World War II Vet Shares His Battle of the Bulge Experience

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Local resident Bill Haefliger speaks at last week’s Rotary Club of San Marino luncheon, detailing his experience being deployed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
Local resident Bill Haefliger speaks at last week’s Rotary Club of San Marino luncheon, detailing his experience being deployed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

At last week’s Rotary Club of San Marino luncheon, a Rotarian asked guest speaker Bill Haefliger what his views on war are.
Haefliger, 92, and recently retired from a private law practice, was ready with an answer.
“What’s my view? Stay out of it,” he answered.
Haefliger is certainly as authoritative as they come. The longtime San Marino resident, as a U.S. Army draftee, was on the very front of the front lines in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium when Nazi Germany’s army began its last real fight to round out World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was lucky to get through the damn thing,” he told Rotarians. “I’m glad that turned out to be the culminating event.”
Born in 1925 in Illinois, Haefliger said he was drafted at 18 into the 99th Infantry Division and was in basic training in Texas where he was sent to officer training at Louisiana State University, emerging a corporal. His division was sent to Europe and ordered, along with the 106th Infantry Division, to man the Allied line in the Ardennes just west of the German border.
By Haefliger’s own admission, both divisions were “weak” because neither had seen combat at that point.
“Why the (Allied) command in Paris put two weak divisions side by side, I have no idea,” he said. “I’m sure Hitler observed that, and his staff ended up deciding to attack the Americans right at that point, where they were weakest. It was a good decision.”
The Battle of the Bulge, which took place from Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945, ended up being the hardest-fought battle for American forces in Europe’s World War II theater. The German surprise attack during the harsh winter conditions took advantage of underprepared Allied forces whose supply lines were thin as a result of their rapid advancement inland following the D-Day beach landings.
“By that time, we had been at the front about a month,” Haefliger said. “At night, in the clear cold winter air, you could hear vehicle engines by the thousands roaring over on the German side. That indicated they were planning an attack.
“Everything was pretty quiet until Dec. 16,” he continued. “We were in foxholes out on the outpost. Suddenly at about 4:30 in the morning, a tremendous barrage began. I’m told the Germans had 1,600 [artillery] guns facing us from the west wall, waiting to bombard us. That’s what they did.”
German forces quickly forced the 106th Division into surrender, but Haefliger’s division held the line even in the face of German advancement and little-to-no support. Eventually, the division was brought back to hold a defensive line as the Allies organized to repel the Germans.
“At nighttime, at midnight, on the last night, the U.S. artillery opened up and blasted the area we were going through,” Haefliger explained. “The German forces cleared out. We just ran through this area as fast as we could. Finally, we made it to the re-established lines, back about 2 miles. From there, we were relatively safe. We were behind our own lines.”
Ultimately, Haefliger spent the rest of the war away from that line, as frostbitten feet first brought him back to Paris, and later the United Kingdom, for recovery and work on a supply detail.
Upon his return to the U.S., Haefliger earned a mechanical engineering degree from Caltech in 1950 and worked while earning his law degree at night at Loyola Law School. He has lived in San Marino since 1962.
Haefliger offered parting advice to the Rotary Club, which had invited him as the guest speaker in observance of Veterans Day and also included numerous maps to help illustrate the story.
“Don’t ever get near a lot of artillery that’s blasting out,” he said.

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