By Arthur H. Gunther III
In war, the human story trumps the “sturm und drang,” the storm and stress played out by the good guys vs. the bad guys. If not for the human element, each side might just as well blow up the other, for war is never the solution. It is inhumane.
And so it was about 70 years ago, just before a war-weary world readied as best it could for Christmas and Hanukkah or had already observed holidays of peace amidst chaos, that the last major German offensive of the War, “Unternehmen Herbstnebel,” the Ardennes campaign, now so famously called the “Battle of the Bulge, began. There would be many stories of humanity, reported and not, in the largest sustained fight on the western front, which continued for three weeks with much life lost and thousands of casualties.
Before the Bulge and after, a related American push to secure the Hurtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border also raged with exceptionally deep loss for a campaign later criticized as tactically unnecessary. It would prove to be the longest fight between U.S. and German forces in World War II.
It was in the Hurtgen where an exceptionally reaffirming story of sacrificing humanity unfolded. There, on Nov. 12, 1944, German Leutnant Friedrich Lengfeld, 23, died of severe wounds sustained while attempting to pull an American soldier out of a minefield. A plaque was set in the Huertgen military cemetery, proclaiming in both German and English: “Here in the Hürtgen Forest, on Nov. 12, 1944, Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld, a German officer, gave his life while trying to save the life of an American soldier lying severely wounded in the 'Wilde Sau' minefield and appealing for medical aid." The lieutenant’s memorial is the only known one for a German soldier placed by opponents in a German military cemetery.
That an act of such compassion and bravery by Lt. Lengfeld and then, even with the great horror of the Bulge and the terror of the Hurtgen (where artillery fragments rained down on troops), that one enemy would honor the other side, reveals once again that war can never kill God’s purpose, which is, of course, humanity.
The writer is a retired newspaperman whose Uncle, Winfield Gunther, lost three fingers to Hurtgen artillery “rain” on Feb. 10, 1945, his son’s birthday. This essay may be reproduced.