Sixty years ago this month, in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium, Adolf Hitler rolled the dice for the last time in World War II. There, on the so-called “Ghost Front,” 410,000 German soldiers set out on a
desperate—if not foolish—attempt to reverse the tide of the war. As contributor Edward P. Beck points out in his evocative article
on the Battle of the Bulge in this issue of Military Heritage, not even Hitler’s commanders in the field believed the battle could be won. Nevertheless, as good soldiers, they did their best to obey his wishes. Through a fortunate combination of bad weather, bad luck and bad decisions, the Germans’ best was not enough, and American forces in the Ardennes managed to blunt, and then beat back, the offensive.
The Battle of the Bulge was the Germans’ last chance, slim though it was, for an 11th-hour victory against the Allies. Twice before, in 1914 and 1940, the Germans had successfully surprised the French army in the Ardennes and driven swiftly across the plains of northern Europe to the western coast of France. This time, however, it was not French professionals the Germans were facing, but a remarkable army of young American citizen-soldiers, some of whom had not yet fired a shot in anger, others who already had fought their way through the hedgerow country of Normandy after the D-day landings in June 1944.
Among the Americans opposing the Germans in the Ardennes that fall was one young draftee from Nashville, Tenn. Private First Class Roy Morris of the 79th Division might have been among those supporting units rushing into the breach following the initial German breakthrough at the Bulge, except for the fact that he had just been evacuated to England with a bad case of frozen feet. It was his second wound—he had been nicked in the finger with a piece of German sharpnel a few days earlier—and it would prove fortunate indeed for Morris and his family (I’m his oldest son). By suffering from frozen feet, the 23-year-old private managed to avoid some of the fierce counterattacking after the initial German breakthrough at the Bulge. That combat cost Morris’s company its veteran sergeant and delayed his own Purple Heart for the better part of 60 years.
When the sergeant, now remembered only as “Red,” fell in battle, he took with him the paperwork necessary for Dad’s Purple Heart. It was a common thing in the maelstrom of war, and Dad went ahead and let it go for the next six decades, while he married, raised a family and became a prominent radio and television personality in his adopted hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. Then, as one of the rapidly disappearing members of the “Greatest Generation,” he suddenly decided that he did, in fact, want his Purple Heart—not as a memento for himself, but rather for his descendants. With the help of Tennessee 3rd District Congressman Zach Wamp, a laborious, six-month-long journey was made through the morass of Army paperwork in Washington and St. Louis to track down Dad’s service record, including the long-lost listing of wounds necessary to support his claim for a Purple Heart. Eventually, two Army officers arrived at his door, bearing the award in a handsome wooden box. It was the happy end of a sad story, both for my father and for the sergeant known only as “Red,” who died fighting for freedom in World War II.
Who knows how many other young soldiers have gone unthanked and unmedaled in the six decades since the end of the war? In some ways it’s their own fault—the members of the “Greatest Generation” are notably loth to pat themselves on the back. After all, they were only doing what anyone would have done—so they say. We, their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, know better. They didn’t give themselves the title the “Greatest Generation,” but they more than earned it in the Ardennes, on Utah Beach, at St. Lo, and at Cherbourg. These were all places where my father fought his own small part of World War II alongside his comrades in the 79th Division, proudly wearing the blue and gold shoulder patch of the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol, fittingly enough, of the French Resistance.
Roy Morris Jr.