War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

7 ❖ A Hair-Raising Escape

In mid- December 1944, Europe was gripped by the coldest winter in a quarter century. It appeared that Germany was near collapse, and generals at Allied headquarters in Paris were making bets on which day the war would end. Suddenly, three powerful German armies plunged into thinly- held American lines along a seventy-five-mile stretch of the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Code-named Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist), the mighty offensive caught the Americans by total surprise, and most of the GI units reeled back in disarray.

Tank-tipped German spearheads raced northwest for Liège, a city on the Meuse River only fifty miles away. With its huge stores of American fuel, Liège had to be captured if the swarms of German panzers were to roll on to Hitler's main goal, the port of Antwerp on the English Channel, another fifty miles away.

Also located in Liège were several Army field hospitals, where nurses, along with male medical personnel, had been plagued for several weeks by terrifying buzz bombs, Hitler's "secret weapon," about which he had boasted. Known to the Germans as the V-1 (V for Vengeance), the buzz bomb was a large, pilotless airplane filled with explosives, which would be sent aloft behind German lines and its engine would be set to cut off while over its target. Many of the lethal weapons had crashed to earth in Liège, killing and wounding thousands of civilians.

Often surgeries were taking place at the Army hospitals in Liège when the nurses and doctors heard the pulsating throb of an approaching buzz bomb. They held their breaths when the engine cut off, knowing that it was diving toward the ground. But the surgeries continued, and the nurses kept making their rounds in their wards to calm mutilated and frightened GIs.

Out in front in the German dash for Liège was a 4,000-man battle group of the 1st SS Panzer Division. The spearhead was led by twenty-nine-year- old Obersturmbannfuehrer ( Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper. Handsome, well-bred, and resourceful, he brought to the Ardennes the experience of many months of heavy combat in Russia.

A Hitler favorite, Peiper received his orders for what his superiors called "the decisive role in the offensive." With its seventy-two tanks, Peiper's

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