70 years after the Battle of the Bulge

Mary Atkinson · Wednesday, January 15, 2014
This month marks 70 years since the Battle of the Bulge took place in France during WWII, but Merlyn Spilger, of Atalissa, has no problem remembering the details.

He was present during the bloody, surprise attack, one that cost around 20,000 lives from the Allied Forces, most of whom were American.

Spilger, 95, was drafted in 1941 and became a member of the 6th Armored Division, the 'Super Sixth', of General George Patton's Third Army. His job as an 'A' battery computer consisted of his relaying coordinates to artillery teams near or at the front lines.

As for the battle, it got its name due to the way the front line appeared to 'bulge' inward on a map according to the press. The significant battle was Hitler's last offensive campaign to drive Allied forces out of France. As a result, Germany's resources were severely depleted and German troops retreated, thus beginning the end of WWII.

In 1944, Spilger and others set sail in one of the largest convoys to England for more training. From there, he was sent to Utah Beach in Normandy as a 'follow-up' unit after D-day.

Although he is reluctant to talk about the gory reality of war and the battle, he does recount how he helped to save an army buddy, Bill Ebert of Minnesota. Ebert was injured in a mortar attack near Nancy, France. Not sure of how severe Ebert's injuries were, Spilger found a medic.

"He got shrapnel in both his legs," Spilger said, "The shatter and the break between the knee and hip was between 6 and a half to 7 inches. He didn't complain one bit. I was pretty lucky. Mortars were our biggest danger."

Spilger said that Ebert was given a choice by a doctor to amputate one leg or spend the rest of his life dressing it every day, he chose the latter. Until Ebert's death years ago, both the Spilger and the Ebert families visited each other every year.

"I loved him. I will never forget him," Spilger said.

Spilger's son, Denny, said Ebert and his father's perspective about serving in the war was not really one about fear.

"I think they thought it was just another job that they had to do to keep America free and I think that's all they thought about," Denny said.

Another sobering moment for Spilger came when troops were walking past concentration camps. By then they were empty and partially destroyed. Sometime later, he watched documentaries that reported the atrocities that occurred in these camps.

"It gives you a sick feeling," Spilger said, "They killed thousands of Jews. I mean they piled them up like wood. It's sick."

When asked what advice he would give to other service men and women, Spilger talks about having faith.

"Never underestimate the power of prayer," he said. "It really works."

Summing up his service in the war, Spilger said it was a good experience. "I was pretty lucky," he said. "The Lord was with me. No question about it."

Spilger is currently working on a memoir about his life. In one passage he writes about the places he has been in Europe - first with the 3rd Army and later with the 7th Army crossing the Siegfried Line twice.

The Siegfried Line was a geographic defense system stretching approximately 400 miles along the western boarder of Germany from the Netherlands down to Switzerland. It contained 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps, some of which remain to this day.

"Then back home to Dorothy," Spilger continues in the passage. "We raised five healthy children, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and no tragedies, and a person has to be thankful for that. My life, I think, has been interesting and I am a very lucky country boy."

Denny said his father always stressed to him and his siblings about the importance of freedom.

"He says people should appreciate their freedom because it comes at a great cost," Denny said.

Spilger told of being in a store somewhere in Muscatine once and a man asked him what he thought about the war in the Middle East. He gave careful thought to the question and finally answered:

"You know mister, I think there are too many people in this world who don't appreciate their freedom."
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