By Ron Jensen
Published in The Burg on December 16, 2021
On December 16 in 1944, the largest battle in American military history began when GIs in Belgium and Luxembourg were awakened by a German artillery barrage.
Adolf Hitler’s desperate attempt to stave off defeat in World War II would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. It would end six weeks later in an Allied victory, but not before 100,000 Americans had been killed or wounded.
One of them who died was Pvt. George Ottmar Mergenthaler, a 24-year-old from New York state and heir to a fortune of tens of millions of dollars.
I stumbled across Mergenthaler’s story in 1989 when I was a reporter for Stars & Stripes, the military’s newspaper overseas, and traveling through the area of the great battle.
Mergenthaler was in the 28th Cavalry Recon Troop (Mech) when the unit arrived in the tiny village of Eschwiler, Luxembourg, in mid-November, fresh from bloody combat in the Huertgen Forest. The Germans were on the run and everyone assumed the war was in its final weeks.
For 30 days, the Americans mingled with the villagers, helping with chores, sharing meals in their homes and being lauded as liberators.
Mergenthaler, who had put his Ivy League education on hold to enlist, was especially popular because he spoke French and German. He played games with the children and posed as Santa Claus at a Christmas party.
The German offensive reached Eschwiler on Dec. 18. As the villagers fretted, Mergenthaler put his arm around Father Bodson, the village priest, and said, “Don’t worry, Father. We’ll drive them back.”
He took charge of a .50-caliber machine gun at the edge of the village as the Germans advanced. The Americans fought hard but were forced to flee.
Three months later, Virginia Huberty, a local woman who knew Mergenthaler, found his body in a shallow grave. No one knows who put it there.
The villagers reinterred him in a moving ceremony that brought out the entire town. Two years later, Mergenthaler’s family had his body removed again for final burial in a family plot in Rochester, N.Y.
The people of Eschwiler erected a monument on the spot of the first grave that reads in French: “On this place, 18 Dec. 1944, a valiant American soldier George Mergenthaler, died for the liberation of the world.”
Beneath those words is an alteration of the promise Mergenthaler made to Father Bodson: “My father, do not fear. I will defend you.”
Inside the door of the village church is a bas-relief image of Mergenthaler and the words, “This only son died that other sons might live in love and peace.”
A mural on the church wall depicts Jesus feeding the multitudes. One smiling figure in the painting wears a brown cloak, but unlike other characters in the artwork, his hair is short.
The collar of an American soldier’s uniform peeks out at the neck of the cloak. The figure is, of course, Mergenthaler.
The Battle of the Bulge proved to be Hitler’s last gasp. The Allies advanced through Germany and forced a surrender four months later.
This weekend, the town of Eschweiler, as it has done for more than 75 years, will pause to honor the handsome, friendly American whose memory fills their town like the winter fog.
(The author was raised near Gerlaw and went to school in Alexis. He has worked for The Review Atlas, The Register-Mail and other publications.)