I wrapped up 2019 with a journey that was nearly eight decades in the making — and to say that it had a profound impact on my life would be a dramatic understatement.
I was blessed to be able to travel to Bastogne, Belgium, in order to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge – but my journey really began in Wilmington, Delaware, in February of 1941. (RELATED: Read The True Story Behind The Christmas Message Delivered Amid The Blood And Snow Of WWII)
William Franklin Greenplate, my father’s father, was a 23-year-old dairy farm foreman with a wife and two young children when he left everything behind and volunteered to go to war.
We heard little, growing up, about the four years and four months he spent serving his country. When we asked, he’d laugh and ask us how we’d like to eat cold spaghetti out of a can for Christmas dinner.
When we got older, he told us that he had been at the Battle of the Bulge. He told one story — “the dumbest thing I ever did in the Army” — about a trick he and a few others played on the German army that had surrounded them in Bastogne.
“We stripped down a few of the jeeps,” he said. “Turned them into rolling gas cans, and waited for nightfall. Then we turned off all the lights and pushed them as far as we could past the German lines. Then we turned around, flipped on the lights, and prayed like hell we could get back to the city before they caught us.”
The reason, he explained, was simple. Everyone was short on supplies, and if the Germans saw jeeps coming into the city but not leaving, they might believe that the Americans were being resupplied.
He mentioned a Belgian woman who approached him and another member of his unit as they passed a frigid night in the Ardennes forest. She waved for them to follow her — and although they didn’t know whether she was leading them into a trap, they took a chance. She took them to her barn, where she had food and blankets waiting, and allowed them to warm themselves and sleep. They never asked her name, and she didn’t tell them. They all knew that if she were caught harboring Allied soldiers, she was as good as dead.
He complained occasionally of intense pain in his feet — which he attributed to gout — but I always wondered whether he had, like so many others, suffered frostbite in Bastogne.
That was all we knew until PopPop died in 1994, just days shy of his 77th birthday.
After he passed, my father began to dig. He found some military records, patches and awards. And then he found a worn photo album.
The photos his father had taken overseas had miraculously survived the brutal elements, and they helped my dad begin to piece together the parts of the story PopPop had never been able to tell.
From R&R in the Netherlands to the liberation of concentration camps in western Czechoslovakia, he had documented almost everything — and along with a few additional records, they led us to small group of soldiers in Bastogne who had become known as Team SNAFU.
In the two decades that followed, my dad’s search widened. He had always loved to read and military stories had always fascinated him — but his focus narrowed, and he zeroed in on stories about the Bulge. He read everything he could find on the subject, looking for mentions of Team SNAFU, and often coming up empty.
By the time he died in January of 2017, he had amassed a large collection of books — but none offered the history of Team SNAFU that he had sought.
But when one soldier falls, the mission continues. And now, the mission is mine.