My wounded father in the Battle of the Bulge

By Chuck Norris

With the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge running right now, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 25, I thought I’d share a story about my biological father, Ray Norris, who fought in that last major German offensive campaign of World War II.

Actually, my 98-year old mother, Wilma Norris-Knight, detailed his whole war account in her autobiography, “Acts of Kindness: My Story.” I think you’ll find it very interesting, and maybe worthy to share with your loved ones and friends on your social media during this 75th anniversary month as so many are uninformed about the brave men and women who died in that surprise attack on the U.S. and her allies.

With the Allied Forces being lulled by the countering invasion and conquest of D-Day, this epic German offensive in the region of Belgium became the second-deadliest battle in America history, resulting in U.S. armed forces suffering 75,000 casualties with 20,000 deaths.

Dad was officially enlisted in June of 1944, serial No. 38711848. His terms of enlistment were: “Enlistment for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law.” His civilian occupation was noted as: “Semiskilled welder and flame cutter.”

My father’s military photo (1944).

Dad was initially about 800 miles away from our home in Wilson, Oklahoma, at Fort McClelland in Alabama, where he was going through boot camp and training. Mom and I went out to see him once by Greyhound bus. Even though we were only able to visit a few days, it was a special time for all of us, especially for me.

We had hoped the war might end by the time Dad actually finished his training, but there was no such luck. Dad was deployed to the front lines in France and Belgium, entering the war just months before the Battle of the Belgian Bulge – Adolf Hitler’s so-called last stand.

It was 1944, and under Gen. Eisenhower, the Allied forces were making great advances across Europe and against Hitler, who was deeply frustrated because his generals were unable to defeat the Allied landings in Normandy or slow down Allied advances across France and through Belgium and the Netherlands. So, in December of that year, Hitler launched a massive counterattack against the Allied forces under the greatest of secrecy, minimizing radio communications and maximizing night moves.

Americans and British were overconfident based upon their previous months’ advances and success. Their complacency, together with bad weather and minimal intelligence, laid the groundwork for the Americans being captured by surprise.

On Dec. 16, 1944, the Battle of the Bulge began, as German divisions attacked on a 50-mile front. The U.S. and its Allies got a huge wake-up call that Hitler wasn’t done fighting.

American soldiers of the 290th Infantry Regiment 75th Division photographed in the dead of winter in the Ardennes forest in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge (Jan. 4, 1945).

Eisenhower countered with airborne divisions over the small city of Bastogne, Belgium, which had been surrounded by Germans. During the winter of 1944-45, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were deployed in the Ardennes region of extensive forests, mostly in Belgium.

Temporary relief from the bad weather allowed more Allied air attacks. Gen. Patton directed the entire Third Army to pray. Military leaders and presidents weren’t too proud to pray then, even in public; they knew it was spiritual arsenal.

The weather cleared even more, and Allied ground forces counterattacked.

In his Dec. 22 military address and directive, Gen. Eisenhower stated: “By rushing out from his fixed defenses, the enemy may give us the chance to turn his great gamble into his worst defeat. So I call upon every man, of all the Allies, to rise now to new heights of courage. With unshakable faith in the cause for which we fight, we will, with God’s help, go forward to our greatest victory.”

Two days later President Franklin Roosevelt stated: “It is not easy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to you, my fellow Americans, in this time of destructive war … but we will celebrate this Christmas Day in our traditional American way … because the teachings of Christ are fundamental in our lives … the story of the coming of the immortal Prince of Peace.”

What ensued from there was over a month (until roughly Jan. 25, 1945) of some of the most intense, grueling and brutally cold fighting of the war, during which time Allies lost much of the ground they had gained the year before.

Dad wrote as often as he could. The wintry conditions over there were horrid: snow, bitter cold temperatures, frozen ground for fox holes, mines, booby traps, German pill boxes (fortified bunkers) with connecting trenches, constant bombs being dropped from planes, etc. What wasn’t being pelted by enemy fire and arsenal was being attacked by frostbite.

Mom and I would listen nightly to the radio for any war updates, progress and hope. I remember later hearing that Truman had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The reality of war was difficult for us to fully comprehend in our small rural town of Wilson. We didn’t have television until about 1950, so we didn’t see the images. All we had was the radio. If we could have seen the carnage (even of Pearl Harbor), it would have been much more difficult on us. (Today, it’s so much different, because everything is shown on television, and it makes the world seem much smaller.)

By early January of 1945, U.S. and British airborne divisions and ground forces gained the upper hand and were weakening the Nazi forces. Hitler’s troops were low on supplies, broken in spirit, with their leadership unraveling at the seams.

A few months later, April 30, 1945, their führer committed suicide by gunshot, and the Third Reich finally collapsed.

The 75,000 casualties America suffered in the Battle of the Bulge is the single largest number in any particular battle in the war. Compare that with the total U.S. casualties in the war: 405,399 deaths and an additional 607,846 wounded (U.S. missing in action – 30,314; combat deaths – 291,557; other deaths – 113,842).

One of those wounded warriors was Ray Norris.

One of many letters my father sent my mom while in the military.

Was dad maimed, MIA or both?

While Dad was fighting in Europe, Mom received two telegrams from the Red Cross – one that he was “missing in action” and the next a few months later that he had been found but “wounded.”

When Mom received the first telegram, her heart sank through the floor, expecting the worst. To read that he was missing in action left us not only incredibly grief-stricken but totally confused. Where was he? Was he captured by the Germans?

We all prayed fervently in those days, during which there were many sleepless nights. My brother and I were so young, and it was impossible for Mom to explain to us what was going on, but I was old enough (4 ½ years) to know mom was depressed over something.

Years later, mom found out from dad’s psychiatrist (in Long Beach, California) that his buddy in the war was wounded, and dad had run back to get him. The troops were on the move (sometimes literally on the run from the Nazis), and they were not supposed to run back away from their platoons. When dad did, he lost contact with his team, and so they assumed he was MIA. But he ran into another platoon and joined them, until he was able to return to his own unit.

Mom didn’t know how much time elapsed, but it seemed like forever (probably a few months) until she received the second telegram that Dad was located but wounded. Still, we didn’t know how bad it was. It seemed that a bomb (presumably from a plane) had struck near his foxhole and buried him.

We later learned that he had sustained severe leg wounds, either from bullets or shrapnel, which required treatment in a European military hospital over the next several months. He was then transported back to a Texas military hospital in the states for a few more months.

In all, Dad was deployed in Europe for about a year – a very long and hard year, one that would change his life forever, and ours too.

Mom mentioned nothing to us boys about our dad’s whereabouts or condition, as we were simply too young to process such information. We just kept praying daily for him, and our mom with a genuine optimism and trust in God that her husband would be brought home safely. Only when she was certain of his return did she mention to me that my dad was coming home, though she couldn’t be certain of the exact day. Back then, we did a lot of waiting.

Mom used to tell us boys that one day our daddy would come home and that he would be dropped off at the bus stop. So, I used to sit out on the front porch and just wait for my dad to appear.

Then one day I came in discouraged and said, “Mom, he’s not coming home.”

Just as all hope seemed lost, I looked down the street and saw my dad walking up using his crutches. I went running into my dad’s arms!

My mom began to weep as she ran up to him. We all embraced and wept.

Dad had lost a lot of weight. But something else had happened inside of him. I could feel something had changed, or, better put, died. The ravages of war had taken their toll upon Dad’s body and especially his soul. He seemed stripped of rural Oklahoman innocence. Like an unbridled mare, it seemed as if restraint had left him.

It was then that everything began to turn sour in our relationship and family – such a tragic turn from such a triumphal and joyous homecoming.

We moved out of my grandma’s house into a hotel apartment on West Main Street, my mom hoping that they could rekindle the times they had early in their marriage. But such hope would be dashed to the prairie winds.

Dad would often drop mom, me and my little brothers off at my grandparents, so he could go out, drink and get into his mischief. But she always kept Dad’s neglectful and reckless behaviors as far as she could from her parents.

Truth is, my father suffered from massive PTSD. They just didn’t know what to do with it back then. The diagnoses and treatments were far inadequate compared to today, not to mention the help for families with veterans suffering from PTSD. It is still a giant health and welfare concern that Washington needs to address even more. But that’s a subject and story for another day.

I’m proud of the patriotism in our lineage. My father fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge. I served for four years in the Air Force in South Korea, and my brother Aaron served in the Army on the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Our brother, Wieland, was killed in action in Vietnam when he walked point alone and drew out enemy fire so that others in his platoon could fight their way out to freedom. Many souls were saved on that day (June 3, 1970) because of my brother’s bravery and sacrifice. I dedicated many of my action movies in Wieland’s memory and honor. (Again, our mom wrote a chapter on each of us men and our military service – and for the first time tells Wieland’s war story at length – in her autobiography, “Acts of Kindness: My Story.”)

Any time my wife, Gena, and I have an opportunity to show appreciation for our veterans, we will do it. I hope my dad’s story spurred on your patriotism and served as one more reminder of the debt we owe to those who have served and serve in the U.S. military in times of war and peace.

Author Claudia Pemberton was absolutely right: “America without her soldiers would be like God without his angels.”

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