COCKEYSVILLE, Md. (WDVM) — The Battle of the Bulge broke the back of the Third Reich during World War II. The bloody battle was fought in the dead of winter. The weather was brutal and so was the fighting. Historians say more than 89,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing. German losses were even higher. A local soldier from Cockeysville had a ringside seat for the battle.
Private First Class John Schaffner was a scout for the 589th Field Artillery Battalion of the 106th Infantry Division. On the morning of December 16th, 1944 Schaffner was sitting behind a .50 caliber machine gun in a foxhole at the edge of the Ardennes, a heavily forested strip of land along the border between Germany and Belgium.
“Before daylight, about 5:30 a.m. or quarter til six, artillery shells began to fall into our position,” said Schaffner. Being somewhat exposed, Shaffner got down into a little depression where the machine gun was set up, “and more or less crawled into my helmet,” said Schaffner.
A half-hour later, the barrage lifted and Schaffner called the battery commander and tried to get some information about what was going on, but nobody in the rear where the battalion’s 105mm howitzers were dug in knew anything.
“There seemed to be a lot of confusion,” recalled Schaffner as he sat in a rocker in his “war room” at his home in Cockeysville surrounded by memorabilia from World War II.
Outnumbered two to one in men and machines, American units were ordered to fall back in the face of the overwhelming German attack. Schaffner and a buddy were given a bazooka and six rocket rounds and told to cover the battalion’s retreat.
“We could hear a lot of commotion, but never saw anybody,” said Schaffner as he and 200 soldiers in 589th Field Artillery Battalion managed to avoid being captured over the next four days. They stopped running and dug in their remaining three artillery pieces at a key crossroads in a small Belgian village.
“On the night of the 20th to the 21st, I was in a foxhole with another GI.,” said Schaffner. They were the eyes and ears of the battery commander. All of a sudden out of the fog came a platoon of German scouts on bicycles. When the reconnaissance patrol saw a strip of land mines laid across the road in front of Schaffner’s position, they stopped and dismounted.
“We knew we were in deep doo-doo,” laughed Schaffner and he pointed to a painting of the hair-raising moment that hangs on the wall near his rocking chair. Schaffner picked up his field telephone and whispered to the battery commander, “We have Germans on the road in front of us. What should we do?”
Schaffner and his buddy were told to keep their heads down, because some quad-fifties, four .50 caliber machine guns mounted on lightly armored half-tracks were going to sweep the road with gunfire.
On December 23, Schaffner says German tanks and infantry attacked enforce. They pounded “Parker’s Crossroads,” the key crossroads named for Major Arthur Parker, the battery commander. At that point, Schaffner and 20 t0 30 survivors used a herd of milk cows as cover and escaped the carnage at the crossroads.
Although Schaffner was awarded the Belgian Medal of Honor and written up in twelve books about the Battle of the Bulge, he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
The 95-year-old veteran says he was saved by the Grace of God. At the end of the interview for Veterans Voices, Schaffner showed WDVM his uniform that he keeps in a garment bag in his garage.
“The only things that fit are the socks,” chuckled Schaffner and he struggled to put his uniform jacket on.