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Somerset County man remembers freezing during Battle of the Bulge

December 19, 2018

(This is part of an ongoing series about World War II veterans from Somerset County. Close to 500 veterans from that war die daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The newspaper will tell the stories of those who remain and of those who have died as they and their families come forward. It’s the Daily American’s effort to document an important part of the nation’s history.)

James Swartz Sr.’s fingers lack the strength they had in his youth. A lot of it had to do with the cold, brutal winter that enveloped the American soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

The Belgians told them it was the worst winter they had for many years.

“We had 60 days of snow, sleet and freezing rain,” Swartz said. “And no place to get out of it. All the buildings were destroyed. We were in the cold weather for 60 days. I got a heck of a good case of frostbite. I lost most of the power in my fingers.

“I wouldn’t want to give anyone frostbite. It’s not like open wounds. Frostbite just gets worse by the day. and there’s no medication for it. Because it’s circulation.”

Swartz, who originally grew up in Lincoln Township, went into the U.S. Army in 1943 after being drafted. During the war, he watched as a transport ship was rammed by a medical boat, watched friends die during one of the most famous battles of the war and got shrapnel wounds on the upper part of his leg.

Swartz was the son of a coal miner and a farmer’s daughter, both of whom died by the time he was 16. He was in the 101st Airborne Division, which was in part documented on HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” Prior to the Battle of the Bulge, the Nazis circled the American infantry. The German High Command sent a messenger to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe asking him to surrender. McAuliffe sent one word back, “Nuts.”

Swartz remembers vividly what happened after. He still has flashbacks of it.

“Boy did they open up on us then,” Swartz said. “They put everything they had into the Battle of the Bulge. But we made it through. After the Bulge got cleaned up and we started to move across Germany, we crossed the Rhine River. We were one of the first units to cross the river. We made it across a railroad bridge that the Germans had the intent to blow it up. But they didn’t because we got to it.”

Swartz said it was like Hell.

“What the Germans did, I don’t think they caught us by surprise,” Swartz said. “They just had the force to cut us off. They threw airbursts in. We were going through the Hurtgen Forest and there were high pines trees. They threw the artillery high in the trees to create splinters.”

After making it across the Rhine River, he headed east. The war ended and he remained for a bit as part of an occupation force. He got orders to go to Berlin, but at that point he had earned enough points to go home.

“I sort of kicked myself for rotating myself before going to Berlin. But I was ready to go home and get out of uniform.”

Following his discharge, Swartz worked in a sawmill for six to eight months before he got a job with Penelec, where he was employed for 38 years. During that time, he met Lois Jean Morgart of Somerset. He married her and had three boys. He looks back on his time in the service and thinks it was something that had to be done.

“We had to go into Europe and see what we could do,” he said. “Lot of people think we shouldn’t have. That we should have stayed out of it. But we got into World War I for the same reasoning. and World War II was bigger than that. There was more of the world covered in World War II.”

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