He never talked about war. At least not to me.
It’s been ten years since my grandfather passed away. A career Army officer, he served in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It was only after both he and my grandmother died and I began to dig through the old photos, the faded newspaper clippings and award citations that a fuller picture of his service came into view.
My grandfather, then Lt. Joseph Brigandi from Syracuse, New York, served with Company L, 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division. Seventy years ago, in December 1944 and January 1945, he was one of thousands of soldiers engaged in battle in the Ardennes forest. Today we know that campaign as the Battle of the Bulge.
While I never talked with my grandfather about what happened in that forest, a month ago, I sat down with four Veterans to learn about their experiences. Mike Levin, Douglas Dillard, John Schaffner and Al Shehab were there in December 1944. They experienced the battle from different perspectives: artillery, airborne, infantry, cavalry. The stories they shared were harrowing, heart breaking, and yet inspirational.
Our conversation lasted a few hours, too short to really know what happened there, but enough to make me wonder what else I could find out about my grandfather and his time in Europe. I found some of those answers online and in a book I’d had for years, but never read.
In January 2003, a Veteran of the battle and history professor at Purdue University, published “Biography of a Battalion: The Life and Times of an Infantry Battalion in Europe in World War II.” It’s the story of the 134th, and tells part of my grandfather’s story.
By the middle of the battle, his company, Company L, had suffered heavy losses. My grandfather, a young 1st lieutenant, was the only officer left in the company and was in command. Company L was holding the rear defenses in the woods outside Lutrebois, Belgium, in January when General Brown, the War Department’s inspector, visited them. Upon hearing nearby sniper fire, Brown questioned my grandfather.
“I thought two battalions went through here,” the general said.
“Yes sir,” the rough-bearded, tired, but alert company commander answered.
“Isn’t that enough to clean that out?”
“No sir, not the size of those battalions.”
“How many men do you have in your company, lieutenant?”
“Twenty-seven, counting myself, sir.”
Huston’s book and a website on the 134th document that conversation between the general and my grandfather, a small insight into what he experienced.
Near the end of the battle, on January 17, Lt. Joseph Brigandi was evacuated from his troops and admitted to an aid station suffering from extreme frostbite. According to the aid station report, he was awarded an oak leaf cluster, to add to the Purple Heart he had received just three months earlier following action in France.
There is one story my grandmother would tell of her husband from WWII and it was from that time. A few days after he was taken in for treatment of the frostbite, he went AWOL. He left the aid station, hopping rides on ambulances, back towards the front, back to his company and to his troops. Thankfully, he was never reported as AWOL – he arrived back at the front lines just before they were about to do so.
As I sat with Doug, Mike, Al and John last month, I couldn’t help but wonder what stories Joe would share with them. None of these men knew each other in 1944, but they shared a bond that was clear to see. They had survived the cold, the snow and the battle
December 16 is the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Tomorrow on Vantage Point, we’ll share with you part of our discussion with these men who survived the battle. It’s a conversation worth watching.