It’s only luck that Maurice Schmidli of Pasco didn’t die on the front lines of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge as he slid along a trench one night scooping up handfuls of snow to quench his thirst.
Earlier that December day, Schmidli had been issued a white coat similar to those worn by the German army.
But Schmidli’s sergeant, who had returned to the lines that evening, didn’t know about the jacket as he silently trained his rifle’s front sight on the white-jacketed soldier, believing it was the enemy. He only held off from firing a shot because he thought it would give away his position to the other Germans.
As the seconds ticked by and growing curious about the continued silence, the sergeant went to investigate. “He dang near cried when he saw it was me,” Schmidli said.
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Thursday marked the start of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, which took place between Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, and became America’s biggest and bloodiest battle of the war. More than 1 million troops fought on either side of the battle and more than 76,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured.
I was just trying to live another hour, another day and another week.
Maurice Schmidli of Pasco
Set in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, the battle was a last-ditch surprise attack by Adolf Hitler’s German troops hoping to knife through the Allied armies to end their confident advance.
The Allies weathered the attack and the winter’s deadly cold temperatures and in early January began a counterattack that wouldn’t end until Germany’s surrender May 7, 1945.
Now, when winter winds blow down the Yakima River valley and a thick blanket of snow settles across the fields of his northeast Pasco home, Schmidli looks out and thinks back on that winter 60 years ago. “I think, ‘How’d you like to be out there, ol’ boy,’” he said.
Schmidli and his wife, E’Reani, have lived in the Mid-Columbia since 1956, raising three children and a countless number of crops and livestock. They have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, most of whom live in the Mid-Columbia.
“I never thought anything special about what I did,” said Schmidli, who with his.30-caliber water-cooled machine gun was assigned to the Army’s 28th Division, 109th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company M. His unit was stationed along the southern flanks of the bulge.
“I was just trying to live another hour, another day and another week,” he said.
His military service added up to about 2 1/2 years, but he didn’t reach the battle lines until the summer of 1944. Fortunately, he said, he was assigned to a veteran unit that he credits with keeping him alive, excluding that near-miss a few months later.
Schmidli, who uses his hands like an actor, tells a story about being tired from carrying the heavy machine gun and other equipment from one battleground to another. He remembers that his infantry unit had been given a rest from fighting in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest when the Battle of the Bulge began. He remembers a series of fighting, then backpedaling until about Christmas when the Allies stopped backpedaling.
I never thought anything special about what I did.
Maurice Schmidli of Pasco
Schmidli remembers sharing with his buddies a fantastic Christmas dinner of canned beef. He remembers being a private at the start of the battle and being a sergeant when it ended. And he remembers a cold, bombed-out basement of a home in which he celebrated his 20th birthday Jan. 27, 1945.
He was home in the Midwest when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. He’s thankful for the bomb, he said, because his unit was soon deployed to the Pacific.
He left the Army and became a mechanical engineer for IBM and then a farmer, first with his brother in Oregon, then in the Mid-Columbia.
The Schmidlis recently returned from Belgium and Luxembourg where they marked the 60th anniversary with other veterans and their families. Schmidli’s wife said the group visited several of the Battle of the Bulge museums that dot the Ardennes region.
And she said the Bulge veterans in the group were recognized with medallions during several ceremonies. “You won’t hear people there bad-mouthing Americans,” she said.
She knows as much about the fighting that took place as her husband, but said, “I was amazed by the beautiful farm country that it was.”
Across that landscape, which Schmidli said has noticeably changed, the small tour group visited many of the battlegrounds he once walked across and which are now cemeteries to those who died. “Oh, what a waste of mankind,” he sighed.
He has similar feelings about the fighting in Iraq and the loss of American soldiers there. He said it’s not the kind of war he fought and called the situation a quagmire. His grandson, Army Staff Sgt. Oliver Wilcox of Pasco, lost an eye in August while serving in Iraq.
But grandson and grandfather are not ones to think about what-ifs. Wilcox, his grandparents said, jokes with the family about his prosthetic eye. And Schmidli, who’ll turn 80 next month, jokes about one day enjoying a glass of wine when he reaches 100 years.
“You get smart too late in life,” he said, smiling, then offering an invitation to join him for a glass.