About Me

My photo
Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, March 26, 2010

Emmaus Everyman Recounts WWII Experience

"I thought I would always be a spectator. I would always be sitting on a bench while others were out on the playing field."

That's what swirled through 18-year Bob Kauffman's mind as he lay in a Normandy ditch, waiting to be evacuated with other wounded soldiers after a failed assault. He was, after all, a replacement. Second team. But this young Emmaus man had just discovered that he was very much part of the action, and he'd be returning for more of the same. He issued no orders. He followed them, and against Germany's most elite military unit.

Kauffman spoke at last night's LV Veterans History Project Roundtable, attended by about 80 people. Once a month, this group invites a vet to share his personal recollections with the Roundtable, although they conduct and tape private interviews, too. They then forward this first-hand oral history to the the Library of Congress' Veterans history project.

This diminutive grandfather, with a soft voice and unassuming demeanor, is the last person I'd expect to see as a combat soldier, but was actually wounded twice during WWII.

After recuperating from his first wound, he rejoined his unit just in time to be greeted by the Battle of the Bulge.

"When you give the Germans two months to get ready for you, you're going to pay a hell of a price."

And that's exactly what happened. On his first night back with his unit, he could hear a German machine gun firing in the distance, at an amazing 1,200 rounds per minute. "That's a sound you don't forget."

Also unforgettable is the unit he faced the very next day, known as the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, an elite unit that had been Hitler's personal bodyguard and whose soldiers had just executed 150 American POWs in the Malmedy massacre. "We got the crap kicked out of us," he bluntly admitted. The Germans eventually ran out of fuel and were surrounded, but Kampfgruppe Peiper (whose picture accompanies this blog) was still able to escape with 800 men.

Guess who was next? That's right, it was the 2d SS Panzer Division, which Kauffman described as "notorious."

Kauffman's company. which originally consisted of 200 men, was down to 14. They had one tank. That's when they got the orders to take a village.

It was in this village that Kauffman was shot again. He had seen two German soldiers, barked out that they should surrender, and their hands went up in the air. What Kauffman did not realize at first was that, while one of these German soldiers may have raised his hands in surrender, he was holding a pistol in one of them. By the time Kauffman noticed that little detail, he was shot. He grabbed the German and the two bear-hugged each other until one of Kauffman's fellow soldiers shot the German.

Now you might think this guy would end up hating the Germans. But like many WWII vets, he befriended many of them. One of them, a German officer, always referred to Kauffman as my "dear half brother," and paid his way to Europe for five visits.

Kauffman visited the Normandy cemetery in 1999, above Omaha beach, and was chilled by the relentless pounding of the waves along the nearby beach, which he called "God's eternal reminder of the enormity of the price we paid." Thinking of his fellow fallen soldiers, he said they were robbed, "but we were robbed, too. We lost their friendship, their children, their grandchildren."

Unlike most WWII vets, who rarely talk about their experience, Kauffman has also written a book called The Replacement.

The only negative feature about last night's Roundtable was the presence of Congressional candidate Jake Towne, who was there with his clipboard and pamphlets, trying to drum up support. If he was there to hear this story, I'd have no problem. But he was there to tell his own.

Give it a rest and come up for air, Jake.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bernie,

I have been to the Normandy beaches. To this day they are an amazing sight. It is curious that the French have placed few markers or explanations but the large military cemeteries, and neglected and often trash filled bunkers and pill boxes tell the story.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

terrific story Bernie thank you

Bernie O'Hare said...

It is a terrific story, but the credit for it goes to Pfc Kauffamn, as well as the Roundtable, for organizing this oral history.

Anonymous said...

Love those Germans. They were the greatest warriors in the history of the world.

C said...

Nice story Bernie. I remember my grandfather speaking about his ordeal during the Battle of the Bulge.
any thanks to the Greatest Generation.

Anonymous said...

The Greatest Generation that tolerated racial inequity, woman inequality and the over use of chemicals in food.

No thank you!

Anonymous said...

A veteran is someone who, at one point in his life wrote a blank check made payable to "The United States of America " for an amount of "up to and including my life." That is Honor, and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it.