge, in which 19,000 Americans died, more than in any other World War II engagement in which the U.S. participated, and in which he spent Christmas hearing not the glorious sound of carols but the grim sound of rifle fire.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487;

or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com

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