Early New Year’s Eve 1944, Robert Hardesty stood on the top floor of a factory in Wecker, Luxembourg, running through gun drills.
Hardesty, a staff sergeant with the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, noticed several American planes flying overhead. The previous days had been overcast, and the flying limited. With the clear day, the American planes could now move about the skies.
“But they didn’t know who were the bad guys and who were the good guys,” Hardesty, 94, recalls.
Figuring they were safe, Hardesty’s team continued running through its drills. But that quickly changed when a bomb from one of the planes blew out the windows of a nearby building. The 4th Division made a beeline for the basement of the factory as bombs peppered the ground above them.
Hardesty started his career working in the military with a desk job at Camp Wheeler in Georgia as a transportation non-commissioned officer. But, 14 months in, he was thrust into the last major German offensive of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge.
He had been in Luxembourg for only three days, and he was already getting shot at — by his own guys, for that matter.
The next day, Jan. 1, 1945, Hardesty stood back on the ice-packed streets of Wecker, running through more drills as P-38s again began circling the area.
This time around, Hardesty wouldn’t hang around to see if the planes thought he was a friendly. Hardesty headed back for the basement just as a bomb hit 70 yards away, and .50-caliber bullets hit nearby walls.
“Of the 15 steps to the basement, I might have hit three of them on the way down,” Hardesty said.
In the basement of the factory, Hardesty and his team were limited to what little rations they had. Canned hash that was burned on the bottom and cold on top, and cheese and fig bars. Each soldier had four cigarettes in their rations.
Hardesty, whose main duty was to carry ammunition for machine gunners, pushed forward to the Sauer River — a tributary of the Rhine River. The group had to cross the cold, swiftly moving river using only a rope and an inflatable raft.
Soldiers filed into the raft three at a time and were pulled across using the rope. It took about an hour before it was Hardesty’s turn.
“By the time we got in, the raft had filled with ice-cold water, and our feet were already soaked because the snow had soaked through our boots,” Hardesty said. “And then, as they were pulling us across, it was 30 yards or so, there was a signal mix up and they pulled us back to shore. Then we had to go across again.”
By the time they got across the river, the rest of the crew had pushed ahead and was exchanging gunfire with the Germans. A long walk up a snowy hill in the freezing cold pushed Hardesty to his limits.
“My job as a clerk at a desk in Camp Wheeler didn’t train me for that kind of endurance,” Hardesty said.
As he caught up with the rest of the soldiers, the group came across a path that was littered with body parts — a hastily covered grave site.
“Arms and legs were sticking up out of the dirt,” Hardesty said.
Days of staying in foxholes passed as Hardesty’s group continued to take more territory from the Germans. At one point, Hardesty saw several German planes flying overhead that were not equipped for battle. Hardesty figured it must be some of the German elites — possibly Adolf Hitler.
Hardesty had never trained on the machine gun, but he took one from a fellow soldier and started shooting at the planes, thinking maybe he could take down Hitler and end the war right there.
Several months passed, and in June, Hardesty found out the 4th Division’s time at the Bulge was over. Hardesty returned to Le Havre, France, riding in a jeep, staring at the vast countryside that had been ravaged by war.
Along the roadside, white crosses neatly lined the road — a stark reality of what had taken place. On the opposite side, a poppy field was in full bloom.
Hardesty stepped into the field, picked a few poppies and placed them in a book.
A reminder — not of what he’d been through, but of the best of France.