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Warriors Turned Worriers, by Muriel Phillips Engelman, 16th General Hospital

On Dec. 16, 1944, German General von Rundstedt made his famous counterattack into Belgium, starting the Battle of the Bulge, which was to be the biggest, bloodiest and most decisive battle of World War II.

Muriel Engelman
Muriel Engelman

Our tent hospital, located on the outskirts of Liege, was one of the closest hospitals to the fighting lines, and the destination for the German army to reach in order to cross the Meuse River there and head for the Port of Antwerp, where they could cut off all Allied supplies.

The week before Christmas, a sudden heavy dense fog fell over all of Belgium, creating an eerie, gray silent landscape. The only sounds we could hear were the muffled sounds of buzz bombs dropping as they flew over every twelve to fifteen minutes, twenty-four hours a day, each one carrying 2000 Ibs. of explosives. Our hospital had already suffered two hits and was to soon receive a third, creating casualties among patients and hospital staff. This fog was so thick we couldn’t see five feet in front of us, but the German tanks and infantry were able to move forward on the ground, and our planes couldn’t get off the ground to bomb them.

Two days before Christmas, the Germans were ten miles from Liege and German paratroopers had already been dropped into the city. Many of the American hospitals in the area had already evacuated to France or Luxembourg, and we felt like sitting ducks, hoping and waiting for orders to evacuate that never came. Instead, we nurses were ordered to pack our musette bags with the warmest clothing we had and any first aid supplies, in the event we were captured by the Germans, and to be prepared to move out with ten minutes notice.

Of course we were scared. I was a little more so than the other nurses, because I had an “H” for Hebrew on my dog tags, the very ones Hitler wanted to annihilate. Our patients were furious that American women were so far up front. When we did get orders to evacuate our sickest bed patients to the rear, as we loaded them into trucks and ambulances, they begged us to change places with them.

One of my patients who was so concerned about my possible capture by the Germans constructed a blackjack for me to carry with me at all times, and believe me, I did. You can see it in the enclosed photo, in my right hand. This was a ten-inch length of hosing, stuffed with lead sinkers and suspended from my wrist by a leather thong. His instructions were as follows: “If a Kraut gets near you, take this blackjack, slam it across his face and aim for the eyes.”

Another patient gave me a spring-blade knife, which you can see outlined in my left pocket, and his directions were: “If a Kraut approaches, take this knife blade, plunge it into his belly and then run like hell.”

On Christmas Eve, the fog that had hung over all of Belgium for the past week had dissipated, and a full moon arose, lighting the sky with an almost daytime light. A lone German plane flew over our hospital tents and the enlisted men’s tents that night, dropping anti-personnel bombs and strafing the tents, killing and wounding scores of patients and hospital personnel. Our planes were out in full force the following morning and soon outnumbered the German planes.

No, I never had to use my “weapons of protection,” though I kept them in my possession for years, mementos of our wonderful, caring G.I. Joes.