It was a cold, rainy, muddy night in November 1944, Sgt. Ted Sannella was on duty at 1st Army’s Headquarters near Aachen, Germany as Allied forces began their final push into the “Fatherland” near the close of World War II.
“At 2 or 3 in the morning a Jeep pulled up. Out stepped a major, a sergeant and what I thought was a GI,” the 80-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. man recalled almost six decades later. “They came into headquarters. The GI sat down and pulled off his helmet. I saw this shock of blonde hair. I took another look and realized it was Marlene Dietrich.
“Marlene wanted to be the first star to entertain our troops in Germany because she had such a hatred of Hitler. He tried to persuade her to come back to Germany. He said he would make her big star if she did. She wouldn’t have any of that,” Sannella recalled.
As she sat at 1st Army Headquarters she confided to Sannella, “‘I’m exhausted, but I’d give anything for a shower. I haven’t had one in two weeks.’
“I’m thinking, it’s gonna be hard enough to find them a place to sleep, much less a shower. Most of the homes in the area were bombed out. I told her not to worry, we’d figure it out and get her a shower.
“We found a place for them to sleep and then I got the guys up and we spent the rest of the night making a ‘Rube Goldberg’ shower for Marlene. ‘Tiny,’ our 300-pound cook made her a shower head by punching holes in the bottom of a big food can. We got some kind of piping to the can and the guys worked behind a sheet to take care of supplying hot water to the can. The whole rig was inside a building.
“Marlene was ecstatic about the shower,” he said. “She couldn’t believe it.
“After she got cleaned up she put on a sequined gown and she did up her hair herself. She looked as though she was ready to go in front of the cameras,” Sannella said. “She put on a special show for the 200 guys in our headquarters company. She sang and played the musical saw and gave us an incredible show. It was fantastic.”
Before Dietrich moved on, she thanked Sannella for building a shower for her. She went from 1st Army Headquarters to downtown Aachen, where she was the first Hollywood movie star to put on a show for Allied troops in Germany. Aachen was the first large town captured by the American troops in World War II.
On Dec. 16, 1944, all hell broke loose for the 1st Army and the rest of the Allied units along the western edge of the Ardennes Forrest in Belgium with the advance of more than 500,000 well-armed and well-trained German troops in what would become known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” Sannella’s unit had to return to Belgium where they confronted the enemy at Stavelot.
“It was the first time I’d seen dead soldiers, mostly Germans, everywhere frozen in the snow,” he said.
By the time his unit, H-Company, 120th Infantry Division, 1st Army reached St. Vith things were in mass confusion. Because of the fog and the deep snow, Allied fighter planes and bombers weren’t flying air support for the troops on the ground. The Germans were sending in enemy soldiers dressed in American uniforms who spoke perfect English to play havoc behind their lines. Everything was bogged down because of the cold, mud and snow.
They moved on to Malmedy, Belgium where German Storm Troopers gunned down more than 150 captured American medics. It would be known on the Allied side as the “Malmedy Massacre.” From then on some American units took no German POWs.
“Malmedy was accidentally bombed three days in a row by the American Air Force,” Sannella said. “We were there one of the days the bombing took place. We couldn’t believe it because there were no Germans there.”
On Dec. 24 his unit was pulled back to fight a German pocket of resistance near St. Vith. During the battle, Sannella and five buddies got separated and surrounded by the Germans.
“We managed to get to a half-bombed-out farmhouse for shelter. While in the farmhouse we looked around for anything white to cover our uniforms so we would blend in with snow when we made a break for it.,” he said. “One-by-one we crawled out the basement window and made for the Ardennes Forest up above us. To get there we had to crawl by a German machine-gun emplacement. Fortunately, all six of us made it.
A short time later they heard someone shouting. They finally realized they were American voices calling out.But when they made their presence known, the American troops weren’t sure whether the six bedraggled, freezing soldiers were Allies or Germans dressing the part.
To solve the problem, the American troops asked the six lost soldiers, ‘Who was your favorite pinup?’
“I said Zasu Pitts. She was one of the greatest comedians in the movies in the ’20s and ’30s.,” Sannella said. “She started in a wonderful movie called: “Greed.’
“There was a roar of laughter from our troops when they head me say Zasu Pitts. They came rushing out and took us into Trois Pons, a crossroad near Malamedy,” he said. “We got something hot to drink and blankets to help us warm up and our first hot meal in days and days.”
Nearby was a church that was full of rubble from Allied bombing. If they could clean out the debris and reset the pews, they might be able to hold Christmas Eve Mass.
“The six of us got up, as cold and tired as we were, and started cleaning up the church. The few townspeople that were left were ecstatic we were getting their church ready for Mass. Their priest came out of hiding and said Mass that Christmas Eve with our chaplain,” Sannella recalled. “There we were, the six of us. were alive and safe and we weren’t injured. It was a miracle.”
They pushed on battling the Germans into mid-January and they were still trying to push back the bulge in their lines caused by the surprise German offensive. Sannella said his unit reached St. Trunsd, Belgium and had to take their town away from the enemy.
We had to go down this hill into town and there were all kinds of German fire coming our way. We were running from tree-to-tree for protection. Little Willie from Tennessee was running ahead of me. As he ran down the hill in the snow he reached a trip wire for an enemy ‘Bouncing Bertha’ (anti-personnel mine) and froze.
“When I got to Willie I yelled at him, ‘Willie, when I raise my leg you raise yours. I got him over the trip wire and we made it into town without getting shot.”
They hid in the cellar of a beer hall that was reinforced with concrete. When Sannella’s captain and lieutenant failed to show, he went upstairs to see what was holding them up. His buddies told him not to go because the Germans were shelling their area. He went anyway.
“As I bent down to pick up a German magazine on the ground, a shell hit nearby. The next thing I knew the door I was standing behind was blown off its hinges and was lying on top of me. It was covered with rubble from the blast. My buddies came up from the cellar and saw my hand sticking out from under the door.
Sannella was stunned and couldn’t hear much for the next two weeks, but none the worse for the blast. His buddies took him back down in the cellar and propped him up against a wall.
“My buddy Walter had just found a German submachine-gun. He was excited about his find. The next thing I knew the burp gun accidentally went off. The bullets passed right by my face. They hit the wall beside my head, but I wasn’t hurt.
“I had escaped a mine trip wire, an enemy shelling and now a German burp gun all within hours of each other,” Sannellla said. It was Jan. 17, 1944–my grandfather’s birthday.”
It would be another 10 days before the German offensive collapsed. Sgt. Ted Sannella, H-Company, 120th Division, 1st Army, would survive the Battle of the Bulge and World War II without serious injury.
After the war, Sannella met up with Marlene Dietrich again.
It was 1949, and he was dating a beautiful blonde name Mary whose father was a prominent New York City judge.
She called him up and told him to bring his black tie because they were going to a formal event just before Chrirstmas. She would tell him no more.
“I had to rent a tux to go with the black tie because I didn’t have one of my own,” he said with a smile. “She took me to a Fifth Avenue apartment where we had cocktails with Marlene and Noel Coward before attending the Broadway production of ‘The Madwomen of Chaillot.’
“It starred a wonderful British actress named Martha Hunt. We went backstage after the show to meet her,” he said. “After the play we went to dinner at the Hotel Carlyle, where the Kennedys had an apartment and royalty stayed.
“We had a marvelous time. Marlene was so funny and Noel was dour,” Sannella said. “All the while, Mary kept prodding me to tell Marlene that we had met before during the war. She had met thousands of GIs during the war–why would she remember me?
“All of a sudden Marlene said, ‘Oh my God! You’re the GI who built the shower for me outside Aachen!’ She couldn’t believe it.”
Sannella went on to be a radio and TV producer for AB C and NBC in the 1950s and ’60s. He produced shows like “Queen for a Day” and Jimmy Durante and Donald O’Connor specials on TV. In the early days, he also produced the first TV broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera and the opera’s Saturday radio show for years.
But the thing he is most proud of is his work with high school students at the Academy for Professional Training he founded with a Ford Foundation Grant at Sarah J. Hill High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., 40 years ago. He started his own college prep school for underprivileged black and Hispanic students.
For more than 20 years, from 1964 until 1985, he ran the school until he retired and eventually came to Florida. He still receives letters from his former students, who now have responsible jobs in all walks of life all over the world.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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