By Kevin M. Hymel
Staff Sergeant Darrell Bush had just carried a wounded soldier on his back to the rear when five enemy bullets seemed to hit him simultaneously. One bullet tore through his helmet, the second cut his belt, the third smashed his canteen, and the fourth clipped one of his ammunition bandoleers. The fifth bullet hit home, ripping into the back of his right thigh and dropping him face down in the snow. Bush screamed out, but no medic came. Then his world went dark.
A few weeks later, back home in Camp Springs, Maryland, his 19-year-old wife Dorothy received a box from the government containing a Purple Heart and the bullet that had struck down her husband. “I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” she said. All she knew was that her husband had been fighting in Europe during the closing stages of the Battle of the Bulge.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 17-year-old Darrell Bush wanted to join the military immediately but was too young to serve. He worked at a grocery store in Camp Springs, having moved out of his parent’s house in Hyndman, Pennsylvania, three years earlier. Dorothy, then his girlfriend and a year younger, remembered hearing about the attack on the radio at her farm. Bush’s two brothers were already serving, Ray in the Army and Bill in the Navy.
When Bush and Dorothy started dating, their dates usually consisted of sitting on Dorothy’s front porch until her mother coughed loudly at 11 p.m sharp. Dorothy asked one night about getting married, but a surprised Bush told her, “I’m too young to get married.”
Once he turned 18, Bush reported to Baltimore for his physical on September 21, 1943. After passing the requirements, he chose the Army and was given 21 days of leave before reporting to Fort Meade, Maryland. He used the time to marry Dorothy a month later on October 23. They honeymooned at his hometown for a week, then Dorothy returned to her parents’ farm while Bush headed to Fort Meade.
At Meade, Bush received a uniform and all his soldiering equipment, including a Heart Shield Bible (a metal-covered Bible), which he kept in his left breast pocket, hence its name. He would use it for nightly prayers or stressful situations, when he would recite the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want….”
Then it was off to Camp Blanding, Florida, for infantry training. Dorothy joined Bush, renting a room in a woman’s home so she could be close to her husband. Once completed, he transferred to Camp Atterbury, in Indiana, where he joined the 106th Infantry Division. Once the division finished its training, it headed to Fort Meade to prepare to ship out overseas.
But Bush would not join his unit for the journey. At 18, he was too young for a combat zone. Instead, he was sent to the 89th Infantry Division and then the 75th, where he served in F Company of the 290th Infantry Regiment. The 75th Infantry, known as the Diaper Division since none of the soldiers in it were over 21, was commanded by Colonel Carl Duffner. Bush considered the officer a great man, likening him to General George S. Patton: a tough soldier who believed in combat.
While with the 75th, Bush trained as a scout and then as a paratrooper, but when he realized Dorothy wouldn’t want him jumping out of planes, he returned to the 75th, now at Fort Breckinridge, Kentucky, in early 1944. While Bush moved from unit to unit, Dorothy returned home and worked as a secretary for the Army Air Forces at Camp Springs Air Base (today’s Andrews Air Force Base) in the quartermaster department. She alternated weekly between her high school classes and the secretarial job, which she liked. “I could take shorthand and type,” she recalled.
Finally old enough to go to war, Bush and his unit headed north to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to prepare for the trip overseas. Along the way, he briefly visited Dorothy. “I had said goodbye to him at Fort Meade,” she said. “I thought he was gone, then one day he walked through our bedroom door.”
After their brief reunion, Bush boarded the SS Brazil, an ocean liner converted into a troop carrier. The ship set sail on October 22, 1944, with the entire 290th Infantry Regiment and a battalion of engineers, and joined a convoy headed to England. Bush could see ships spread out on the ocean in a V formation. Despite the convoy’s size, enemy U-boats lurked. One day, as the Brazil zig-zagged, the destroyers around her dropped depth charges. The action terrified Bush and his comrades until a voice came over the intercom telling them the crisis had passed. Fortunately, no ships were lost.
The ship docked on November 1 at Swansea, Wales, where Bush’s regiment trained in amphibious assaults, odd since the Normandy landings had occurred five months earlier. From Wales, the unit arrived in France on December 10 and headed to the German border, where the Allied armies were building up for a spring offensive. Bush and his comrades traveled in French 40 & 8 trains (so named because they could hold 40 men or eight horses). Along the way, they slept in tents that leaked in the rain. Bush received letters from Dorothy almost every day, and once a week she sent cookies and El Producto cigars. Bush enjoyed chewing on both. He wrote back whenever he could.
As the regiment headed east in late December, Bush decided one night to find shelter from the rain. He and three other soldiers departed the regiment without telling anyone. As they walked, a truck pulled up next to them and the driver asked where they wanted to go. Bush told him a barn; the driver offered to give them a ride. The four soaking wet men climbed into the truck’s cabin and roared away. After a while, Bush could hear artillery fire in the distance. After more than an hour of driving, the truck pulled into Bastogne, Belgium.
Bush did not know the date, but the town was filled with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division (probably December 19, 1944). The town was still mostly intact. It had not yet become the target of German artillery and air raids.
Bush and his fellow infantrymen got out of the truck and encountered an airborne lieutenant who told them, “I’ll take you until your outfit comes up into combat.” To the officer, it might not have seemed odd to be commanding soldiers from the 75th Infantry Division, since stragglers from other units had made it into the beleaguered town. The lieutenant led Bush and his buddies to the town’s perimeter, where they dug foxholes with their helmets. Once he completed his new home, Bush found himself standing behind a captain when a shot rang out and the captain went down with a bullet in his back. Bush did not understand exactly what happened.
For more weeks, Bush fought in snow and ice alongside the airborne soldiers in a blur of combat. The first time he heard enemy small-arms fire, he hit the ground and started firing. He once fought the Germans hand-to-hand with fixed bayonets, while another time he fired his rifle until he ran out of ammunition. Whenever he heard enemy artillery fire, he dove into a foxhole, chewing on an El Producto cigar and reciting the 23rd Psalm. In the snow and ice, his hands and feet froze. He wore no gloves and only one pair of socks that he wore for so long that he joked they could stand on their own. He never removed his boots.
On night patrols, Bush used a toy cricket (a brass toy that clicked) given to him by a paratrooper. The Americans used it to identify one another. An American would snap the cricket once if he saw someone he didn’t know. If that person was an American, they would snap theirs twice. If there was no return click, the person was probably a German and a target. Sometimes the Germans would trick the Americans by clicking their own captured crickets. Bush went on many patrols through the German lines, sometimes close enough to touch the enemy soldiers.
When the skies cleared, American cargo and fighter aircraft appeared above. But the fighters tended to attack the American lines, forcing Bush and his comrades to jump into ditches. One day, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter dove over his position and dropped a bomb. Fragments flew everywhere, but he and his fellow infantrymen were unhurt, although some paratroopers were killed.
The intense fighting scared Bush, and he worried he would never get home to his wife. Whenever he could, he would stare at a picture of Dorothy that he kept on him. When he slept, he dreamed that she was standing next to him in his foxhole.
Back home, Dorothy saw a military car pull up in front of her house. “This is it,” she told her mother. She thought her husband was dead. An officer got out of the car and told her that her husband was instead missing in action. “I was numb,” remembered Dorothy. She prayed daily that he was still alive, sometimes at a little white chapel across from the quartermaster building. A helpful signal officer tried to locate her husband, but his efforts came to naught. No letters came from Bush.
Finally, on December 26, General Patton’s Third Army broke the German siege of Bastogne. Four days later, the general visited Bastogne, pinning medals on soldiers and making speeches. Bush saw Patton standing up on a tank, cursing heavily. He had no idea who he was until someone told him.
Over the next few days and weeks, the scattered troops returned to their units. Bush worried that he and his friends would be court-martialed when they got back to the 290th Infantry Regiment, but they faced no such proceedings; in fact, no one seemed to notice they had gone. No longer surrounded by Germans, he also started writing letters to Dorothy again, to her great relief.
The 290th fought throughout the month of January 1945 on the northern side of the Bulge in Belgium, from Magoster to Burtonville, a distance of some 25 miles. The location might have changed, but the fighting was very much the same: intense, and in ice and mud.
As the lead scout for his company, Bush was always out front, often with two other scouts, looking for Germans or points on a map. He and his men went through many houses, often finding German soldiers as young as 14 in the basements. When enemy tanks passed by, he often hid since the scout’s job was to observe and report, not fight, and especially not a tank.
One day, Bush had no choice when an enemy tank roared directly at him and his men. As it fired its machine gun, one of the Americans fired a bazooka at it. When the shot bounced off, he passed the weapon around so other men might score a shot. Bush, who had never fired a bazooka before, fired the weapon twice, aiming for its gas tank and tracks. Someone finally fired a kill shot, blowing off one of the tracks and stopping the tank. The hatch opened, and out climbed a German captain, who surrendered to Bush, who in turn asked for and received the officer’s sidearm.
One day, an older British officer called Bush and his men to gather around him to thank them for their performance during the Bulge. Bush had no idea who he was until he left and one of his comrades told him it was Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the commander of the British 21st Army Group. The American First Army, including the 75th Infantry Division, came under his control after the German offensive cut it off from American General Omar Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group. Bradley took back command of the First Army soon after it united with Patton’s Third Army at Houffalize, Belgium, on January 16, 1945.
On a night patrol, Bush and his fellow scouts headed out, looking for a barn the enemy used as an observation post. After they found it, they headed back to their lines until they came across another barn. They went in, climbed a ladder into the hayloft, and had pulled the ladder up. As they prepared to sleep, a company of Germans entered. Bush and his fellow scouts grabbed their rifles and took aim, ready to fire. But the Germans just stood around chatting and eventually left. The scouts bedded down.
On January 22, Bush trudged through a snowy forest with two other scouts near the Belgian town of Burtonville. Their mission was to destroy another barn the Germans used as an observation post. When he decided the area was clear, he headed back and brought up F Company. As he returned, the air exploded with small-arms fire. Germans wearing white camouflage uniforms and hiding up in the trees opened fire with machine pistols. Enemy artillery fire also exploded in the woods. Bush saw both scouts go down and ran to help them.
One of the scouts had almost lost his hand, so Bush wrapped the scout’s hand, then dragged him back to the safety of a barn. He then ran back for the other scout. The man couldn’t walk, so Bush hoisted him on his own shoulders and carried him to the rear. A nearby lieutenant called out, “You’re going to get a Silver Star.” The lieutenant was immediately cut down by enemy fire. That’s when a German bullet tore through Bush’s leg. He fell into the snow. Despite the pain, his leg did not bleed out. The freezing temperatures prevented blood spillage. Something hit his chest, so he pulled his Bible only to find it dented from a piece of enemy shrapnel. Bush’s life passed before his eyes; then his world went dark.
Bush woke up in what looked like a prison cell, with barred windows and a heavy locked door. He was actually in a hospital in downtown Paris, with a view of the Arc de Triomphe out the barred window. He had been put there because he had been deliriously hollering and fighting the medical staff, thinking they were Germans. Worse, they had no idea who he was since he never wore his dog tags. Now calm, he realized he had been cleaned up and was wearing a fresh uniform. The doctors had not operated on him since the bullet in his leg had gone beyond his leg bone.
The staff transferred Bush to England, where doctors at the 228th General Hospital removed the bullet. “I was not in a lot of pain,” he recalled. “The leg was heavy, like a heavy weight on my leg.” But he did not stay in the hospital long. “They operated on me one day and the next they had me up running around.”
Back home, Dorothy worried about her husband’s life after receiving the Purple Heart and the bullet. “I didn’t know he was wounded,” she said. But when she started receiving letters from him again, she felt relieved.
Back in Europe, Bush returned to his company in early February 1945, as he recalled, “with a cane and a rifle.” The 75th Infantry Division was now involved in the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, the American Seventh Army and French forces’ campaign to erase a German bulge in their lines. Bush would find himself fighting the Waffen SS. “Those guys were tough fighters,” he recalled. “They didn’t want to surrender.”
Company F had taken so many casualties that Bush served mostly with replacements. “Even our top sergeant was a replacement,” he said. The company commander warned Bush not to learn any of the men’s names since they barely lasted a day in combat. One soldier took a bullet to the stomach. “We got first aid for him but we never even knew his name,” explained Bush. The new men also tended to wear heavy overcoats, something Bush abhorred since it restricted movement. “I always wore a field jacket.” More than once, men in overcoats would lay down at night and freeze to death. “When I picked them up, they were frozen stiff.”
For warmth, Bush and his comrades would often gather behind a tank and warm themselves with the exhaust. Tanks were also good for food. The infantrymen would raid the C-ration boxes lashed to their hulls. “We’d steal a can of beans or something,” he said. Despite his closeness to tanks, Bush never rode on one, a common practice for many infantrymen as the war wound down.
Once the Colmar Pocket had been erased, on February 9, part of Bush’s regiment was pulled off the line and traveled north to Holland. Then, in early March, the regiment reunited in Germany to fight again under the First Army. The Rhine River, Germany’s last natural barrier, had been crossed at Remagen, south of Cologne, on March 7, but Bush’s regiment did not cross until two weeks later at Wallach, 90 miles north of Remagen. Bush walked across a pontoon treadway bridge, eyeing the damage around him. He imagined the amount of war debris already swept away by the river. “We thought there was a lot of stuff down there,” he recalled about looking into the water as he crossed.
Once on the east bank of the Rhine, Bush started scouting and fighting again. During the day, he helped clear houses, finding mostly German civilians. “They would tell us there were soldiers in other homes,” he recalled. “And those soldiers were mostly kids.” At night, he slept outside, not wanting to risk sleeping in an enemy house.
On April 12, Bush learned that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. “He was my buddy,” he recalled, having slept a night in the president’s Packard car when he was only nine-years-old. A family friend who guarded the White House had arranged it. Bush’s regiment stopped for the day to honor the fallen president. Back home, the base commander at Camp Springs Air Base ordered a moment of prayer. “It was a war,” explained Dorothy, “so we went on with our work.”
Bush traveled to Dachau, where he carried Holocaust victims out of the filthy barracks on his back from the infamous concentration camp. “They were just bones,” he said. “The Germans just treated them like dogs.” His officers told him not to talk to the victims, only to say, “Hello,” and not feed them because their bodies could not handle the sudden shock of food after existing on a starvation diet for so long. The task traumatized Bush. “That’s where I got claustrophobia.” He soon returned to scouting duties.
One day, while scouting ahead of the company, a lieutenant who had been with the regiment since it deployed ran up to Bush with urgent news: the war was over. “Great!” said Bush, thanking the lieutenant. It was May 9, 1945. Bush had been in combat for a total of 39 days.
To earn a trip home, the Army developed a point system based on a soldier’s time in service, overseas, medals earned, marital status and other figures. A soldier needed 85 points. Bush had 110 points, yet, while most of his division went home, he and four other soldiers remained in Germany attached to a combat engineer unit. The highlight of Bush’s occupation duty came when he marched in General Patton’s funeral procession in Hamm, Luxembourg, on December 24, 1945, after the general had died from a car accident two weeks earlier. Bush, in his pressed uniform and highly polished boots, walked behind the halftrack-borne casket on the way to the cemetery.
Bush desperately wanted to leave Europe. “I said I’d ride a canoe to get home,” he explained. Finally, in January 1946, he boarded the SS Henry O’Connor, a small ship that could only hold 400 men. In some ways, the trip home was worse than combat. The ship headed out again and again into the Atlantic Ocean, only to turn back due to heavy storms. Finally, the ship ventured into the ocean for good.
Storms ravaged the small ship. “We didn’t sleep,” recalled Bush. Almost everyone got sick. When the food ran out the men resorted to eating cream filled sugar wafers. They tied themselves to the railings to vomit. “The water would hit us so hard,” he said, “we all thought we were gonna be washed overboard.” Even the ship’s captain admitted that this was the worst storm he had seen in 47 years of service.
After 26 miserable days at sea, the ship sailed into New York harbor, where Bush blew kisses to the Statue of Liberty. “We were so happy to see land,” he said. He reached Fort Meade and called Dorothy at her parents’ home in Maryland using the number 20R. The number went through to three or four homes. Bush had to wait for the operator to call him back and tell him Dorothy was ready to talk. “In those days,” he explained, “it was like a party line.”
A few hours after they spoke, Dorothy washed her hair in the kitchen sink, wanting to look good for her arriving husband. Looking up from the suds and water, she saw Bush walking into the room. “What are you doing here?” she asked incredulously. Bush, having arrived in Washington, D.C., had taken a streetcar through the city before crossing the Potomac River. Walking from there, one of Dorothy’s friends spotted him and gave him a speedy ride home.
It had been three years since they had seen each other. It was a happy reunion. Dorothy’s father would eventually give the couple a half-acre of farmland. Bush got a job with the energy company Pepco, where he worked on D.C.’s underground powerlines and street lights for the next 37 years. In 1947, Dorothy gave birth to their daughter, Linda Anne, who grew up, married, and had a son, but sadly died of breast cancer in 1988.
Bush was always proud of his military service, admitting he would have stayed in the Army if it had not been for Dorothy. He kept a shadow box of his service medals and the bullet pulled from his leg. He also attended division reunions and would wear his “Ike” jacket with rank, ribbons, and medals, and both 75th Infantry and 101st Airborne Division shoulder patches.
Bush also forever carried a reminder of the bitter winter fighting he endured. His hands and feet never recovered from the cold. Although they never turned black with frostbite, his extremities suffered the pain and numbness of peripheral neuropathy. “Dorothy has to open cans for me,” he admitted.
On November 10, 2021, Bush paid a final honor to his fallen World War II comrades, when he laid a flower at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I Unknown Soldier, the cemetery allowed visitors to lay flowers at the foot of the crypts for the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam (empty) unknown soldiers.
Bush and Dorothy attended the event as VIPs, and an Army major served as their escort. CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell interviewed them both for the evening news. Then it was time to lay a flower. Bush and Dorothy selected red roses and laid them before the World War II crypt. “It was an honor for me to be there,” he said, “I had been there before, but I never did anything like that.”
Bush looks fondly back on his service in World War II. When asked if he would do anything differently about his time in Europe, he gave an emphatic no. “I would do the exact same thing,” he explained. “I wanted to keep Hitler in Germany and that’s what I was going to do. He wanted to come to the United States and we wouldn’t let him.”
Frequent contributor Kevin M. Hymel is a contract historian for the U.S. Army and author of Patton’s War: An American General’s Combat Leadership, Volume I: November 1942—July 1944. He is also a historian/tour guide for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours.