Continued from my previous post ...
With everyone still suffering the effects of the spoiled Christmas turkey, two days later they boarded the S. S. Empire Javelin to travel across the English Channel to Le Havre, France on their way to the Battle of the Bulge, which had already begun. The Germans knew more troops were coming, and they were ready and waiting for the Fifteenth Army.
Master Sergeant John Henel will now and forever say that a cigarette saved his life. It was nighttime on December 28, 1944. The S. S. Empire Javelin was scooting calmly across the English Channel. John went out on deck because he desperately needed a smoke, and the captain wasn’t too keen about him smoking below deck. Right as he was taking a drag, a German submarine, watching malevolently below the water, torpedoed the S. S. Empire Javelin. John was thrown from his feet with unspeakable force, not even knowing what hit him. One moment he was having a smoke and the next he was lying there on the deck, bruised. All of his buddies, those he fought so hard to remain with, were killed. Four hundred and seventy were lost when the torpedo hit the hold where the soldiers slept soundly within. But reality wouldn’t hit until later. With John’s cigarette thrown far from him with the force of the torpedo, he focused his energy on being rescued.
The rescue effort was led by a fast French warship called a corvette. The swells of the ocean were stories high as the French corvette was along side the sinking Javelin. Soldiers jumped from the boat as a swell brought the corvette to the same height as the Javelin. Many men were crushed between the boats and rescued with broken limbs. Others fell in the water between the corvette and the Javelin, and drowned. In twenty minutes time, the crew watched as their ship sank before their eyes. The German submarine had torpedoed it yet again.
On December 29, 1944 the Fifteenth Army collapsed on “The Beach” at Le Havre, France. The Red Cross, unaware of the recent tragedy, was a full mile away and the disheartened soldiers, wounded in body and spirit, were made to walk the mile for aid. Suddenly, in the midst of their mile walk, the troops were startled by German fighter planes flying overhead! The troops, still sick from the spoiled turkey, hid in the trenches. Late on that same night they arrived at what they would call “Pneumonia Palace” in Harfleur, France. From the trenches to this? An abandoned building with no heat in the dead of winter? It didn’t matter. With their bodies dehydrated and shaking, the troops first realized the truth of their situation. They got down on their knees and prayed. That’s when it hit them: that close connection that all soldiers, past and present, share. The sadness of losing friends in such a devastating blast. The joy of being alive.
While trying hard to deal with these conflicting feelings, another member of the Fifteenth Army, J. C. Hazen, Jr., immortalized the experience through his original drawings. Finally, the Fifteenth Army received reinforcements from their counterpart still stationed in the United States. They were housed elsewhere by those in France and even by the friendliest in Belgium before they found themselves in the Ruhr Pocket in the Battle of the Bulge. The snow was as high as their waists. But the Germans were defeated. And the troops were shipped home where Master Sergeant John Henel was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroic and meritorious achievement and service in combat.
Concluded in the next post ...