Michael E. Ruane (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Albert Darago had never fired a bazooka before. He was an “ack-ack” guy, a fuse-cutter on a 90mm antiaircraft gun. But on Dec. 19, 1944, the brass was looking for volunteers to go after some German tanks. And Darago said sure.
He was a 19-year-old, color-blind draftee, a native of Baltimore’s Little Italy and a musician who played piano and clarinet. He was no hero, he said.
But when Adolf Hitler launched the massive attack that began World War II’s bloody Battle of the Bulge, he had not reckoned on GIs like Darago.
Seventy years ago, Darago, now 89, crept down a long, open hill with a loaded bazooka, figuring that he was going to die. He peeked over the top of a hedge and, at a distance of a few yards, fired at a German tank, disabling it.
He then scampered back up the hill under heavy fire. “We were in open territory,” he said. “You didn’t need a sharpshooter. Anybody with a gun could have killed us.”
He received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award for valor, after the Medal of Honor.
Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge, so called because of the bulge that the massive surprise German attack made on the Allied lines.
It was a full-scale, last-ditch assault by the German army on Hitler’s western front, five months before the war in Europe ended.
About 19,000 Americans were killed in the wintry, month-long battle, 47,500 were wounded, and 23,000 were captured or were reported missing in action.
Last week, “Al” Darago sat in an easy chair in his apartment in Parkeville, Md., with his medal framed on the wall above the piano, and said all he had done was help disrupt the Nazi timetable.
By December 1944, the Allies thought that Nazi Germany was near defeat. Allied armies had surged across France after the D-Day landings that June and had crossed into Germany in some places.
“We thought the war was about over,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude “Mick” Kicklighter, chairman of the Friends of the National World War II Memorial’s board. “We were caught by, I think, almost total surprise.”
On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans attacked with more than 200,000 troops and hundreds of tanks along a 75-mile front through the rugged Ardennes forest in Belgium and Luxembourg.
The area, in part, was patrolled by relatively weak U.S. forces — green troops who had just arrived, and battle-weary soldiers who needed a rest, said National Archives senior curator Bruce Bustard, whose father fought in the battle.
For most of the green troops, “it was the first Christmas they’d been away from home,” said retired Brig. Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., whose father commanded a tank battalion in the battle. “And there they were fighting to liberate Europe.”
As the German army overran U.S. defenses, they were met by pockets of stiff resistance, including some of which had hundreds of African American troops in the then-segregated Army.
The most famous resistance came from the 101st Airborne Division and other units in the Belgian crossroads village of Bastogne. When the Germans called on the beleaguered Americans there to surrender, their commander, McAuliffe, replied, “Nuts!”
But there were other stubborn American outposts, Bustard said, “small groups of U.S. soldiers who are delaying the German advance.”
“Maybe it’s a company,” he said. “Maybe its a squad of U.S. soldiers that held on to a crossroads for an extra 10 or 15 minutes.”
In Darago’s case, it was a guy or two with a bazooka — a shoulder-fired antitank weapon.
He had been part of his artillery gun’s loading team in the mobile 143d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion. The gun fired a potent round that resembled a small missile, and it could be used against aircraft, tanks or troops.
On Dec. 19, 1944, his outfit was caught up in the fighting near a Belgian town called Stoumont, north of Bastogne and west of Malmedy, where German soldiers had executed American POWs two days earlier.
“We were coming into Stoumont,” Darago said. “They told us to unload the ammunition . . . and start digging foxholes, because the Germans are right down that hill and [would] be up here pretty soon.'”
As Darago dug and as the ground around was hit by enemy fire, he met a friend, Roland Seamon, then 19, from Shinniston, W.Va.
“He said, ‘Hey, Al, they’re looking for volunteers to go down this hill and knock this tank out. They’ve got a couple tanks down there. We should go down and knock them down,’ ” Darago recalled.
They approached a lieutenant and Durago asked, “What did you have in mind?” The officer explained, and Darago and Seamon volunteered.
They were given bazookas, a weapon Darago said he had never fired before. “I didn’t know the first thing about them,” he said.
The officer advised the two to fire into the tanks’ rear-engine compartment, according to a 1945 article about their deeds in the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
The bazookas were loaded, and the pair set off separately, Darago said.
There was no cover, and he headed down the hill under fire, according to his medal citation.
“I knew I was going to get it before I got down there, but God was with me,” he said.
At the bottom of the hill was a hedge. He stuck his weapon over it and spotted, not two but four German tanks backed up by infantry.
“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “And you never heard such a racket and noise when that thing hit. . . . I heard them hollering and screaming.”
He said he didn’t linger and ran back up the hill as German soldiers fired at him.
The lieutenant asked how he had done.
“I got a hit,” Darago said he responded. The officer said, “How about going down and making sure?”
With a reloaded weapon, he crept down the hill again, looked over the hedge and spotted his tank, apparently immobilized. He fired again and got another hit, and this time it caught fire.
Again, he escaped.
Seamon, who Darago said died several years ago, had similar success. Both received the Distinguished Service Cross, with its blue and red ribbon and cross and eagle medallion.
Last week, Darago,who has white hair and hearing aids, sat in the light of a reading lamp with his eyeglasses on a cord around his neck. His wife of 66 years, Dorothea, sat nearby.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t even think about it,” he said of volunteering for the task. “It was something that had to be done and we did it. . . . I never considered myself brave. . . . Somebody had to do it, and I was there.”