War stories: Two local veterans revisit the battlefield

Dr. Warner Anthony lives in a beautiful, remote Yancey County home that hints at a lifelong search for tranquility. The walls are mostly glass, a vast deck wraps around the exterior, and the light shifts and fades as we talk about the people he killed.

“Does it bother me? Obviously it does, because I bring it up,” he says. “But that was the price I paid for the job I was hired to do.” So begins the excruciating story of Anthony’s experiences as a U.S. Army medic during World War II.

“I'm not ashamed of anything that happened,” he says as we sit down. Like other veterans I've interviewed, he has little patience for small talk. “You can ask me anything.”

Overwhelmed

During the Battle of the Bulge, Anthony served in the 99th Infantry Division, 395th Regiment, L Company. The five-week massacre produced 20,000 more American casualties than the decadelong war on terror has so far, notes Montreat College history professor Bill Forstchen. Next month will mark the battle’s 68th anniversary.

“We got there in early November,” Anthony recalls. “And from that day on, dusk was at 4 o'clock. Sunrise was at 8 o'clock, and it was foggy all the time. … We had five divisions online; the Germans had 17. They overwhelmed us. … We had no buildup: We ran out of ammunition, out of food, out of everything. … Our division covered a four-and-a-half-mile front — nine times what we should have been covering, because they said, ‘This is an inactive front.’

“But they were wrong,’ he continues, shaking his head. “Hence the Battle of the Bulge.”

So at age 20, Anthony found himself in the front lines despite having joined an officer-training program to avoid ending up in combat.

“They shut that program down and dumped us into the infantry,” says Anthony. “It was the only time the feds ever lied to me and fooled me. They continued to lie to me, but they never fooled me again.”

Supposedly protected, combat medics weren’t usually armed. But Anthony soon found those protections hollow.

“A guy got wounded. Now the rule was, if a guy got shot, the guy who shot him was going to keep his eye on him waiting for somebody to come. I was the guy who came, and the bastard shot me. He saw my red cross, he saw my armband, he saw everything, and he still shot me. So from then on I carried a rifle.”

Quit counting

Anthony received a Bronze Star and the first of two Purple Hearts for that rescue attempt. Upon recovering, he became an active participant in the violence around him.

“The first six people I killed, I counted,” he whispers. “I killed a guy, then two hours later I killed another guy. Shot them both in the head — 180 yards, with a sniper rifle. And I counted six, and all of a sudden I said, ‘If I count everyone I kill, I’m going to drive myself crazy; I’ve got to quit counting.’ And that was my solution, so that I didn't persecute myself. … I have no idea how many people I killed. But I was a very good shot, and I did a lot of shooting.”

For L Company, the Battle of the Bulge began in earnest on the morning of Dec. 19, 1944.

“The Germans were about 400 yards from us,” Anthony recalls, “and on that morning they came out of the woods, and we couldn’t believe they were walking out in front of our machine guns. The company commander kept telling us, ‘Don’t fire, let them get closer.’ And when they got about 150 or 200 yards away, we started firing and absolutely slaughtered them.

“We killed 500 men,” he estimates. “And then they withdrew and we called out — we had megaphones and speakers — ‘Do you want to send your aid men out, and will you let us send our aid men out to help your men?’ And they said no.

“At 10 o'clock another horde comes out, and they said, ‘Let them come closer,’ and we slaughtered another 500 men. … And we called out, ‘Can we come to the aid of your men that have been wounded?’ And they said no.

“About 3 o’clock they came again, and this time the company commander said: ‘Let them get closer. They’re hiding behind the dead bodies.’ And we let them come within 50 yards of us, and some of them overran our foxholes. And we slaughtered another 500 men. Machine guns, BARs, rifles … we fired till we were without ammunition. We killed over 1,000 men that day.”

Anthony's company received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its part in halting Germany's counteroffensive. Rather than the turning point Hitler had hoped for, the Battle of the Bulge signaled the end of a crumbling regime.

The third wave

The beginning of that end had come months earlier when about 160,000 Allied troops waded onto the beaches of Normandy. Black Mountain resident Andy Andrews, now 88, was one of them.

“We were out in a big field doing bayonet practice,” remembers Andrews, a private first class in the 1st Infantry Division, “when our captain drove up with a megaphone and said the invasion of Normandy had started, that the first wave was already on the beach, the second wave was in the water ready to go, and we were the third wave.”

Hours later, Andrews was crossing the English Channel.

“We were about five stories down in this big troopship, sitting on a metal floor, shoulder to shoulder. Everybody had their rifles, their packs. Nobody was talking, nobody was playing cards, nobody laughing, and that just gave you the opportunity to think about it: Where are we going? Is God going to keep us safe? Is He going to take us to the beach? Is He going to take us to the high ground? Then they said, 'H Company to the deck' … and that was our first sight of France.”

Andrews bluntly recalls what happened next: “As soon as we started over [the edge of the troopship], they gave us a little package, saying, 'Stick that in your shirt.' That was the body bag. In case you get shot — when you get shot — they’ll stick you in this body bag and stack you up like stove wood. That’s what they told us.

“When I got in the Higgins boat, I slid up in vomit. There were 36 guys in the boat, and I guess 30 of them were throwing up.

“I was glad to be in the water, because it washed the puke off my back,” he says, recalling the dash up the beach amid German artillery fire. “I said to the Lord, 'I need you to take us to the high ground, and then I need you to give us a hole to get in.' And I almost fell in a German foxhole.”

“I Christian too”

That was only the first day of a nightmarish march to Germany.

“You were just always ready to get shot,” he recalls, “and thinking you never would. 'It can happen to other people, but it's not going to happen to me.' That's the way most guys thought.

“That’s the one thing that most Americans thinking about the war don’t understand. You have a machine gun squad with eight men. Usually we had four, because four were always getting shot. You hesitated to try to become friends because people get killed so fast. … You didn’t talk about that much; you just kept on doing your job, and walking and loading up and fighting when you needed to fight.”

Andrews was wounded several times. The first was when a grenade showered him with shrapnel. Andrews fired on the German who threw it.

“I saw him [as I was] looking through the machine gun, and I just pulled the trigger,” he recounts. “I saw my bullets going through him. … I thought I had killed him. When he showed up just 6 or 8 feet from my gun, waving a surrender flag … I recognized him as the guy that threw the grenade. I reached down and picked him up and we walked to the aid station. He was wounded all the way down, bleeding all over the place.”

Andrews recalls their conversation, mimicking the German's broken English. “He said, 'You going to kill me?' He was looking at my pistol. I said, 'No, that would be murder, and I'm a Christian.' He said, 'I Christian too.' And he pulled out this gold cross and gave it to me. He said, 'I was drafted.' And I said, 'I was drafted, too.'

“So that was proof positive for me. Here's a guy 17 years old, and I was 20. He was made to fight, just like I was. He didn't have anything against me, and I didn't have anything against him.

“I never did hate the Germans,” Andrews asserts. “I just thought it was a pathetic situation. But with the Nazi regime, I got the feeling that this war was necessary. And when we ran into the concentration camps, we knew it was necessary to get rid of this evil.”

Andrews speaks frequently to history classes, and he’s appeared on local media commemorating D-Day. Many veterans avoid talking about the war, but he was determined to share his experience.

“When we got to the harbor in New York,” he recalls, “that's when I said, ‘OK, God has taken me through this terrible conflict. As long as He gives me breath, I'm going to tell my story about his protective care.’”

Andrews says his faith was what sustained him and carried him into a career in youth ministry.

“I used my experience as best I could to tell people about the war and how Jesus was real to me the whole way through,” he explains, citing close calls on the battlefield. Andrews' glasses were shot off his face three times.

“I have to say, most [people] didn't believe it,” he reports. “And I believe that's why most veterans don't talk about it: They don't believe people are going to believe it. It's so horrible.”

“You may not know”

Warner Anthony, who buried his war memories for many years, echoes that sentiment.

“In your wildest imagination, you cannot conceive what we went through,” says Anthony. Then he stops and reiterates: “If you weren't there, you may not know what we did.”

Though they've never met, these men share similarities perhaps spawned on the battlefield. Both are committed to their church and their faith.

“I prayed a lot with my eyes open,” Andrews recalls. “I trusted the Lord to provide everything I needed.”

Anthony's experience was more complex.

“In your mind, you can never grasp the raw, naked fear that I had,” he reveals. “That was when I learned to pray. [But] the only prayer that I ever found effectual was ‘Thy will be done.’ To pray for my life was naive and stupid. We were behind a log one time with a group of Germans in front of us, and one of us stuck his head up over the log and got shot between the eyes. … So there but for the grace of God… it was either one of us; it was random chance and nothing else.”

Does Anthony believe God was in control during the war?

“Oh heavens, no,” he replies. “That’s one of the biggest theological problems we’ve come up with. Why does God allow polio? Why does He permit HIV? How can we justify what happened to 6 million Jews, to the 20 million Stalin killed? How can you rationalize that with God?”

It's a question the living can’t answer, and it illustrates the limits of our reach. The men who died beside Anthony and Andrews aren’t here to be lauded on Veterans Day or featured in the newspaper. So our understanding of war can never be whole, because no matter how true the account or sincere the journalist, only the survivors tell war stories.

— Max Cooper can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 145, or at mcooper@mountainx.com.

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