Serving in the United States Third Army, Pacific student Calvin Van Pelt would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.By Sig Unander '87
On a bitterly cold night in mid-December, 1944, Cal and his men were out patrolling. Unable to determine their location, they got out of their tank and paused, shivering in the darkness. The sound of diesel motors could be heard in the distance, possibly German Panzers. Were they surrounded? Then, another faint far-off rumble could be heard. “It sounds like a jeep,” said one of the men. It got closer. “I think there’s someone standing up in it,” said another as the vehicle approached with its lights off.
A solitary jeep pulled up. Astride it stood a dark figure wearing a white helmet, two pearl-handled revolvers on its waist. “Hi Boys!” exclaimed the figure in a gravelly stage whisper. “Are you lost?”
“Lost and scared,” replied Cal.
“I’ve got a thermos of hot Red Cross coffee and some donuts here. And some maps,” the officer said, a note of reassurance in his voice. It was General Patton.
“You’re just a half-mile from safety,” the general told the young soldiers as they sipped steaming coffee. He pointed to a map, lit by flashlight. “See that little creek? Go on past it, around the hill and stay put. Tomorrow there’ll be lots of Americans there.”
Recognizing Cal, Patton asked him what he had been doing since he had seen him at headquarters. On hearing his account of the ambush on the German convoy, the general said, gruffly, “You disobeyed my orders, Van Pelt.” (to kill Germans) Turning away, he paused and said, loud enough for all to hear, “But you were right.”
Then he mounted the jeep and was gone.
The early morning hours of December 16, 1944 found Cal and his crew sheltering in a bombed-out house in the tiny Belgian town of Stockem. Their tank was in a nearby repair depot being serviced. In the still, frigid air, they could clearly hear the diesel engine of a tank. It wasn’t American.
Outside the house sat their sole defensive weapon–a jeep with a light .30 machine gun. As they got into the jeep they heard the clanking of steel treads. Down the street a huge, 60-ton German Tiger tank emerged, its 88 mm cannon protruding from its turret. With no time to turn around, the jeep’s driver jammed the gearshift into reverse and floored it. There was a blinding flash and suddenly Cal was in the air, falling. He noticed an ornate gate and for a second felt peaceful. Then everything went black.
A soft female voice intruded in the dreamlike darkness. “He seems to be coming around,” it said, in English. “Call the doctor.”
Cal was in an American military field hospital in Longwy, France, some 20 miles from Stockem. He was badly injured, blind, immobilized, wrapped in bandages. The explosion that had maimed him had blown up the jeep and killed the other three men, his friends. It was one of the opening shots of the Battle of the Bulge–Hitler’s last, desperate gamble to turn the tide of war and stop the Allied advance into Germany. The greatest single battle in U.S. Army history, 78,000 Americans would be killed, wounded or captured before the German counteroffensive was halted.