At Christmas, remembering a military father and his fallen men

Robert Freeman Moore in 1942 after completing basic training and before his unit was shipped overseas.
Robert Freeman Moore in 1942 after completing basic training and before his unit was shipped overseas. Courtesy of Bob Moore

Of all the days of the year, there is none quite like Christmas – a day when time seems to stand still. Most businesses will be closed, the highways will be empty and entire families will gather under one roof to celebrate, give thanks and remember.

It is also a day of extreme emotions from happiness to sadness. No doubt, Christmas is unique in that it touches our emotions more than any other holiday as we remember the loved ones who have long since departed.

We all have our memories of special gifts of the past, the wonderful meals, the engagement ring and the Christmas Eve we stayed up most of the night trying to assemble some toy that we still swear had a part missing. And then there were the cookies, the decorations and that Christmas tree that kept falling over until we wired it to the wall or nailed it to the floor.

But my memory of Christmas will always be somewhat different.

Long before my dad became a minister, a father or a husband, he was a soldier. Drafted into the Army during WWII, he served in the 173rd Infantry in Europe. His tour included every European country, fighting in seven major campaigns and receiving two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He never talked much about his days as a soldier – except on Christmas Day. On that day, almost as if to honor his fallen comrades or in remembrance of a time far more difficult in his life, he would tell the story about his unit and the Battle of the Bulge.

On Dec. 15, 1944, his unit was deep inside Nazi territory when a messenger arrived and said they had to immediately retreat to the American lines as the Germans had launched a major offensive. The world would later learn that this last-attempt offensive had caught the Allied forces completely off guard. Dad’s unit was warned that if it did not make it back to the American lines, it would be surrounded by the enemy. For an entire day, the soldiers literally ran. What ensued the next day and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945, would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the costliest battle in terms of casualties for the United States during WWII with over 19,000 American lives lost.

The Battle of the Bulge was fought in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium in what was one of the coldest winters of Europe. Dad’s story detailed the fight with frostbite resulting in soldiers losing toes and fingers, the constant shelling by the Germans, the never-ending snow and the cold, frozen foxholes. His story was also of a cold Christmas day with no presents, not even a hot meal, as the battle continued.

As a technical sergeant, my father would make the rounds and check on his men. His story would often conclude with how, on many occasions while making the rounds, he would hear the foxhole prayer of a soldier asking God to take his life now rather than continue to allow him to suffer.

And then Dad would stare off into the distance as if his thoughts were consumed with a subject he simply did not want to speak about. My assumption was that he was remembering the men he lost during that terrible battle or all the men who did not return home from WWII to celebrate another Christmas. Out of respect, I never asked what he was thinking during those moments.

When my dad’s unit left Kentucky headed for Europe, it contained 50 men. Only two men of that original group made it back home alive to celebrate another Christmas. My dad had witnessed the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and he did not want to forget the sacrifice Americans had made so that we could have the freedom to worship, live our lives without tyranny and celebrate Christmas. I think he wanted to make sure that his children never forgot, either.

This Christmas, my son and only child will not be home. Having followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, he is proudly serving in the Army in Europe. Even though he will not be here to celebrate this most wonderful holiday, I am positive that the memories of my father and his sacrifice will be in his mind.

Bob Moore lives in Lumberton.