August 29, 2014

WWII vet remembers service in the Battle of the Bulge

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Salter injured 63 years ago

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Gazing out his window on a snowy January afternoon from his home at Falcon Manor earlier this week, Williston resident Bob Salter, 82, remembered his days in the Second World War. He admits that he can't bring to mind all of his time serving in Europe, but he can vividly recall the events that happened 63 years ago this week during the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

On the night of Jan. 14, 1945, while building defenses against the nearby German army, Salter was wounded by incoming artillery fire. Six shots came flying through the night and landed near his unit's command post. Shrapnel from the enemy explosions caught Salter in the right shoulder.

"It was a stray shot that came in," he said. "I wasn't hit too badly, but I couldn't go on."

Salter considers himself lucky. Had the shrapnel hit a few inches to the left, he might not be here today.

JOINING THE ARMY

A native of Randolph, Salter was drafted on his 18th birthday, Sept. 4, 1943. After basic training, Salter was assigned to the 257th Field Artillery Battalion, a converted Michigan National Guard unit of about 500 men. Salter said the 257th was a mix of all ages and that he was the only Vermonter in the company. He said it wasn't strange to be put with a random Michigan unit.

"I was a replacement," he said. "They needed to fill a slot with an able body. As long as you could walk and talk, you were in."

During much of 1944, Salter and the 257th trained in Georgia before being shipped out to England in October. While in England, Salter and his army companions trained for battle in the English countryside, awaiting further orders from the Allied command.

The unit was finally ordered to the European mainland on Christmas Eve, 1944, landing in France. Just a few hundred miles east, one of the war's worst battles was in full swing.

THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE

The Battle of the Bulge officially began on Dec. 16, 1944, when the German army attempted to push back Allied forces from their border in a last ditch attempt to reoccupy territory in Western Europe. The Germans planned their attack under total radio silence to surprise the Allies. They also planned an invasion through the rugged and remote Ardennes Forest, an area of France that resembles Vermont in climate and geography.

The first weeks of the battle were the bloodiest for both sides. The German advance was brutal and quick; the Germans overran three American army units before being held to a stand by Allied forces.

Salter and the 257th rushed into action by hurrying across France to join the front lines in Luxembourg, but heavy snows and frigid temperatures slowed their progress. Due to the severity of the battle, the 257th left France before cleats could be installed on its tanks and tractors, another setback on the battalion's way to the front.

"There was ice and snow everywhere," Salter said. "It took us a long time to get anywhere. We were off the road more than we were on."

The 257th had just arrived near the front lines when Salter was hit. As a result, he was rushed out of action as quickly as possible.

"I don't remember too much right after I was hit," Salter explained. "They did throw my purple heart in with me on my stretcher. They did that right away because no one knew the severity of my injuries and they weren't sure if I would make it."

It took Salter two months to heal from his injuries. During that time, the Allies were able to successfully cut the German supply lines and send them retreating back to their country. When Salter was better, he worked his way back to the 257th, which at that point was already deep into Germany. It took him a month to return to his unit. By then, the Germans had surrendered.

POST WAR

For much of 1945, Salter worked as a supply officer for his unit. He also took part in military patrols in rural areas, rounding up stray German soldiers. He found the enemy soldiers exhausted and frightened during his patrols.

"When we found them, they pleaded with us to let them go home," he said. "We were told not to be friendly with them, but it was hard sometimes, especially if they spoke a little English. They were just kids like us."

Salter was officially discharged in February 1946. He returned to Randolph and moved his family to the Champlain Valley in the 1950s.

Today, Salter looks back on his time in World War II with pride. He knows he was one of the lucky ones and that his unit was incredibly fortunate as well; Salter was the only casualty in the 257th. He's glad he served, but knows the severity of war.

"There's nothing nice about war," he said. "It doesn't matter who wins or loses. It's a tough life."

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