Bert Watkins turned 18 in February 1943. On his birthday he registered with the draft and asked for a deferment so he could finish his senior year of high school in Bethalto.
By June, Watkins was in the Air Force with dreams of being a fighter pilot during World War II. Eye problems kept him out of the cockpit, so he was trained in technical supply and worked in air fields in North Dakota.
When the "Bulge" began in December 1944, Watkins said everything changed. "I had two weeks to be trained to be in the infantry," he said. "I was in the army, now. They needed me to fight on the front lines." Young boys were being shipped overseas as replacements for the dead and wounded victims of the ferocious German forces.
On January 1, 1945, he was sent overseas to Liverpool, England. From there, soldiers were packed into LSTs (Landing Ships for Tanks) to cross the English Channel.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
They landed in France and were packed into cattle cars with straw under their feet. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in the cars. If they lay down, they were on top of each other, so they stood. "It was colder than the devil," Watkins said.
They didn't know where they were going. Every once in awhile, the metal doors would clatter open and they could step out for some relief. Finally, the doors opened in Luxembourg. This was near the front lines.
"I was assigned to the 90th Division of Patton's Third Army. I was handed a B.A.R. (Browning automatic rifle) a big, heavy, rifle that weighed more than 20 pounds. I was the smallest one in my group, but I got the B.A.R.
"I didn't know at the time, but that rifle made me a target. The Germans targeted the infantrymen with B.A.Rs. They were shot first.
"I had the rifle in my arms, nine clips of ammunition at 3 pounds each, a gas mask, grenade, three boxes of food, all strapped on my 128 pound body. They started marching us to the front lines. The next day, we were scheduled to attack.
"We did everything in the dark. It was extremely cold. We were supposed to go up this mountain and down the other side to cross a river. They brought in boats -- about five by seven foot boats. We had to tie those together and drag them up the side of the mountain, struggling in the snow all the way.
"We got to the top and started halfway down the other side when I got my first experience at being shot at. It was 3 a.m. We were all wearing white suits for camouflage in the snow. We were struggling with the boats. Shots rang out and they ordered us to 'Get down.'
"I fell face down, my nose in the snow. Immediately, the guy next to me got shot through the hand. The sky then lit up like the 4th of July with the tracers from the bullets and artillery fire. I heard this tremendous rumble over my head. It was our artillery bombing the village where they were attacking us. The flames lit up the night sky.
"When we got to the river, we found it was frozen. We had hauled the boats for no reason at all. Our officer told us to scramble across the river and get ready for a counter attack.
"After that, we were ordered to march again. We marched for three days almost nonstop. We would come across frozen bodies along the way.
"We sadly watched as medics picked up the bodies and stacked them like cordwood into trucks. They couldn't do anything else.
"We were freezing and had to keep our toes moving constantly to keep our feet from getting frozen. We could only build a fire during the day for a little bit of heat, and maybe to make some coffee or cocoa. No fires were allowed at night, however, and we seldom had shelter for sleep.
"We were headed to the 'Triangle' where all the problems were happening. We had to knock down the 'Dragon Teeth' -- huge concrete slabs set up by the Germans to keep our tanks out.
"At the Rhine River, I saw Gen. Patton. His jeep drove up and down the troop lines.
"I remember the Germans were on the other side of the river. We set up huge speakers and told them to surrender. They answered with their own speakers -- loud and booming, that they would not.
"This time we really needed the boats. We got in these tiny boats in the dark and paddled with our rifles. By that time, most of us had dysentery and we were miserable, but we had to keep moving to get across the Rhine River.
"We continued to march. Every once in awhile we'd come across barbed wire enclosures with rough box-like shelters, hardly big enough for anyone to fit in. Russians, Hungarians and Poles would be imprisoned there.
"They were emaciated. When we cut the barbed wire, they didn't really know what to do. They did not have energy to move. We'd toss them our boxes of crackers.
"In early spring of 1945, it seemed like the Germans were falling apart. We came up to a farmhouse one day and I went in. There was an old man in there and a young teen lying on a couch. The teenager had a bad wound to his leg. I called for a medic to help the boy. I asked the man if there were any Germans there. He said 'no.'
"I went upstairs and found a hall of closed doors. I kicked in the first only to find five German soldiers there. 'Handi Ho' (Hands up!) I said, before they could get to their guns.
"I called for Arlie, my partner. My problem was there were more doors which had not been opened. My friend just blasted through the doors with his rifle. No one else was there.
"I always hated how that old man lied to me, especially after I got help for his young friend.
"I remember on April 30 -- most of us thought the war was just about over. We even cut each other's hair and took baths using our helmets. We were on the edge of Germany, 20 miles from Prague, Czechoslovakia. We were ordered to go up to an area where there was a little pocket of resistance.
"We had to cross a road and an open space to get to some woods. The first man crossed OK. I was about 20 feet from the woods when I was hit. My gun went flying. I crawled to the cover of the woods. I was shot in the knee. I'm glad it wasn't the head or chest. They couldn't do much for those. The medic came in and my buddy, Arlie. They carried me on my rifle out of there. I think they got Silver Stars for that."
Watkins' own metals are neatly displayed in a frame in his office. The Purple Heart was for the knee injury, he said. The ribbons and metals were for fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and the European Theater.
"The Bronze Star was for a time I was ordered into a church steeple and kept covering for my mates below," he said. "Looking back now, they could have easily blown me up. I didn't think about that and covered for a lot of men on the ground. My commander said he'd put me up for a Bronze Star for that and he did."
Watkins thought back to his last day on the front. "They took me to a big field hospital when I got hit," he said. "I remember lying on the ground, looking up at the canvas sides of the tent. That's all I remember. The war was over for me."
Laurie Watkins is the daughter-in-law of Bert Watkins, 82, of Belleville. She wrote this account from his recollections and said he is trim and vigorous, amazing his 50-something-year-old children.