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Our War: Belleville man still has the bullet that nearly killed him

Paul Blaes shows some of the medals he got -- including the Bronze Star -- for his service in Europe as an Army corporal during World War II.
Paul Blaes shows some of the medals he got -- including the Bronze Star -- for his service in Europe as an Army corporal during World War II.

Paul Blaes of Belleville has a 65-year-old piece of twisted, dark metal he saved from his time in Europe during World War II.

He held the heavy, flattened bullet in his 86-year-old hands and remembered the day he almost didn't come home.

"If this would have hit me, I would have been gone," he said. "This piece nearly killed me."

He dug the flattened, destroyed bullet from the dirt near his feet after it struck a concrete silo about 6 inches from his head.

"A plane came over us, shooting at us, and I ran behind that silo," he recalled. "It put a big hole in the concrete right by my head."

Blaes served with the motor pool for the Army's 744th Tank Battalion. As a corporal, he was responsible for maintaining the battalion's vehicles and keeping track of where each vehicle was and who had it. In 1941, at 20 years old, he worked for the Belleville News-Democrat in the printing department. By 1942, he was drafted into the Army and preparing to ship out to war.

He served in five major battles during his two years in Europe: Normandy, the invasion of Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns.

He landed on Normandy Beach on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day.

He remembers seeing "nothing good. A lot of destruction, sunken boats and a few bodies still in the water, floating."

The Battle of the Hedgerows in Normandy was his first "good Baptism of the war," he said. They battled across farmers' fields bordered by earthen walls thick with vegetation -- perfect cover for the dug-in Germans and costly real estate for Allied troops.

"I got caught between the U.S. troops and the Germans in the hedgerows," Blaes said. "We were two hedgerows from the Germans, and I was sure that would be the end of it for me. It got dark and we were still stuck there. We dug our foxholes and waited, listening to the artillery going back and forth over us. They would shoot at us, we would shoot at the Germans and we kept waiting for the Germans to come through the hedgerows and find us."

A break in the fighting allowed him and four buddies to run back to where the rest of his battalion was waiting.

"I lost a lot of my friends at the hedgerows," he said, holding back tears that came with the memory. "I'm not afraid to admit I was scared -- teeth-chattering scared -- but in the last few weeks of the war it just didn't bother me so much as it did in the beginning. I don't think I got used to it, but it just didn't bother me as much."

Most of the war was spent close to the front lines, following behind the light tanks for which he was responsible. There wasn't much time to kick back and play cards or just rest and recuperate.

"Every day you are sleeping in a hole," he said. "When it rains, it gets full of water. You spend an hour digging it and two hours later you are leaving again. You are spending your life digging a hole and living in it. You didn't go nowhere or do anything -- you just waited for the next time to move. It's an experience you wouldn't give a million dollars for, and it's something you couldn't pay enough to ever do again. War is hell, and believe me, you don't believe it's as bad as it is until you get into it, shivering in a foxhole, ducking every time artillery went overhead and lying there, scared for your life. It made a man out of me, I'll tell you that much."

The most vivid memory he can recall was of a dead child. The child had apparently been blown into the air during an artillery or mine blast and became impaled on a picket fence that surrounded a small country home.

"I'll never forget seeing that young kid lying on that picket fence," he said. "I'll never forget that. I saw a lot of German legs and arms and tanks blown up. There were so many dead Germans on the road, they had to bulldoze them off so we could get by. That's no lie."

The Battle of the Bulge, complete with 12 inches of snow and frigid winds, was a "little cold," he said.

"We stayed in abandoned houses and could only light the fire at night so they couldn't see the smoke," he said. "There wasn't much that would keep you warm for very long."

During the battle a few officers assigned to his battalion decided they wanted someone to make a Jeep run to Brussels, Belgium, to pick up a few cases of liquor.

Blaes was their man.

"I went all the way there and drove that liquor all the way back to them, and they never gave me none of it," he said.

Soldiers often went weeks or months without bathing, but no one minded too much because everyone stank the same, he said chuckling.

Warm summer weather offered bathing opportunities, au naturale, for soldiers resourceful enough to take advantage of a convenient stream.

"I remember we jumped in one creek and were in there swimming around, then we looked up the hill and saw three young ladies up there just watching us," he said.

The small vehicles driven by German citizens were not safe parked along the road when his tank battalion came through.

"Whenever our tanks came across an empty one, they'd run right over it and flatten it," he said.

He has seen the movies that depict a soldier's life during the war, and said, for the most part, they are accurate.

"'Saving Private Ryan' was a good one, but most of them, they just don't portray the 'wear your helmet rule' very well," he said. "We had to wear our helmets all the time. If you were caught without your helmet, you'd get a good dressing down."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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