WINCHESTER -- Before the Battle of the Bulge, Walter Lepinski took a shower. Though it happened more than 70 years ago, he remembers that shower well. It was a moment of sheer joy in what had been a hard several months.
As World War II raged on, Lepinski, who grew up in Winchester, found himself in southern Germany. He had been drafted into the U.S. Army on Nov. 4, 1942, and assigned to the 10th Armored Division.
After some training, the division headed to Europe -- a 20-day journey at sea. They landed in Europe in September 1944. That December, Lepinski, a staff sergeant who oversaw mechanics and other personnel, stood in front of that shower outside a little town whose name and location he no longer remembers.
"We had been in combat 67 days without having our clothes changed or not even taking our combat boots off or nothing outside of our helmets," the 95-year-old says.
He remembers how great it felt to finally shower, with the promise of a full-night's sleep for him and his men in the relative safety of the town, far away from the front line.
But Lepinski never got that sleep. When he and the other men headed back to town, there was "an awful lot of commotion," he says.
"Everybody was on the move, hustling around and so forth."
A runner had come to Lepinski, telling him to report to his company commander, who told him to prepare his men to move. Lepinski didn't know it then, but he and his men were about to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive on World War II's Western Front. It was a surprise attack that caught the Allied forces off-guard.
The battle was fought in eastern Belgium, northeast France and Luxembourg from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. Some 75,000 American soldiers died, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, but the Allies ultimately won the battle, significantly weakening the German military, which lost an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers.
Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the beginning of the offensive, a time that Lepinski remembers vividly. When he talks about the battlefield, Lepinski speaks with urgency, the memories engulfing him like a fog.
On Friday morning, he sits in a cozy conference room in the Applewood Rehabilitation Center in Winchester. Outside, trees with snowy trunks glisten in the late morning sun, but Lepinski doesn't see them. His gaze is trained on the wooden table, but his mind is far away. For the moment, he's in his 20s, headed for battle.
'To the last man'
Lepinski remembers traveling north, passing small towns and large cities, arriving at Noville, Belgium -- an abandoned town near the border with Luxembourg that had an eerie silence that remains with him still. When arriving at a new town, Army procedure had been to find an escape route in case troops had to withdraw.
But when Lepinski asked his captain about an alternate route, he got a response that made his heart drop.
"We are here to fight to the last man," he recalls the captain telling him.
"It felt like it was the end of me," Lepinski says.
The troops were getting ready to defend the hilly town, according to Lepinski. He and his men positioned themselves inside a one-room schoolhouse atop a hill. They slept on the floor until just before daylight.
"The next thing I knew, all hell broke loose," he says, recalling the fusillade of bullets and artillery shells and the thick blanket of smoke and fog around him.
Lepinski manned a .50-caliber machine gun, instructing the men to shoot from the ground. At some point, he got separated from the others. He doesn't know what happened to them. The fight continued all day.
Every so often, Lepinski's words trail off, and he's silent. It's as though the memory has ended, and for a moment, he's back in the warm conference room, his hands resting on the wooden table. And then, the memories rush in again.
A half-track and a bar of soap
Lepinski had been firing at a German tank on a hill when a soldier ran to him, telling him the company commander, Capt. Gordon Geiger, wanted Lepinski to deliver a half-track -- an armored vehicle with two front wheels and a pair of tank treads in the rear -- that was stuck in a sloped street to the command center.
Lepinski crawled to the vehicle as the battle roared around him. The half-track was parked near a stucco building whose insides Lepinski could hear snapping and popping -- something inside was burning.
He came across the driver, who was in a foxhole nearby, suffering from "battle fatigue," Lepinski says. Battle fatigue was an early name for what's now known as post-traumatic stress disorder -- a reaction to the stress of war.
"Sergeant, don't go," Lepinski remembers the driver asking him.
Lepinski pressed on, arriving at the vehicle. He tried to drive the half-track away, but it wouldn't start. Gas spouted from under the hood, and Lepinski, who had worked as a mechanic in civilian life, got a bar of soap and used it to make a crude fitting that would stem the gas leak; all the while, bullets whizzed by.
"It was right in battle; you were right in the thick of fire," he recalls.
He eventually delivered the half-track to the command center, only to get yelled at by 1st Lt. Schaneke, a man whose first name Lepinski doesn't remember.
"His face was redder than a beet, and he was real angry," Lepinski says. "He said 'Sergeant, why didn't you tell anyone that you was going to go down there, trying to get that half-track?' "
Schaneke told Lepinski he'd had to stop a gunner from firing at him.
"He really saved my life," Lepinski says. He lets out a long sob.
Lepinski continued to fight in Europe until the end of the war. He returned to the United States, came home and was discharged from the military. He went back to the job he had before the war at A.C. Lawrence Leather Co. in Winchester.
Having returned home from a war that killed so many fellow soldiers, Lepinski thinks about those who didn't come back.
"I (felt) very thankful for God that I did (survive). I'm very thankful to God or (a) supreme being, or whichever one wants to take it, whatever they are," he says. "I was very thankful to God." ___
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