It was winter 1944, and in the midst of central Europe, one of the coldest winters in recent memory had taken hold. Temperatures were below freezing, and the ground was covered by snow and ice.
The men of the Third Army, including Elison Independent Living of Niles resident Manny P., a tank driver, packed their vehicles, tanks and jeeps, donned their winter gear and prepared themselves for what lay ahead. It was Dec. 23, but a white Christmas was the last thing on their minds.
General George S. Patton had ordered the Third Army to turn 90 degrees and advance through hostile terrain toward the besieged hamlet of Bastogne, where a group of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne had been pinned down for several days. The 101st occupied a strategic junction and had accomplished their goal of stopping the forward movement of the German forces, but they had become surrounded, and the Battle of the Bulge, as it came to be known, had turned into a battle of attrition, set amongst a near-artic landscape. Now, they needed to be relieved.
Patton had volunteered his men for the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. They would have to carve their own way forward through remote forest and break through the German lines around the hamlet. It would be a 20-hour drive, a mission that had little precedent in modern warfare.
“They drove without stopping in their tanks,” Manny’s son Andy told the Chicago Tribune in 2020. “The Wall Street Journal ran an article about how cold it was; 30 below.”
Ultimately, the Third Army, which included Manny’s beloved 737th Tank Battalion, broke through and relieved the men at Bastogne, giving them the opportunity to get some much-needed rest away from the front lines. Over the course of World War II, the 737th Tank Battalion saw action in five major engagements: the Battle of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and the Battle of Central Europe. It was the first to cross two of Europe’s major rivers, the Moselle and Meurthe, the first element of the Army’s XIII Corps to set foot in Germany, and the first tank battalion to cross the Rhine and go into Frankfurt.
Their mission at Bastogne would later go on to be featured in the movie Patton and the award-winning television show Band of Brothers.
But nothing prepared them for what they saw the following April.
In the final days of the war, with the German army collapsing, the 737th and the 5th Infantry Division came across a grisly sight: the end of a Nazi-led death march. In late January, more than 1,250 Jewish women were forced to embark on a journey that would last 106 days. They covered around 500 miles before the American forces liberated the survivors, of which there were less than 150, in March.
“They were removed from their homes, along with their families, gathered like cattle, and shipped to a railroad yard, where they were separated from their loved ones,” Manny said.
Manny still remembers the day they came across the survivors outside of Volary, Czechoslovakia.
“Someone in the tanks called back to the headquarters,” he said. “The first Americans the girls saw were division medics and soldiers from the 803rd Tank Destroyers.”
Years after the war, the scenes of that day were still on his mind. So, he decided he would write to the mayor of Volary.
“I asked him if he could get me in touch with someone who could tell me the true story about the girls and the death march,” Manny said.
The mayor put him in touch with a man named Bernard R., a fellow American serviceman who was at Volary when they liberated the women. Bernard had a special connection to the event – he had married one of the survivors, Mary.
Bernard had been assigned to take care of the displaced civilians at Volary. In a letter to Manny, he detailed how they had saved the girls, preventing them from falling into the hands of the Russians who would take over the city after the war.
“They put the girls in six-by-six trucks and covered them with tarps and drove by the Russian checkpoints,” Manny said. “The Russians waved them through without giving them any trouble.”
Over the years, they stayed in contact. They would talk about their experiences with civilian life, and would seldom discuss what took place outside of Volary. But that would soon change.
“As time went on, they wanted to let their children and anyone that might be interested know what happened,” Manny said.
Their shared bond led Manny to write a book about Mary’s experiences during the war, called A Hero Amongst Us. Many of the quotes in this article come from its prologue. The book tells of tragedy and resilience, and the bonds and emotions that stemmed from that day in Volary.
“Bernard said Mary would get very emotional talking to anyone that had anything to do with liberating them and the American Flag had the same effect on her,” Manny said.
The flag has the same effect on Manny. He saw the horrors of war and what the men around him sacrificed. For many years he attended his unit’s reunion. These don’t take place anymore, however. There are just not enough members of the 737th left – Manny is one of less than a handful.
Now, it’s up to him to carry on their stories and make sure that the acts of endurance, bravery and resilience are not soon forgotten.
We are so glad to have residents like Manny P. at our communities. Stories like Manny’s deeply impact us, and we love hearing residents tell us about their life experiences and all that they’ve accomplished. At our 61 Sagora Senior Living communities, we’re here to honor our residents’ pasts and continue to provide everything they need in order to thrive on a daily basis.
Tour your local Sagora Senior Living community to see our Resident First philosophy in action!