Pete Howenstein says he is well received when he goes to France for commemorative… (Los Angeles Times, Kenneth…)
The men filed in slowly, one wearing a vintage green uniform emblazoned with a Purple Heart. Another rolled in on a chair, his head held high with a Veterans of Foreign Wars hat laden with medals. Some had lost frozen fingers, others toes. All had left behind friends 66 years ago in one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of World War II.
These men are the last of a kind, the surviving veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.
"Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge led the free world to victory," said Geert Criel, Belgium's consul general in Los Angeles, who hosted 50 members of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge on Saturday. "On behalf of my country, I would like to thank every veteran who made a contribution to this historic achievement. For us you are more than soldiers. You are heroes."
The Battle of the Bulge, Criel said, is emblazoned on memorials, in the names of city streets and in his country's collective memory. It was a turning point in the war that crushed Hitler's last-ditch effort to retake Belgium from the advancing U.S. and British armies in the Ardennes region. "We shudder to think: What if Hitler had succeeded," he said. "It would have prolonged the war and meant misery and death for a lot of people."
"Many of us made sacrifices," said Gordon Hearne, president of the Southern California chapter of the veterans group. "Nineteen thousand of us didn't return." His voice cracked; his eyes drifted to a distant memory. He paused, held a fist up to his mouth before continuing. "We should remember them."
It was a poignant moment during an otherwise light-hearted event — a place to swap war stories, compare medals and share a common bond of an epic five-week battle involving frigid temperatures and 840,000 GIs. Most exercised the self-deprecating humor of a bygone era. To hear them tell it, they were all accidental heroes.
"I'm surprised they gave me a Purple Heart, given all of the trouble I gave them," said Dave Lester, 92, of Costa Mesa. "The Germans threw a lot of hand grenades at us; we couldn't throw them all back."
Pfc. Pete Howenstein, 86, of Northridge and Sgt. "Bazooka" Joe Pietroforte, 92, of Sherman Oaks wore uniforms flashing with shiny medals and colorful ribbons.
Prodded by friends, Howenstein recounted how Gen. George S. Patton pinned him with a Purple Heart after an artillery shell left him with shrapnel in his neck. "Get well and get back to the front," Howenstein recalled the general saying.
Howenstein said the medals and the uniform have brought an unanticipated bonus when he has returned to France for commemorative events. "I put on this uniform and the girls come up to me and hug me and kiss me," he said.
Only half the members could make it to the lunch, because of troubles getting around. Murray Shapiro, 87, of Chatsworth had helped organize the event and was disappointed he had to skip it because of upcoming knee replacement surgery.
"Very few of us are going to make many more meetings," Shapiro said. "This one was a big deal. It's the last goodbye, I think."