Q: What was it like to find your foxhole?
A: The first time I went over in the summer (of) 1949, I bought a bicycle and went into the Ardennes and down this road leading into the woods where my company was. It was very eerie. I felt quite ill at ease. I was by myself. The little village behind me was still totally destroyed. This was the little border area between Belgium and Germany and there was a Belgian customs official on a bike, speaking to me in German. He wanted to know what I was doing down there. That encounter plus seeing the area where I was when my company had just gotten hell knocked out of it, I just felt eerie. I didn't go all the way, I turned around and came back.
I went all the way finally in 1980. I was doing research on the book, and by this time I had come to know a couple of British men. (The) mother (of one) was Belgian and he was thoroughly knowledgeable. As a kid he had found live grenades and proudly brought them home to his mother. It was driving her crazy. We went down with him.
Q: How long did the trip take, just to find the foxhole?
A: Not very long at all because we knew just where it was. We didn't have any big entrenching tools that night (in December of 1944) when we first arrived. We only had our little shovels off our packs on our back. So we dug only slit trenches. I was very surprised that those slit trenches were still very evident. You could dig spent cartridges out of them and find shell fragments all over the woods and even some remains of overcoats. It's hard to tell which side they belonged to at this stage, but it's cloth.
Q: What goes through your mind when you see your slit trench after so many years?
A: You have a rush of what happened there. I couldn't pin down specifically which one of these slit trenches was mine. I knew I was in the center of the group. That's as close as I could get. I felt much better just having someone with me. It's funny. The first time it had felt so eerie, I think partly because I was alone.
Q: When you were in the Ardennes, did you know at a specific point that the Battle of the Bulge was over? Was anyone calling it the Battle of the Bulge immediately?
A: It was the name given it by the war correspondents, from the bulge it had created in the American lines. We got the Stars and Stripes about two or three days late, but there would be pictures of the bulge and the name was being used there as well.
Q: Was there some point that you were able to sit down and just heave a great big sigh of relief?
A: No, because I got wounded before it was completely sealed off. We were attacking on Jan. 17 as part of the general effort to eliminate the bulge and I was slightly wounded in the leg and evacuated to Paris. I wasn't in on the very tail end of it. It sort of petered out. The bulk of the Germans were eliminated and there were a few holdouts that a couple of divisions still had to clean up, but by the 28th of January, there were no Germans left in what had been the bulge.
Q: And that was the end of it?
A: The German army was so weakened by this. I maintain that probably thousands upon thousands of American lives were saved by the Battle of Bulge despite our heavy casualties, simply because the Germans had virtually nothing left to fight us off with once we were in.
Q: What compelled you to write ("Company Commander") so early after the battle?
A: I felt impelled to write it even when the battle was going on! At night my first platoon leader would come up from his platoon to visit me in the commander post which was in a pillbox. A couple of times he found me making notes there. He said, "What are you doing, captain?" And I said, "When this is all over I'm going to write a book about it." He says he said to himself, "Look at this son-of-a-bitching little captain. If he thinks he's going to get out of this alive and write a book, he's crazy!"
We moved back from those pillboxes to a relatively quiet defensive position. It was so quiet that I was able to bring a captured typewriter we had up from the company kitchen truck. There in this log dugout I wrote an article called "Nine Days in the Pillbox" which was an account of the first nine days of offensive action there. I was planning to send that back home and try to get it published, but it was with the typewriter in the kitchen truck when my kitchen truck was captured. I always wondered what German intelligence officer pored over the stupid manuscript and what he thought.
That was an easy start on the book. Being a personal experience theme, it was easy to write. I finished it in about six months, and then tried to market it. It was a little like Vietnam. Nobody was interested in books about the war right after the war. Norman Mailer's book ("The Naked and the Dead") broke the logjam.
I've resisted every effort to change a word. I wrote it at 23 years of age when I was a very honest, naive person. I think if I wrote it today I would try to cover up.
Q: What would you try to cover up?
A: I'd try to make myself look a little better. Be less scared. Be a little more heroic. That's another thing -- . Going back to see the foxholes and going back to the place where I was wounded, you have these gnawing questions in your mind. Now if I'd done this or if I'd a done that, wouldn't it have come out better? Or would it -- ?
In the end I came to the conclusion, it's probably just as well you did it just the way you did. Had I not pulled the company back at the time I did, we'd probably have been wiped out. The night I was wounded, again, I had gone forward and I got hit and I didn't feel leaving the company in this forward position with me hit and going to leave -- . So I pulled them back to a good defensive position and the next morning they got a heavy counterattack. Had they been way up forward where they were when I was hit they would probably would have been wiped out. So you can't tell. You learn to live with what you did and let it go at that.
Q: You've devoted an awful lot of time and energy to the Battle of the Bulge -- one entire book and part of another. Why have you made such a commitment to this?
A: I always felt that I left a little part of me back there in the Ardennes. It was probably the most trying experience in my life. It sticks with us. I realized I was going to retire before too much longer and the 40th anniversary of the Bulge was coming up. At the very start of 1980 I went right to work. I went back four or five times to the Ardennes over four or five years. I feel I've seen virtually every corner of it at this point. So many who had written on the battle let official history be their basic research item. I wanted to go back to the original records that the official historian used, and I wanted to get accounts from some lower level Germans.
We've got pretty good material from the German commanders -- the generals and Field Marshal von Rundstedt -- because right after the war, they did manuscripts for the army history. But very few people have what the German soldier himself felt -- the private, the sergeant, the young officer, even the colonel. With the help of some German friends, I managed to get five or six who remembered things quite well. We had plenty on that from the American soldiers' viewpoint, because historians in uniform during the war interviewed people soon after a battle. I was out to achieve a flavor of what it was like for the men actually doing the fighting.
Q: When you say you feel as if you left a little piece of yourself there, did the other veterans of the Battle of the Bulge have similar feelings?
A: Many of them do. There weren't many of us in Normandy. On D-Day, for example, only about 50,000 Americans landed in Normandy. Here you have 600,000 Americans involved in the vicinity of combat.
Here was the first really serious German challenge to our armed forces. There had been a counterattack at a place called Mortain in Normandy that involved two or three of our divisions. But here, to have a force of 250,000 Germans and in the end, 500,000, suddenly emerge out of the mist and snow of this fairly wooded region and hit us -- totally surprised; not knowing what was going on -- I mean, it was the experience of our lives.
Q: Are there letters from people who've read your book?
A: They thank me for telling the story, as they say, "like it was." One man said he was so cold when he read it he had to put his feet in hot water.
Q: When did you do your first tour?
A: In 1978. A tour company in Texas learned of me and asked me to go on this Bulge tour. I found that these people on the tour, most of them veterans, knew nothing about the battle except what happened to them -- what took place right in their own neighborhood. So I had to get on the microphone on the bus and became a tourguide.
Q: Is this a relatively new phenomenon for historians to be doing?
A: No. Stephen Ambrose has been doing a tour for six years called "In Ike's Footsteps," going to the Rhine. He couldn't do it this year so they asked me to do it. We'll start in London on June the 4th. We'll have speakers along the way. Gen. John Frost, who was the commander of the British troops at the the Bridge at Arnhem which was featured in "A Bridge Too Far." Lord Field Marshal Montgomery's son, Forrest Pogue, who was the official historian for Supreme Headquarters for the army there. A couple of former German commanders who will be along. They will speak in the evening. During the day, I'm the one that shows them Omaha Beach, Utah Beach.
Q: You start from the landing?
A: We start in England and go across the channel to Cherbourg. Then we go to Paris (for) a couple of days of amusement. On our way to the Bulge we hit some World War I battlefields. Then I take them around the Ardennes -- into Huerken Forest to Aachen, Remagen Bridge, Market Garden area in Holland and fly back from Amsterdam.
Q: How did the local populations feel about the tour groups coming through to relive the past?
A: In Belgium and Luxembourg they more than welcome -- they embrace you. It's very touching, actually, to see just really how grateful they still are. In Luxembourg, for example, a group has established a museum in the little village of Clervaux. They've built monuments, small monuments, but nicely done, to the divisions that fought in Luxembourg.
Q: Both German and Allied?
A: No, strictly American.
A: They don't have a fond memory of the Germans, I take it.
A: Certainly not these people. I can't say for the whole population of Luxembourg, but the impression is very definitely not. The first tour I did was labeled "A Reunion in Friendship," and the tour director planned to have Germans to meet us and go with us in the Ardennes. Field Marshal General von Manteuffel was supposed to be the German chairman. Manteuffel died three months before the tour, and not a single German showed up, which is to the good. The Belgian chamber of commerce, our tourist bureau, protested loud and strong about the possibility of the Germans being invited. There were articles in the newspapers protesting.
Q: Then the Germans don't run tours like this?
A: No, although individual Germans come back very frequently. And, in many cases, I'm sure, are treated very cordially and warmly. After all, it's been 40 years.
A number of times my tour bus has been a German tour bus. Usually I put a little American flag in the front of the bus, so that they'll know that we aren't German tourists.
Q: War is really a ghastly experience and yet people are going back to the place where they laid their lives on the line to try to recapture something from the past. Do you see a contradiction?
A: Yes, but this was the most momentous event in our lives, something that has stuck with us all the time. Now we've reached an age when most of us are retired and have in many cases enough money to go back. It's an amazing experience to go back to (your) own foxhole. You remember things, buddies that were killed. It's sad, but it was part of your life and if a loved one dies you remember that loved one. You don't put them out of your mind.
Q: How do these veterans react emotionally, say, when they find their own foxhole?
A: Sometimes they're quite silent. They don't talk for awhile. Others suddenly want to tell you what happened to them here. They didn't know really much that went on within hand grenade range of their own foxhole.
The little villages that were destroyed have been in most cases rebuilt almost exactly as they were. There's been very little cutting of the forest. In general the men can identify with the countryside and if your foxhole was in the woods and you remember where it was you can probably find it.