World War II veteran George Fisher recalls a sense confusion and lack of preparation as he traveled with his division from France to spend the next month-and-a-half in the cold and snowy Ardennes Forest.
Fisher and his 26th Infantry Division were expecting to visit a rest area in Metz, France, to change uniforms, have a hot meal and rest. Then they got a call and were loaded into trucks to head north to fight.
Fisher admits he had no idea he was entering into the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most important in World War II.
“We didn’t talk about it at all after the war,” Fisher said of the battle. “We were rushing to get back to our lives at work, school and the community. Now, though, we want to talk about it, with each other and with the younger generations.”
Fisher, 89, living today in Palm Beach, Fla., will have a chance to share some of stories of those days again, when fellow Battle of the Bulge veterans mark the battle’s 70th anniversary at the national convention, opening this weekend in Columbia.
“This reunion is special because so many people were involved.” said Fisher, president of the Southeast Florida chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. “There is a certain bond among us with a certain camaraderie. I call it ‘cleansing our wounds’ by talking about what happened to us and what happened to the others.”
It’s the second time the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge national convention has come to Columbia, with the first gathering in 2010. It’s also the first time a city has hosted the conference more than once.
“Last year in Kansas City, we considered several cities,” said Douglas Dillard, 88, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and the group’s national president. “But when we thought about how the people were so great and supportive in Columbia, it was a unanimous decision.”
This year’s conference is expected to draw about 40 registered veterans from around the country, along with their families and friends. About 100 veterans attended the 2010 conference.
“Many of our comrades from across the country have not visited our city since they were in basic training at Camp Jackson in the early 1940s,” said Chris Carawan, 89, a veteran of the 106th Infantry Division and president of the group’s South Carolina chapter. “Columbia is a good military town and we have gotten contributions from places all over Columbia, like the city of Columbia, the local VFW, the local American Legion and more. Our chapter is probably one of the most active ones in the country, which made it a little easier.”
Carawan estimates 15 of the 40 expected veterans at this weekend’s reunion will be from the S.C. chapter.
The Battle of the Bulge, which began Dec. 16, 1944, and ended Jan. 25, 1945, was the largest and bloodiest ever fought by the U.S. Army. About 500,000 Americans fought in the battle; about 19,000 American soldiers were killed and more than 38,000 were wounded. It was Hitler’s last desperate hope for stemming the Allied advance into Nazi Germany, and is named for the bulge in the front lines caused by his massive surprise attack through the U.S. lines in the Ardennes Forest of Luxembourg and Belgium. Both countries welcomed the U.S. troops as liberators.
Convention events open Sunday with a church service at Main Street United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia, with patriotic music from the Fort Jackson Brass Quintet and a sermon from Deputy Chaplain of the Army Gen. Ray Bailey. The service will be followed by an autograph session open to the public from 2-5 p.m. at the S.C. State Museum. The day will wrap up with a musical tribute featuring the Harry James Orchestra, and The Victory Belles from New Orleans will perform their Andrews Sisters tribute.
A wreath-laying ceremony is planned Monday at Fort Jackson, followed by a Tuesday visit to FN Manufacturing in Northeast Richland, a major small arms supplier to the U.S. military and a popular outing for veterans during the 2010 event. The conference ends Wednesday morning.
Fisher, who still visits high schools in Florida about once a month to share stories and dates of the Battle of the Bulge, is glad to be joining fellow veterans again this weekend in Columbia.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have this conference, because the camaraderie is special and we’ve been to hell and back,” Fisher said.
“A lot of us can’t travel or shouldn’t travel because we’re all getting older, but it gives us all chance to talk to each other again.”