George Phillips of North Port, Fla. was an 18-year-old soldier serving in Company G, 347th Regiment, 87th Infantry Division, part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe during World War II.
He sailed in battle aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth converted to a troop transport. He arrived in Scotland in October 1944, and took a train to Manchester, England, where the soldiers in his division lived in people’s homes until they headed for the French war front.
“Our baptism of fire came on Dec. 12, 1944, outside a little French farm town just before ‘The Battle of the Bulge,’” the 81-year-old former soldier said. “We were walking along the side of a road in farm country when the Germans opened up on us.
“They hit us with three machine guns dug in on the hill in front of us. We were ordered to walk forward into the German machine guns; World War I tactics. They slaughtered us. At least 10 men from our platoon were killed that morning,” he recalled as he sat at his kitchen table remembering the battle more than six decades ago.
Eventually the Americans captured or killed the enemy machine gunners, but not before they had paid dearly with their buddies’ blood.
“Our company commander ordered me to take the two German gunners who surrendered back to battalion headquarters. I remember I relieved one of the Germans of his watch,” Phillips said.
“While I was at headquarters I scrounged a pair of overshoes from the battalion aid station,” he said. “Those overshoes are what saved me from trench foot during ‘The Battle of the Bulge.’”
Their advance came to a halt. Their division was turned around and trucked back the way they came toward Bastogne.
“By then it was snowing hard and freezing cold as we were put on open trucks without canvass tops. We had no idea where we were going because privates didn’t know squat,” he said.
When they arrived near Bastogne, along with the rest of Patton’s 3rd Army, it was just before Christmas 1944. By then much of the German advance had been stopped for lack of gasoline and the fighting spirit of American forces. It was there his division helped break through to the encircled 101st Airborne Division, which was hardly hanging on in the face of overwhelming enemy firepower.
“I remember eating a cold Christmas dinner at Bastogne. The next day we started advancing on the Germans,” Phillips said. “By then our platoon had been reduced from 40 to 12 men. The rest of our men had been killed or wounded along the way.
“German resistance was faltering. As we continued to advance we took the first four or five Belgium towns without much resistance. There was just enough to aggravate you,” he said.
“It was at this point we ran into ‘Gen. Guts — our blood and his guts,” Phillips recalled with a smile. “Patton was standing along the side of the road as we walked by with his riding crop and his two pearl-handled six shooters on his hips.
“The snow finally stopped and the sky was full of our planes shooting the hell out of the Germans. The planes were everywhere,” he said.
After American forces stopped the German advance at Bastogne, it took Allied forces about a week to cover the 20 miles between “The Bulge” and the “Siegfried Line,” Hitler’s impenetrable artillery fortifications along the western entrance to “The Fatherland.”
“I chucked a hand grenade into one of the massive enemy bunkers that was suppose to house a German 88 millimeter cannon. It was empty,” Phillips said. “The Germans were gone.”
Occasionally along the way into Germany his division would run across a group of fanatical SS troopers who would do a more serious job of holding the line than the average German soldier.
“The German Storm Troopers would start firing at us, but when we’d return their fire they’d run,” he said. “They weren’t going to give up their life for Hitler, not this late in the war.
“We crossed the Rhine River at Boppard, Germany, on a pontoon bridge. Buzz bombs were flying over our heads, but we faced little resistance from enemy soldiers,” Phillips said.
After crossing the Rhine, his unit continued to advance to the east as thousands of unarmed, discouraged and hungry members of Hitler’s Third Reich were making their way along both sides of the road trying to escape the advancing Russian Army fighting its way westward.
“By the time we reached the Czechoslovakian border there were only four members of our platoon of 40 soldiers still in the line that had fought from the Battle of the Bulge to Plauen,” Phillips said.
For a short while his unit bivouacked at Plauen until they could round up enough small 40 & 8 boxcars, used during World War I to transport 40 soldiers and 8 horses into battle.
“I took one of the little boxcars back to ‘Camp Lucky Strike’ at Le Havre, France, along the Atlantic coast,” he said. “There were probably 20 of us guys per car as we rolled along in the boxcars.
“It was summertime so we had the door of the boxcar opened as we rolled through one town after another. The French would wave at us as we went by,” he said.
Phillips and his 87th Infantry Division took the liner USS Constitution home. Crammed full of 15,000 American soldiers, the luxury liner sailed into New York Harbor filled with throngs of revelers who were waiting at the dock.
With a 30-day pass in his pocket, 20-year-old Sgt. George Phillips came marching home to his parents’ house in Amenia, N.Y., wearing his uniform with three battle stars on his chest. He had survived World War II almost without a scratch.
“I’m lucky to be here,” the old soldier said, remembering the war so long ago and the part he played in it.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 24, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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