EXCEPTIONAL HEROISM AT BATTLE OF THE BULGE
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
ENTERPRISE "No blood, no Purple Heart," Grant Sasser of Enterprise learned when World War II ended for him at the Battle of the Bulge.
Sasser and his unit had earned other citations, though. And, unbeknownst to him, 55 years later he would receive yet another ribbon for his "heroic bravery at the Battle of the Bulge.''
The ribbon was part of a Presidential Unit Citation awarded in 2000 to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion for exceptional heroism in combat at the beginning of the American counter-offensive in the Ardennes, Belgium, and culminating Jan. 7, 1945 in what a U.S. Army historian would call "the greatest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army ... in spite of great sacrifice and against all odds."
In the "heroic attack and seizure of the critical, heavily fortified regimental German position," the 551st "attacked ... and secured imposing ridges. Punished by artillery, mortar and machine gun fire as it moved across open, up-slope terrain," the citation read. In "its week-long push against two German regiments ... the battalion conducted a rare fixed bayonet attack of machine gun nests."
At less than half strength, the battalion overwhelmed an entrenched enemy, with dominant high-ground advantage "shutting off the last bridge of egress to the enemy" in the area. "The next day ... Hitler ordered the German Army's first pullback from the Battle of the Bulge,'' the citation said.
The 551st lost over four-fifths of its men, including its inspirational commander, Lt. Col. Wood Joerg, as he led the last attack. Sasser thought highly of the colonel who "was just one of the guys."
Disbanded a month later, the battalion accounted for 400 German dead and took over 300 prisoners.
The 551st was called a bastard battalion because it worked individually, usually on combat patrols.
"We would pass through the lines, go as far as we could, make contact and fight our way back to the lines," Sasser said.
They blew up bridges and railway stations, Enterprise schoolmate "Oid'' Stockdale would later recount to Sasser, remembering when Sasser's 551st passed through the lines of Stockdale's 82nd Airborne Division.
That worked well until they hit one town where, Sasser said, "we lost most of our men in the ambush. We didn't even know the Germans were there. Our truck convoy drove clear into the courtyard. Then they opened up. They threw everything they had at us.
"I was one of the lucky ones," in one of the last trucks. "I get choked up every time.
"You never forget it, but you do get used to it. You're scared, no doubt about it, but not enough to keep you from doing what you have to do. They gave you good training."
The 551st survivors were reassigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
About a month later at the Siegfried Line at the Rhine River, Sasser's battalion was advancing against cement bunkers.
"They started shelling us,'' he recalled, so he hit the dirt as he'd been trained. He found himself airborne, but not in the way he'd been trained on Fort Benning's 250-foot tower.
A shell landed near enough to blow Sasser out of a slit trench, deafening him, giving him a concussion and dislodging his right kidney.
His nine months of hospitalization began with an ambulance ride to an evac hospital in Belgium. He would spend February to September 1945 in a Spokane hospital.
Always wanted to return
During Sasser's three years in the Army he had only one 11-day leave to go home between his Fort Roberts, Calif., basic training and jump school. The rest of his time off was comprised mostly of three-day passes.
He pulled some good duty on the French Riviera resort on "chute (parachute) patrol." For two weeks he stayed and ate in a hotel, on duty eight hours and off 12.
"It was quite a place. I always wanted to go back," Sasser said.
His unit had a reunion convention there a couple of years ago. There they saw the monument to the 551st, the "Liberators of Dragninon," Sasser's first and last combat jump.
Busy helping support a family, Sasser has not been able to afford himself the luxury of such conventions. He doesn't see a way he'll make it to this summer's in San Diego, either.
Sasser did get to see Rome, but when he was preparing to take leave to see Paris, the 551st was called up for the Battle of the Bulge.
Belgium was a cold, miserable place in January, often foggy. The soldiers couldn't have fires for fear of being spotted by enemy artillery. At night they dug down into the snow, wrapped up in their wool overcoats and wool blankets. "You learn to get along with it," Sasser said, matter-of-factly and without complaint.
The black blisters of frostbite on his feet took the longest of his injuries to heal.
Marching toward the Battle of the Bulge, Sasser remembers seeing "all the Americans still lying on the ground at the Crossroads of Melmedy," Belgium, after the Germans lined up and machine-gunned captured Americans. "It was a big push. They threw everything they had to stay the Allied advance.''
The worst place he remembers was Sicily. They'd been there earlier, after their 118-ship convoy survived a submarine attack and then landed in North Africa.
"You couldn't imagine how desperate the (Sicilian) people were," he said. "What they would do for a chocolate bar or cigarettes."
Sasser traded two cigarettes for a helmet full of the best oranges he ever tasted.
"It was hotter than hell," he said, remembering he was in an olive grove when he said he wished he was at the Imnaha fishing.
"Imnaha, where?" someone asked.
"What do you know about the Imnaha?"
"What do you know about it?"
"I'm from Anatone," answered Wilfred Gotz, a cousin to Steve Ward of Enterprise.