December 1944. The 308th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 83rd US Infantry had moved from Steinsel, Luxembourg to Gey, Germany, where they were dug in from December 18 to 25. It was the coldest, snowiest winter Europe had seen in more than thirty years.
Hitler’s army was pushing a last ditch counteroffensive against the Allies and the 308th was in the thick of it. It would become the bloodiest battle of the war: the Battle of the Bulge.
The Engineer companies supported the Infantry regiments in their attack and support missions. They worked on extensive road repairs and maintenance, mine sweeping and mine laying, bridge demolition and construction, splinter proof shelter construction and assistance to Artillery battalions in getting to forward positions.
Roads in the area were in very bad condition from heavy shelling. Shell fragments covered road surfaces, causing the engineers about fifty tire punctures daily as they hauled gravel in dump trucks to fill shell holes. Working long hours and having support from a Corps Engineer Battalion who worked exclusively on the roads, they kept the most important roads open.
For my dad, SSGT Harry J. Kirby, Jr, Co. C, and for most American GIs, no matter what else was going on, it was still Christmas. Herr Hitler was really making himself a nuisance with his Panzers and their big guns. The 83rd pushed back with all they had. But hey, it was Christmas.
Just before Christmas, Harry and the fellas found a treasure trove of beautiful glass Christmas ornaments in the cellar of a ruined farmhouse. Just what they needed!
In the forest, they picked out the perfect fir tree, not difficult in the Hurtgen Forest. In between their regular duties, they decorated that little tree and had their own little Christmas there amid the deep snow, bitter cold, and booming shells.
One of the guys had his camera. The gang gathered round the tree for a ‘family portrait’ and the soldier promised he would make sure everyone got a copy of the photo. It was a warm moment in the midst of a bleak winter far away from home for these American boys.
A few days later, in the hell that was the battle in the Hurtgen, that soldier was killed. Dad never told us his name or I would remember him here. But no one ever saw the precious photo of that Christmas tree, that little piece of home.
In 1994, the veterans of the 83rd returned to Europe, visiting Gey and the Hurtgen. Driving through the dark, dense forest, the old soldiers murmured to each other about ‘snow’ and ‘so cold’ and ‘minefields’ and ‘tree bursts’. It was a solemn moment for them, rife with memories.
The 308th departed Gey on Christmas Day 1944 and pushed on through Ossogne, Janee, and Biron, Belgium, where they remained into January 1945. In the beginning weeks of the new year, the 83rd was employed in the 7th Corps zone to defeat the German breakthrough in the vicinity north of Houffalize, Luxembourg. On 21 January, they assembled near Hamoir, Belgium, for rest and rehabilitation.