Chickasaw County veteran recalls Christmas in Ardennes, 1944

By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal

OKOLONA – It was a Christmas Harold Turner will never forget.
Turner was in the 445th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment in December 1944 and his unit had just fought its way out of the Hurtgen Forest in a series of fierce battles that summer and fall. His unit had been sent to a location in the Ardennes for rest and reinforcement.
“I was a Chickasaw County farmboy from Chalk Bluff and I had never seen so much snow,” said Turner. “They sent us to a spot near St. Vith to spend Christmas.”
St. Vith is in Belguim and not far from a town named Bastogne that would soon be the center of a conflict later called the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was classified as a cook, but I was with a unit that manned a 40-mm cannon and had a halftrack with four 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the back,” said Turner. “Like I said, they called me a cook, but they made me carry a rifle everywhere I went.”
And before the Christmas of 1944 was over, Turner would be called on to use his rifle more often than pots and pans.
“I remember how cold and wet everything was,” said Turner. “You couldn’t light a fire because the light and smoke drew artillery fire.
“Anytime you stopped and tried to build a shelter, the next thing you know they were telling you it was time to move out,” he added. “We would sleep under our truck. I swore if I ever got back home I would never be cold again.”
Turner still has a picture of the shelter he and some guys in his outfit built just prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
“Being from the pine forests of North Mississippi I was pretty handy with an axe,” said Turner. “I chopped some logs, notched them and made this little square out of them. I then chinked the space in between with mud.
“My Mess Sergeant came along and found some lumber,” he said pointing to the photo. “He nailed up this lumber and this canvas for a roof. That’s him on top nailing down the canvas.”
Turner and his army buddies used spent 105-mm howitzer shell casings as stoves.
“We had about a half-dozen of those stoves in our hut,” said Turner, “and expected to wait out Christmas in that hut and get started with the war after the first of the year or in the spring.”
But the German Army had other plans and would launch that nation’s last major offensive of World War II on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944.
“We were up on top of a bluff and the Germans were about a half a mile away at the bottom of that hill,” said Turner. “Somehow they got tanks up on top of that bluff and we had to skeedaddle.”
The unit later found out hay had been brought in to silence the sound of tank treads creeping up that hill.
“We pulled back to St. Vith and made a stand,” said Turner. “That battle tore that little town to pieces. We had to fall back again and this time we went way back and regrouped.”
The stand Turner’s unit made at St. Vith was an unsung victory that has been overshadowed by the siege of Bastogne.
“When it was all going on, we didn’t know anything,” said Turner. “We could hear the shelling and knew a battle was going on in the direction of Bastogne. That was the scary part – things were so confused and no one knew what was going on.”
Christmas Day found Turner at the front lines with about two-dozen frozen turkeys.
“I found this shell-hole out in a field that had clear water in it,” said Turner. “I defrosted those turkeys in that water and cooked them up.”
He said it was the first meat and hot meal most soldiers had eaten in more than a week.
“Morale is always important and I will never forget the faces on the men I fed that Christmas,” said Turner. “We were all cold and scared and had no idea if we would ever see another Christmas again. Making those guys smile for just a minute was important to me.”
Turner said he learned to remember the good times he had in the service and forget the bad.
He said there is not a Christmas that goes by that he doesn’t think about that winter in the Ardennes and how thankful he is to be home.
Turner said he still keeps up with many of the men he was in the service with.
“Luther McClelland of Durant was a friend for life,” said Turner. “Steve Roebuck, T.J. Coleman from around here and Dick Holland from Dover, Delaware – I kept up with them all as long as they were alive.”
Turner returned to Chickasaw County after the war and built a thriving retail business in Okolona. He got married, had children and is quick to say he has had a good life. He is still active in business.
Turner said there will come a time on Christmas Day when he thinks back on his experience in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I lost two cousins in that war and saw a lot of friends die,” said Turner. “I’m always so thankful I was one of the ones who made it back.”