By Vic Hogfeldt
Special to the Voice
When I was a kid WWII still loomed large in the public imagination, as it should have. Records show that at least 108 sons of West Haven were lost in that war from a town with only about half its current population. My Italian-American grandmother, Mary Damicis, who owned a home on Washington Avenue, told me when I was a boy that there were five Gold Star mothers between Brown and Main Streets. Everybody lost somebody. West Haven gave more than its fair share.
My dad was a World War II 8th Air Force combat veteran and a Yale graduate. He supported our family on a tire builder’s salary from Armstrong Rubber. We were a URW family and, by the time I was nine, I knew what a contract was and who scabs were. We also knew Bill Soderman, the first and only West Havener ever to receive the Medal of Honor. My father’s family, the Hogfeldt’s, had emigrated from Denmark and moved to Brown Street in the 1920s. Bill’s family came from Sweden, and most of the Scandinavian families in West Haven at the time were linked by the ethnic social organizations to which they belonged, such as the Danish Sisterhood and the Swedish Apollo Society. West Haven was a tightly-knit community back then, and folks tended to watch out for one another. At one point we almost bought Bill’s house on First Ave. Bill worked at the VA for many years and my dad always said that he was one of the quietest guys he’d ever met.
When Billy Soderman played football at West Haven High, they didn’t have signs on the walls saying “If it’s mean, INTERVENE!” On Dec. 17, 1944 Bill didn’t need any signs. But he sure as hell intervened.
Pvt. Soderman’s terrible day began near Rocherath, Belgium with an enormous German artillery barrage, a cataclysm of fire, blood, and steel which cut his infantry battalion to pieces. It was a portion of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, a ferocious and totally unexpected Nazi counter-attack moving west deep into Belgium through Allied lines in the Ardennes Forest.
The “Bulge” occurred during the worst northern European winter in 50 years, with heavy snows and below zero temps that lasted for several weeks, exactly the kind of weather Hitler was counting on to keep tank-busting American Thunderbolt and RAF Typhoon aircraft off his back while his boys made their big move. It would result in more American casualties than any battle before or since, even greater than Gettysburg, when American fought American during the Civil War.
The European war was supposed to be over by Christmas. American military intelligence unanimously believed that as of December the Wehrmacht lacked the capacity to mount a serious counter-offensive. US military production had been allowed to dip that fall, and GI’s on the ground lacked sufficient cold-weather gear to fight a winter war. Not so the Germans, whose own military production actually peaked in November despite a vigorous bombing campaign by the US Air Force and the RAF. Their army also had extensive cold-weather combat experience in Russia and Norway.
Bill’s outfit, the 2nd Infantry Division, had been in nearly constant combat since coming ashore in June on D-Day plus 2. Thirty-two-year-old Private Soderman had demonstrated proficiency with the bazooka back in July when he knocked out a German tank on Hill 192 in France on the road to Saint-Lo. He was now armed with the latest version of that weapon, proudly made by General Electric on Barnum Ave. in Bridgeport, but also requiring its shooter to get real close to a tank for a likely kill. A poorly placed shot would not stop a large tank like a Panther or a Tiger and a bad angle would cause the rocket to bounce harmlessly off the hull.
On the night of Dec. 17 Bill knew that stealth and surprise would be his only allies, and that to effectively destroy a big tank, he would have to get that rocket into the crew compartment where its ammunition was stored. Regardless, the flash of the bazooka would instantly give away his position, drawing fire from every enemy gun in the vicinity.
The German attack began with such speed and violence that there was simply no time for Bill’s unit to evacuate its wounded. Initially, Bill volunteered to stay behind in order to attempt to hand the wounded over to the attacking Nazis, a dubious plan since at that very moment in this offensive the SS at Malmedy were shooting captured Americans in cold blood.
Bill’s commanders knew that an assault by German panzers and infantry would quickly follow their artillery. It was then that Bill decided to take the war into his own freezing hands. He was trained as a bazooka man operating in a two-man team. Bill was the shooter and his partner the loader. But his partner had been wounded in the preceding artillery attack, so Bill had to act alone.
In the growing winter darkness of that December afternoon, Bill lugged a bazooka and several canvas bags filled with rockets into the snowy woods, as well as fragmentation grenades, his M1 carbine and a .45 Colt sidearm. This private was packing some real heat.
He figured that if he could conceal himself beside the narrow road, he might be able to dart out of the woods, shoot a lead tank, and thus block the advance of an armored column. If he moved quickly enough back into the darkened woods, the accompanying German infantry might not be able to see who or what was shooting at their tanks. This might provide precious time for Bill’s battered unit to withdraw to the Elsenborn Ridge four miles to the west.
A few minutes later an American with binoculars spotted five Mark V Panther tanks rounding a bend in the road several hundred yards in the distance. Suddenly a figure sprang out onto the icy road in front of the lead tank, crouched down 15 feet from it, and fired a bazooka. Somebody yelled that the guy must be nuts. The tank exploded, creating an enormous fireball which incinerated its crew and blocked the road. Every other American with two good legs was running like hell in the opposite direction. Bill’s night of tank killing had just begun. As military historian William Cavanagh has written, “Private Soderman began his own private war.”
To be continued.