Seventy-five years is a long time for a memory to last. But for Harold Billow, a 96-year-old Mount Joy resident, an event that occurred three-quarters of a century ago is one he will never forget.
Billow is the last local survivor — and is believed to be the last remaining survivor — of the Malmedy Massacre that took place on Dec. 17, 1944, at the Baugnez Crossroads in Belgium.
As he has done for years, he decorated his front yard this past week with 87 American flags to honor the men who died from the massacre. On Monday, he will be among a panel of veterans from various wars at a Veterans Day assembly at Donegal High School.
Over the years, Billow has addressed school and civic groups to explain what happened and how he managed to survive. Dozens of photos of him posing in uniform with admirers line his dining room.
He also owns a photo of the memorial wall at the crossroads signed by students from Donegal High School who made trips to Europe in 2017 and 2019 as part of a World War II history program organized by social studies teachers Justin Neideigh and David Dunsavage. The school organizes a tour of European battlefields every other year.
Every Dec. 17, Billow pauses to recall that horrible day. But it’s not just Dec. 17 that brings flashbacks. Every time a mass shooting takes place in this country, Billow says he can visualize the machine guns opening fire on him and his comrades.
In December 1944, Billow was a 21-year-old private with Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion.
Drafted in 1943, he was one of 10 Lancaster Countians in that unit. Others included Luke Swartz and Ernest Bechtel, of Reinholds; Charles Haines, of Columbia; George Steffy, of Stevens; Carl Frey, of Hopeland; Sylvester Herchelroth and James Mattera, of Marietta; Robert “Sketch” Mearig, of Lititz; and Bill Reem, of Elizabethtown.
On Dec. 16, 1944, the German Army launched the Ardennes Offensive — the Battle of the Bulge. The aim was to split the Allied forces by driving to the port of Antwerp. The thrust, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler hoped, would disrupt Allied supply lines and force the British and Americans to settle for a separate peace.
The following day, Battery B was ordered to the Belgian town of St. Vith to establish an observation post. As the convoy of trucks and jeeps turned onto Highway N23 (current-day N62) from Hedomont Road, it came under fire from advance elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper under the command of Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper.
Some of the U.S. vehicles sped away, but the rest were halted by tank and machine gun fire.
If there was a firefight — Billow doesn’t recall any U.S. resistance — it was short-lived.
“Hell, all we had were .30-caliber carbines,” he said. “This was a German armor outfit coming toward us.”
Outgunned and outnumbered, approximately 120 Americans surrendered. They were herded together in a field at the Baugnez Crossroads, just south of Malmedy, to be shot en masse.
As the column of German machanized infantry continued on its way toward St. Vith, a German tank stopped and two machine guns were placed atop its turret and aimed at the GIs.
Moments later, a German command car pulled up. An officer brandishing a pistol — some survivors claimed it was Peiper — stood up in the car, surveyed the prisoners and began firing.
“He shot one guy on the right side of me, then he shot another guy on the left side of me,” Billow recalled. “Then, he hollered something to the guys on top of the tank. They opened up with both machine guns, spraying the field back and forth trying to kill all of us.
“As soon as the machine gun started firing, I went face down in the snow.”
So, too, did Mattera, Mearig, Reem and Bechtel.
More than 20 soldiers managed to escape. But five countians — Frey, Haines, Herchelroth, Steffy and Swartz — were killed or wounded.
When the firing stopped, German soldiers walked among the dead and wounded.
“Anybody that showed signs of life, they would point-blank shoot them in the head to finish them off,” Billow said
He said Swartz, a medic, used his Pennsylvania Dutch to request permission to aid a wounded soldier. The moment he finished bandaging the soldier, both were shot in the head.
When the U.S. Army recaptured the ground four weeks later, they found the bodies covered in snow. Official records show that 40 of the dead suffered head wounds. Others had blunt head wounds suggesting their skulls had been bashed with rifle butts.
Miraculously, Billow, Mearig, Mattera, Bechtel and Reem survived.
As he lay in the snow, Billow tried to control his breathing to avoid detection.
“You wouldn’t believe how little I inhaled and exhaled, so they wouldn’t see the steam coming from my mouth.”
Other German units passed through the crossroads that day, sometimes firing their weapons at the bodies.
Billow remained facedown in the snow for several hours. His only thought, he said, was to get back to U.S. lines so he could tell them about the massacre. He didn’t know if anyone else had survived, but as sundown approached, he heard Mattera’s voice.
“I can still hear him holler, ‘Come on, guys, let’s get out of here!’ ” Billow says.
They sprinted toward Cafe Bodarwe, which sat at the crossroads, and entered the building. Billow suspected that German sentries had seen them. Mearig, who died in 2007, told his grandson, Cory Van Brookhoven, of Lititz, that a person in the cafe warned them that German soldiers were upstairs, and they fled.
“I turned right around, went out across the road to the hedgerow to keep out of the line of fire,” Billow says.
German soldiers set the building ablaze and shot the remaining GIs as they ran out.
Germans manning the tank’s machine guns saw Billow and began firing.
“I looked down once and I saw the dirt kicking up,” he says. “That’s how close they came to getting me.”
While Mearig spent several days trying to find U.S. lines, Billow and others stumbled across soldiers from the 30th Infantry Division and the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion that were in the vicinity.
“They took us to the first-aid station,” he says. “We were all interviewed and all told the same story.”
‘Take no prisoners’
Word of the massacre spread rapidly among U.S. troops. It was reinforced by the reported massacre of other GIs at Bullingen, Belgium, and led to assertions that the German high command had issued a “take no prisoners” edict.
Allied troops retaliated. An estimated 80 German POWs were killed near Chenogne, Belgium, on New Year’s Day 1945.
At war’s end, Billow and Mearig were among those called to Nuremberg, Germany, to testify at war crimes trials of German troops.
Although 43 German soldiers were sentenced to death for the Malmedy Massacre, none were ever executed.
Investigations revealed that U.S. guards had coerced confessions from German prisoners and held mock trials. American Judge LeRoy C. van Roden told the U.S. Secretary of the Army that it was impossible to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.
Families of victims were outraged, as was Billow. To this day, he says if those who shot his buddies that day were lined up, he would have no qualms about shooting them.
German soldiers who had been jailed for their roles in the massacre were released from prison by 1954. Peiper was the last to be released in 1956. He was murdered 20 years later on Bastille Day 1976 while living in France.
One year later
Following Malmedy, Billow was transferred to an Air Force base in Warrington, England. While there he met and courted Vera Waller.
On their wedding day, Billow’s mother-in-law, Gladys, had a surprise for him.
“Her mom says to me, ‘Harold, you were captured by the Germans on December 17, 1944, and now, December 17, 1945, you were captured by the Limeys.”
A smile pursed his lips as he retold the story.
“I had no idea it was one year later.”