Seventy-one years ago today, a great battle was raging in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. On the morning of December 16, thousands of German soldiers began pouring through the weakest sector of the broad Allied front in an offensive that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. For the Germans, the attack was borne of desperation. With the Soviets bearing down in the East, morale sinking at home, and many in the German high command beginning to doubt whether the war could still be won, Hitler rolled the dice in a tremendous and costly gamble. His goal was to break the back of the Americans and British on the Western Front, driving back their gains from the previous months and potentially retaking the port of Antwerp. If all went well, Hitler could force another scene such as that of Dunkirk in 1940; if all did not, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers would be wiped out in a desperate and foolish attack.
Though no one could have foreseen it when it began, the Battle of the Bulge would be the largest American battle of World War Two. The over 80,000 American casualties in that battle alone amounted to almost ten percent of American combat casualties in the entire war. While initially caught off guard by the massive German attack, American reinforcements were quickly rushed to the point of attack, smashing into the large salient formed by the German advance. By the end of January 1945, American forces had reclaimed all of the ground they lost during the battle. These gains were only made through sacrifice, suffering, and grit during the cold and unforgiving winter.
While the Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, it was an incident on the second day of the German offensive—December 17—that reminds us of the cruelty of war, and the steep price paid by common soldiers for the freedoms we have today. It is also through the events of 71 years ago today that we find one of several connections between the Battle of the Bulge and Gettysburg.
Born on January 21, 1916, Frederick Clark was a native of Western Pennsylvania. He came from a large family of hardworking people, typical of the region in so many ways. His father David was a 45 year old coal miner who had an 8th grade education. His mother Clara was 34. Frederick was one of nine children, all living together in one house in the city of Pittsburgh. The oldest, Sylvester Clark, was working in a steel mill at the age of 17.
By 1930, with the Great Depression taking deep hold of the country, David Clark was in his mid-fifties and out of work. His three eldest sons—Sylvester, Archie and Charles—were working as laborers at odd jobs to help keep the family afloat. His brother Sam, who worked in a steel mill, moved in with the family to provide more support.
Ten years later, according to the 1940 census, most of David and Clara’s children had moved out. With fewer people living in the house and providing an income, Clara Clark was working in an office building in Pittsburgh to help make ends meet. Frederick, who was then 24 years old, was unemployed, but listed as actively seeking work.
The Clark family experienced what millions of other common Americans did during the 1930s. During tight economic times, families pulled together. With David out of work, the rest had to pitch in to support themselves during the difficult years of the Great Depression. And, as with so many, the onset of war in 1941 meant that the world would change once again for the Clark Family.
Frederick left home and enlisted in the U.S. Army on January 11, 1943. We know little about the circumstances of Frederick’s enlistment, other than he had been listed as seeking employment on the 1940 census. According to his enlistment records, his highest education was at grammar school, and he was single with no dependents. He stood just less than five and a half feet tall, and weighed 138 pounds.
Private First Class Frederick Clark served in Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. After spending time training and preparing for war stateside, Clark and his battery arrived in France in August 1944, coming through Omaha Beach just over two months after American troops had first landed there. As a part of a Field Artillery Observation Battalion, Clark’s job was not that of a typical front line combat soldier. His battery, like many others, was responsible for tracking and placing enemy artillery locations. Observation Battalions didn’t have heavy artillery or weaponry, and thus, could be at the mercy of enemy forces in close range combat. This led to major problems for Clark and his comrades during the Battle of the Bulge.
On December 17, the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was caught up in the melee of the German attack. American units were moving quickly to form new defensive positions to stop the enemy advance. Clark’s battery was headed through the town of Malmedy on their way toward St. Vith, where they were to assist in the city’s defenses. Upon driving south toward the Baugnez Crossroads, they were caught off guard and hit by column of SS panzers and half-tracks led by Joachim Peiper. As the German fire began to tear apart the American column, vehicles were disabled and chaos ensued. Some drivers turned their trucks into ditches to avoid the incoming artillery and machine gun fire from Peiper’s men. According to Corporal George Fox, PFC Frederick Clark was among a small number cornered by a German tank. When Clark and his comrades raised their arms to surrender, heavy machine gun fire erupted, and Clark was struck directly in the chest. While Clark was among the first to die, he certainly was not the last. Having overwhelmed the American column, Peiper’s SS men rounded up some 130 American soldiers as prisoners. After taking whatever valuables the men had, the SS opened fire on them with machine guns, mowing down the defenseless POWs. When the machine gun fire stopped, SS officers walked among the corpses, taking care to shoot many of them in the head with pistols to insure that they were indeed dead. While some fled and got away safely, 84 Americans were killed in what became known as the Malmedy Massacre.
Frederick Clark was one of the first to die in one of the darkest moments of the Battle of the Bulge. While history and the general public have given their attention to the brave stand of the 101st Airborne Infantry at Bastogne and the heroism of Patton’s Third Army racing northward to break the German advance, we must not forget the tragedy of what occurred just south of Malmedy, when SS troops committed a war crime against Americans of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The few survivors who had witnessed the atrocity and were able to escape with their lives told whomever they could about what they had seen. Word of what had happened spread quickly through the American and Allied lines, causing many units to decide to take no prisoners during the fighting to come.
The Baugnez crossroads remained in German hands for several weeks while the battle raged. In the cold Belgian winter, the bodies remained frozen until American forces could retake the ground where they had fallen. Efforts were made to identify and gather the bodies, as well as to document the area as the scene of a war crime. It took weeks before all the remains could be recovered. Among those bodies was that of Frederick Clark.
After the end of the war, Peiper and a number of his soldiers would be charged with war crimes for what had occurred at Malmedy and elsewhere. Though Peiper himself was not physically present for the shooting of the American POWs, the Malmedy Massacre was part of a larger pattern of atrocities against prisoners and civilians alike for Peiper and troops under his command. He and several others were later tried and convicted of war crimes, serving time in prison. Years later, in the 1970s, Peiper was living in France, trying to remain unknown, when his identity was discovered and he was murdered.
For PFC Frederick Clark, war crimes trials would be irrelevant. He had lost his life—and David and Clara Clark had lost a son. PFC Clark’s body was first buried in a nearby American cemetery at Henri Chappelle, and in 1948, at the request of his family, his body was brought home to be interred in the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, where he remains today. PFC Clark is buried in Section 2, Grave number 370.
Several years later, once Frederick Clark’s body had been brought back to Pennsylvania, his mother Clara applied for a pension from the Federal government. David Clark had died less than a year after Frederick, passing away in August of 1945. Having gone through many hardships in life, enduring the grueling work days of a Pennsylvania coal miner and seeing his family struggle to get through the Great Depression, David Clark lived long enough to know that his son died on a cold day in Belgium, just south of the town of Malmedy, as a result of machine gun fire from an SS Panzer unit. Clara was awarded a pension from the government as a small thanks for the price her family had paid during the war.
Today, in the midst of the Christmas Season, when so many are rushing about with errands for holiday parties and shopping lists, let us not forget the terrible price that has been paid through the years. The proof of that price is unmistakably clear in cemeteries across the country—indeed, across the world—and it is readily evident here in Gettysburg. Alongside those who gave their lives in Pennsylvania in 1863, there are those who carried on fighting for the promise of freedom and democratic government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” in later wars.
The Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg contains the remains of those who fought and died on battlefields spanning the globe. The death that came to these soldiers was not always heroic. Often, it was far from home, in a cold and remote farmer’s field near a crossroads in Belgium, one which countless Americans would never hear nor know of, one which would forever live on in the hearts and minds of those who survived the war. Soldiers die in many ways, and for many reasons. Sometimes, their deaths are a part of a grand charge on a hot July afternoon. Sometimes, they are cut down by enemy fire when trying to surrender on a frigid December day. No matter the place, no matter the day, from Gettysburg to Malmedy, from Pearl Harbor to the Meuse-Argonne, those sacrifices must not be forgotten. When Lincoln spoke of “these honored dead” in his Gettysburg Address, he was speaking not just of those who had died in Gettysburg, but of all those who had sacrificed or would sacrifice to save those same freedoms of which he spoke that November day in 1863. It is up to us today to heed President Lincoln’s words, taking “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” lines true for those who fell at Gettysburg, and for those who died in the Malmedy Massacre, 71 years ago today.
Ranger Daniel Vermilya,
Gettysburg National Military Park
The author is indebted to the scholarship of Licensed Battlefield Guide Stuart Dempsey, whose previous work on the Malmedy Massacre can be found at: