My uncle, Staff Sergeant John D. Osborne, served in Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion during World War II.
His service to this nation ended 65 years ago today.
Some readers–mostly likely older people–will instantly recognize the circumstances that ended his life. The unit name and the date are enough. Others might remember movies about the Battle of the Bulge and vaguely recall the story, their memories goosed perhaps by the recent snow and subzero weather that has gripped the Upper Midwest for the last week or so.
Here is the story that put a gap in the generations on my mother’s side of the family. According to Wikipedia:
… an American convoy of about thirty vehicles, mainly elements of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (FAOB), was negotiating the crossroads and turning right, toward Ligneuville, in order to reach Sankt Vith, where it was ordered to join the 7th Armored Division, to which it was attached and which was dispatched there to reinforce city’s defense. The spearhead of Peiper’s group spotted the American convoy and opened fire, immobilizing the first and last vehicles of the column and forcing it to stop. With only rifles and other small arms to defend themselves, the Americans surrendered.
While the German column led by Peiper continued on the road toward Ligneuville, the American prisoners were taken to a field, where they were joined by others captured by the SS earlier in the day. Most of the testimonies later collected from the survivors state that about 120 men were gathered in the field. For reasons that still remain unclear today, the Germans suddenly fired on their prisoners with machine guns. A number of Germans later stated that some prisoners had tried to escape; others alleged that, while left alone in the meadow, the prisoners had somehow recovered their previously discarded weapons and fired on the German troops who continued their progress toward Ligneuville.Of the 88 bodies recovered a month later, most showed wounds to the head, evidence more consistent with mass execution than with an act of self-defense or an attempt to prevent escape.
As soon as the Germans opened fire, the Americans panicked. Some tried to flee; almost all were gunned down where they stood. A few of the soldiers sought shelter in a café at the crossroads; German soldiers set fire to the building, and shot any who tried to escape the flames. Some of those in the field had dropped to the ground and feigned death when the shooting started; but SS troops walked among the groups of bodies and shot in the head any who were found to be alive.
My uncle’s body was found frozen in the snow three weeks later. He is now buried in Fort Snelling. Young friends are soon heading to Afghanistan; prisoners are being transferred from Gitmo. Congress must vote on our war funding.
On a cold day in December, all of these things gather, and I look out into a snow field to contemplate how the past might inform the present, and the present bend the way we read the past. Sleep, John Osborne, beneath the Minnesota snows.