Bill Soderman’s engagement with German panzers and infantry lasted over 16 hours, until mid-morning on Dec. 18. The environment that night and morning was a perfect match for Bill’s stealth and cunning, with almost no moon and very heavy fog after daybreak. Bill would knock out two more tanks as well and kill at least three German infantry with his carbine from a platoon sent into the woods to protect their armor. With Bill Soderman on the job, the Nazis were going to have to find another way through Belgium.
Later that morning, Soderman received two grievous wounds in the right upper chest and shoulder when tanks blocked by the wrecks on the narrow road attempted to protect their flanks by hosing down the woods with machine gun fire. Unarmed and badly injured, Bill managed to crawl through the woods and along a roadside ditch to safety, leaving a blood trail nearly a mile long. By effectively blocking two roads with the tanks he disabled, Bill’s action through that morning likely saved the lives of hundreds of other Americans.
What could have been going through Bill’s mind during those 16 long hours in the frozen woods? Certainly he must have thought of his own mom and dad back home in West Haven Christmas shopping at Shartenberg’s or ordering holiday pies from Wolfe’s Bakery. Maybe he had time to recall his three years playing football at Westie High.
This time the “enemy” wasn’t just a bunch of kids in leather helmets running around a muddy playing field; this time they were grown men in steel helmets armed to the teeth with rifles, machine guns, mortars, and tanks. Let’s hope he didn’t have time to torture himself with memories of a good soft shell crab from Savin Rock, the sweet aroma of Zuppardi’s round loaves baking on Union Avenue, or the hot buttered popcorn at the Rivoli Theatre.
During the 17th, 18th, and 19th of December at least 69 German tanks were destroyed in and around the villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath. But stopping the Wehrmacht in the “Battle of the Twin Villages” exacted a terrible toll in GI blood. After one week of intense round-the-clock fighting in the area, the US Army lost nearly 5000 men killed or missing, making it one of the most costly efforts in US military history.
And what motivated Bill Soderman? Old soldiers would probably say that Bill just didn’t want to see any more young Americans lying dead in the snow or any more Gold Stars in the windows of his hometown. We’ll never know. He took those heartfelt memories to his grave when he passed away in 1980.
What the anti-military types have never understood is that men like Bill Soderman and Audie Murphy did what they did, not out of some deranged machismo blood lust, but because they were desperately attempting to save the lives of others. Bill Soderman was a very quiet man.
In January 1945 my 19-year-old father, who had left West Haven High School in his junior year to enlist in the Air Force, would be shot down in a B-24 bomber which crashed behind German lines in Belgium. He would be MIA for over three weeks, before being picked up by a British Army patrol and evacuated to England to fly more missions with the 446th Bomb Group out of Bungay, East Anglia. His older brother, a tanker in George Patton’s Third Army, was back in action in France after recovering from injuries caused by a Luftwaffe bomb blast.
My Danish grandparents, Richard and Ellen Hogfeldt, were proud to have two young sons fighting in Europe. And they were proud to be newly-minted Americans, having received their citizenship papers after the requisite seven-year waiting period as legal emigrants to the US. My grandfather worked at Winchester’s in New Haven, and then second shift at High Standard in Hamden drilling .50 caliber machine gun barrels.
Their younger son would use those gun barrels that winter from his position as nose gunner in a B-24, sometimes in a vain attempt to stop Luftwaffe ME-262 jets blitzing 8th Air Force bomber formations at near Mach 1closing speeds.
Grandma Ellen worked at Seamless Rubber in New Haven, making surgical gloves used by military doctors attempting to repair the broken bodies of young Americans, bodies which were being broken in huge numbers as a seemingly endless war staggered to its conclusion. With both of their sons in combat overseas, and now one MIA in Belgium in January, my grandparents, never very devout Lutherans, began attending church more regularly.
Bill Soderman’s sector of the Bulge in the twin Belgian villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath was the only area of the entire 80-mile long battlefront that December where the German Army failed to make a significant advance into American lines. After the war, one of the Wehrmacht’s most respected and skillful generals, Hasso von Manteuffel, stated, “We failed because our right flank ran its head against a wall.”
A strapping 6 foot 200 pound brick in that wall was a private in the 2nd Infantry Division, William A. Soderman of West Haven. The quiet guy from First Avenue.