PRINCETON — When 94-year-old Albert Dale Griffin is asked about being with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, memories of camaraderie, wading into a cold river so General George Patton Jr., can get across it, driving a captured German tank, and suffering frostbite like many of his fellow soldiers suddenly come to mind. These memories become even sharper as Dec. 16, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, approaches.
The Battle of the Bulge started Dec. 14, 1944 when the German Army launched what would be its last offensive in Western Europe. Dictator Adolf Hitler hoped the surprise offensive could reach the vital Allied port of Antwerp and split the Allied armies in two. Secrecy was maintained and the American divisions in the Ardennes region of Belgium, then a quiet sector, were taken by surprise; however, American soldiers resisted fiercely and soon put the Germans, short of fuel and other vital supplies, behind schedule.
Private First Class Griffin, known to his friends and family as Dale, fought with the 82nd Airborne Division when the German offensive rolled forward. He had joined the U.S. Army on Jan. 5, 1943. Today a faded document, Griffin’s Separation Qualification Record, lists his vital information. His skills included medium tank crewman, rifleman and light machine gunner.
In the section Summary of Military Occupations, the document states how Griffin operated a “Cal. 30 air cooled machine gun in movements against the enemy. Acted as assistant squad leader in 8 to 10 man squad. Instructed in regard to proper use of equipment and weapons. Inspected gun mechanisms to insure cleanliness and maximum efficiency.”
Under Rifleman, Griffin “used an M-1 rifle in destruction of opposing forces. Did reconnaissance of enemy. Was with 504th Reg., 82nd Airborne Division.”
And the task of medium tank crewman involved several important duties. According to the Separation of Service record, being a medium tank crewman included “main job as part of tank crew was that of driver. Performed other duties such as gunner, observer and radio man. Drove Colonel’s tank, which acted as base instruction of unit procedure and movement.”
Memories of exact dates and places have faded a little after 75 years, but Griffin’s memory still holds plenty of details. Born in Parkersburg, he remembered when he enlisted.
“I had just passed 18 (years old). Fifteen days later, I went up to Parkersburg, I was in Wirt County then,” he recalled. “I went up to Parkersburg to sign up for the draft, and 15 days later I got a letter saying they needed me. Right away. I thought I’d be waiting for a couple or four months.”
Later, he went to Fort Knox, Ky. and learned to drive a tank.
“A medium tank. I had combat training for 28 weeks. And then I went to Fort Mead, Maryland,” he said. “I got a recommendation to drive a colonel’s tank.”
He had to compete against corporals who wanted his job, but the colonel he was assigned to liked him and had him drive in a convoy.
“I couldn’t believe that I was a little West Virginia hillbilly boy and then get a recommendation like that from a colonel way down there,” Griffin exclaimed.
Griffin had more training and was transported to more posts, one time spending five days on a troop train because they weren’t allowed to get off. The soldiers were allowed to go for a swim at a pool after they disembarked, and Griffin remembered how he was helped when, though athletic, he got into trouble when he got cramps.
“That was the camaraderie,” he said, remembering how quick the soldiers were to help each other when in trouble.
Griffin later joined the 82nd Airborne so he wouldn’t be sent to the Pacific Ocean.
“I had buddies who went that way,” he said. “I had buddies who got killed that away.”
Later, Griffin got to know Colonel James Gavin – later General Gavin – who would lead the 82nd Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. In the movies, soldiers often addressed officers as sir or by their rank, but Griffin revealed that sometimes these distinctions blurred a little because soldiers and officers respected each other.
“I just called him Jim. We were sitting one day and he said, ‘Dale, quit calling me colonel.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Why?” He said, ‘Dale, we’re just fighting men for the USA. That’s what we are. And we’re veterans, too. Couldn’t be better.”
Combat training in Alabama included the use of live ammunition, Griffin stated.
Soldiers would crawl across the ground while machine gun bullets zipped overhead.
“One fellow raised his rear end up too high and got his rear end shot,” he said. “They were shooting 36 inches off the ground. He got scared. That’s what happened.”
Explosives were used around them, too, to help them get used to the blasts and sounds they would encounter in combat. The training by its very nature was dangerous. Griffin remembered getting used to explosions that went off only a few feet away.
“I know what they were trying to do,” Griffin said. “They were trying to show us what could happen in real combat. They had wooden people that looked like real people. They’d jump up in front of us and we’d use live ammunition on them and shoot them. And they’d score us on where we shot them at. It was real stuff.”
Later, a few days near Christmas, Griffin and other 82nd Airborne soldiers went to New York Harbor, got into ferries and boarded the Queen Mary, a huge ocean liner that had been converted into a troop transport ship. She was too fast for the German submarines, also known as U-boats, to follow. The liner, under heavy naval escort, did encountered a U-boat during the crossing, but her speed and escorts were too much for the submarine. Griffin could remember the explosions of the depth charges launched into the ocean to deal with it. The journey took only three days.
The 82nd Airborne passed through Paris on the way to the front lines, but Griffin didn’t get a chance to go sightseeing even though he could recall spotting landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
“Outside of that, there was nothing but piles of bricks,” he recalled. “We just went on through in the truck we had.”
Soon Griffin was remembering actions such as attacking and clearing away German machine gun nests – always a very dangerous task – and performing jobs such as carrying 60 pounds of machine gun ammunition and roasting a pig because everyone was tired of horse meat. One day a general with pearl-handled pistols arrived where the 82nd Airborne was stationed. He had to cross the Ruhr River, and Griffin volunteered to wade and swim across with some other soldiers and string a line across it so pontoon boats to carry the general across the water. General George Patton Jr., “Old Blood and Guts,” as Griffin remembered him, was then able to go on his way.
Griffin was in the Ardennes, the area where the Germans broke through during the Battle of the Bulge, about two days after Christmas. The 82nd Airborne arrived by truck and was quickly in the fighting. They didn’t have flak jackets or any of the tools soldiers use today; however, they did have an explosive known as Composition C.
“It was stronger than dynamite,” Griffin said. “But you could form it like a ball. We had a sock (to put the explosive in) and a cap on top of it. And it was like throwing a grenade. You could make it about the size of a softball or a baseball.”
The winter was particularly brutal that year. Griffin and other Battle of the Bulge veterans had to deal with the bitter cold and frostbite. He could remember seeing the frozen bodies of German soldiers around one of the positions he helped hold: he estimated that some of the Germans were no older than 15.
“A week and a half after Christmas, we got about 20 inches of snow,” Griffin said. “That’s when I had to tie rags over top my combat boots to keep the snow from going down inside of them. That’s what frostbit the front of my legs. When I got out, it felt like a thousand needles in the front of my legs from that frostbite. We were outside fighting all the time. Just as soon as it (snow) thinned a little bit, we’d get 3 or 4 more inches after that.”
Despite the frostbite, Griffin and his fellow soldiers stayed and fought. Tanks and other vehicles faced the same problems today’s motorists contend with when a winter storm strikes.
“Patton couldn’t do anything. Tanks would just spin away (on the ice),” Griffin said.
Eventually, after thousands of casualties, the Battle of the Bulge ended on Jan 25, 1945. The German’s offensive had failed.
“We had been on the line for about a month and a half, and they took us over to a French cavalry post to recuperate,” Griffin said.
And while the soldiers were recuperating, they had a special visitor: an actress from the silver screen.
“Marlene Dietrich was there. Her boyfriend was a major in our outfit and she didn’t just eat at his table all the time. Every day at every meal, she’d change tables and she came to ours.” Griffin grinned. “We liked that. That was a big thing.”
When the battle was finally over, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the troops and recognized their service.
“Ike flew in on a little Piper Cub with his aides. He had three of them. When we lined up in front of all those officers, and the aides were pinning on other (soldiers) and Ike came and said, ‘Aide, step aside.’ Eisenhower had remembered how Griffin had helped General Patton cross that river. Eisenhower pinned two battle stars on each side of Griffin’s collar – a total of four – and those of the other soldiers. The price paid for stopping the German offensive had been high.
“There were only 24 of us left in the whole company. Five in my platoon counting me,” Griffin said. “That was all that was left of my platoon at the end.”
Griffin went on to remember actions such as confronting a heavily-armed German Army car coming down the German autobahn and driving a captured German tank. Eventually, he was severely injured near the Rhine River in his foot and right arm.
After being wounded, Griffin was transported back to the United States to recover; the Queen Mary needed only three days to carry him and his fellow soldiers to England, but the trip home took 15 days. He remained in the Army until Oct. 16, 1945, when he left Nichols General Hospital in Louisville,Ky.
Like many of his fellow veterans, Griffin didn’t talk about his wartime experiences until only a few years ago. He said that he just didn’t want to sound like he was bragging. Like other men and women who served during World War II, he had a job to do and he did it.
“It sounds almost impossible, but we went through it,” he said of his experiences. “I don’t have to brag because I’ve already been there.”
Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org