Saturday, December 26, 2009
He gave twice as much
To hear John Eden of Culpeper talk so ardently about his service as a medic in World War II evokes chills, especially when the scene is snow-covered Europe and the Nazis last ditch attempt to push back the Allied Forces at the Battle of the Bulge.
“When that battle come, I thought we were goners,” said Eden of the clash Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25, 1945.
“(Adolf) Hitler started pushing us and (U.S. General George S.) Patton told us, he said, ‘I don’t know how much you soldiers been giving, but I want you to give twice that.’”
And they did — in the deadly cold, rooting out Hitler’s army while suffering tremendous losses. American casualties amounted to 81,000, including 19,000 killed.
Eden and his kind made up one magnificent generation — so sure of their mission of fighting evil, so united at home and overseas.
The Battle of the Bulge is one piece of that effort, but he hopes folks won’t ever forget it. Eden sure hasn’t. He said he would do it all again.
Blood and guts
This year marked the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxembourg so named for the bulge that was created when the German Army moved into Ardennes and split the American and British forces.
Eden, a charter member of the Battle of the Bulge Veterans group, called the Star-Exponent earlier this month about wanting to tell his story.
It sure was worth hearing.
He is rightfully proud of his World War II service, and his memories of the Bulge are as fresh as ever.
Eden donned his old medic’s uniform for the interview, except for the wool pants, which he admitted were a big snug.
He pulled out a glass case of mementos from the war too, including German brass knuckles and cigarettes, his dog tags to which he attached a German bullet — “the one that was supposed to get me,” but didn’t — an old canteen, his mother’s Bible that he carried in his left shirt pocket for the duration of the war and a pair of scissors with which he used to cut bandages on the battlefields of the Bulge.
“For 48 hours, I never batted my eyes,” Eden said of one stint during that winter of 1944. “I kept driving, hauling sick and wounded back to the hospitals. I used to rub snow in my eyes to stay awake. Now my eyes are failing me,” he added quietly, “and I kind of blame a lot of it on that.
“That was a rough time in my life,” Eden went on, again quoting Patton — “Blood and guts.”
He saw a lot of that during his time in Europe, and he did his best to reassure the soldiers who were so seriously wounded he knew they would never make it home.
One particular mission, however, stands out for Eden — the frigid December night when he drove his ambulance into the center of the Bulge to transport a surgical team to a wiped out hospital in Bastogne.
A harrowing journey
It was about 3 p.m. the day after the battle began when a major in the hospital in Luxembourg, where Eden was stationed, called him into the office.
“Hitler’s tanks had overrun them in Bastogne — took their field hospital — so they tagged me, said, ‘Take this surgeon and his nurse and get them up there to the wounded.’ He asked me to take them around the boot of the bulge to the destination.”
The trip was a straight shot north, about 60 miles, with Eden weaving in and out and all around the Germans, turning back to avoid downed bridges and nearly getting caught up at several points.
“I knew the directions, had maps and an assistant driver who was pretty good,” he said. “I’d start up this road, knowing Hitler had dropped hundreds of soldiers over behind that line, killed our boys and took their uniforms — they had our uniforms on — so it began to get frightening. You didn’t know if he was a German or what he was trying to get you into.
“It was dangerous.”
Still working his way around the bulge, Eden said he’d start to go up another road before being advised to turn around — “The Germans are right there and they’re fixing to blow up that bridge.”
Passwords and medals
At supper time, Eden and his medical team dined with the 101st Airborne near the Sedan Forest before continuing on through the thick of the battle.
Soon after, they ran into a road block.
“One of the 82nd has his bayonet on me asking, “What is the password? I said, ‘Password? I don’t know it. I’m not from around here,’” Eden said.
Further pressed, the medic told the guard he lived in Virginia.
“He said, ‘What newspaper do you read?’ and I said, ‘The Washington Post.’ That got us through.”
For future reference, the guard told Eden before sending him on their way, the password was, “Babe Ruth.”
Still making his way around the Bulge, Eden crossed over into British territory and met up with a Brit on a motorcycle.
“He said, ‘Old chappy, where are you trying to go?’ I said, ‘I got a surgical team here trying to get up to Bastogne,’ and he told me to follow him. The next morning by 8 o’clock, I got into Bastogne.”
Heavy snow was falling as Eden headed back to from where he started. Driving farther into the countryside, he noticed tanks American tanks stuck in snow drifts. So were soldiers’ bodies.
“It was some time before the snow melted and we found them all,” Eden said.
He considered his transport of the medical team during the Battle of the Bulge his greatest accomplishment of the war.
“I was real happy about it and I still feel good,” Eden said.
He always felt he should have got a medal for that harrowing journey, but it never came.
“I still am thankful that a played a part in it,” Eden said.
He applied himself
There was never any question that he would join the Army to fight in World War II. For Eden, like most others from the Greatest Generation, it was about personal responsibility.
Before enlisting in Lynchburg in 1942, he married Phoebe — a local girl from Jeffersonton that Eden met while working on the road crew that extended Route 229 from Rixeyville north to U.S. 211. Eden grew up in rural Tennessee, the son of sharecroppers and one of 12 children.
He came to Virginia during the Great Depression in search of work and got a job through Roosevelt’s WPA program helping to build Skyline Drive.
Eden could have gotten a deferment from service in World War II, but there was no way.
“I told my boss, ‘No. I want to go ahead and fight the Germans over there and stop them from coming over here and killing our women and children.’ I seen how he wanted to rule the world,” he said.
Armed with a childhood of hard work on the farm and an eighth-grade education, Eden expected he’d be assigned to an engineering crew, building bridges and roads and such.
“They picked me for the medics,” he said, suspecting, “They knew I helped people, that I had sympathy for people.”
Eden excelled during the medical training, learning every pressure point and bone in the human body. He put the medics from up north, many of who had college educations, to shame with his high marks.
Soon enough, Eden gained as a name as a respected medic. It’s a lesson he has carried with him since.
“I told my kids my whole life, ‘If you apply yourself, you can learn it.’”
He credits his intensive training for getting him through World War II and the Battle of the Bulge, as well as a little something else.
“I never forget to say my prayers.”