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'I was young and scared stiff': WWII vet's feet froze at Battle of Bulge

When George M. Morreale turned 18 on Dec. 7, 1943, he registered at the local draft board at Walnut Avenue and Sixth Street in Niagara Falls.

Morreale was a student at Trott Vocational High School, where he was learning how to become a draftsman. He was certain the military would summon him to duty after he graduated in June 1944.

But Uncle Sam surprised the aspiring draftsman and drafted him on March 31, 1944.

"They didn't even let me finish high school," Morreale said.

On Nov. 2, 1944, he stepped off a troop ship in Glasgow, Scotland, and by month's end, had crossed the English Channel to France.

Not long after, on Dec. 7, his 19th birthday, he and other members of the 87th Infantry Division, 3rd Army, began battling the Germans.

"I was young and scared stiff. I didn't realize what I was doing. It was kill or be killed. We had to commit ourselves to battle and that was it," he said.

Nine days later, Morreale was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in what was one of the harshest winters on record in Europe.

"We were on the outskirts of a forest in a field near Bastogne. I was in a two-man foxhole and we took turns sleeping. We were in it seven days and seven nights, and we couldn't get out. We were completely surrounded by the Germans, " the 92-year-old lifelong Niagara Falls resident said.

German tanks were positioned at the edge of the woods, he said, and anytime there was movement, the tanks shelled the field.

K-rations arrived under the cover of night with the quartermaster's unit crawling from foxhole to foxhole to deliver the sustenance.

"It was little cans of potted meat with maybe some crackers and a Hershey bar," Morreale said. "We ate the snow for water."

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George M. Morreale, 92

Hometown and residence: Niagara Falls

Branch: Army

Rank: sergeant

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: March 31, 1944 – Aug. 6, 1945

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge; Bronze Star; European Theater Medal, 2 battle stars

Specialty: infantry squad leader

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The heavy snowfall prevented American fighter planes from taking off and knocking out enemy tanks.

But on Dec. 23, Morreale said, a miracle happened, and when he speaks of it more than seven decades later, it overwhelms him. Haltingly he says:

"The skies opened and was I glad to see the sunshine. There was the beautiful sight and sound of our planes, and that's when the Germans started to retreat."

Morreale and the others soldiers emerged from their foxholes and started moving forward.

"I felt like I was walking on stumps. I didn't realize it but my feet had frostbite. I hadn't walked in seven days. I had no feeling in my feet."

After a few days of pursuing the Germans, Morreale and members of his unit were driven by truck to a little town to receive new uniforms and equipment, plus several days of rest.

"I was getting my new combat boots but I couldn't take off my old ones. They had to cut them off. My feet were swollen and purple. There were quite a few of us like that. They put us in a barn on beds of straw. They covered us with blankets but left our feet exposed.

"They told us they couldn't cover our feet because the heat would be painful. The cool air had to thaw them. They then trucked us to a hospital in Paris. We were there about three weeks, and they told us we were going home."

But it wasn't until April that he and the others were loaded on stretchers aboard the Queen Elizabeth up in Scotland for the voyage home.

"I remember on April 12, 1945, there was an announcement on the ship's loudspeakers that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had passed away."

When asked how he took the news, Morreale again spoke haltingly. "The president was a good man. He did a lot for this country."

Two day later, the Queen Elizabeth docked at Perth Amboy, N.J.

He and the others who had suffered frostbite were taken by train to an Army hospital at Camp Butner, N.C.

"They walked us gradually, a few feet each day. It was months before I was able to walk normally and had feeling in my feet," Morreale said. "I returned home on a three-week furlough around July 15. I couldn't believe I was home."

On Aug. 6, 1945, the day the first of two atom bombs was dropped on Japan, he received a telegram informing him he would not have to return to Camp Butner and would be honorably discharged.

Once again, the aspiring draftsman enrolled at Trott and this time completed his studies. He  followed that with two years at what would become Erie Community College, where he earned an associate degree in drafting.

Morreale was hired as a draftsman for the City of Niagara Falls' engineering department and moved up the ranks by taking civil service tests and eventually becoming city engineer.

But his success continued beyond that.

"I was appointed director of public works in 1972," he said, "and by the way, I was the longest serving director in the city's history, over 12 years."

He worked for the city 37 years but has an even longer stretch of success in his personal life. Married for "60 wonderful years" and counting to the former Margaret Suhansky, he and his wife have three children and seven grandchildren.

"Now that we are getting a little older, we don't travel like we used to," Morreale said. "But I like to take my wife out for dinner, and we like to visit family."

He says he tries not to think of the war.

"My grandchildren will ask me and I get too emotional."

And again, his emotions get the best of him, but he manages to say these words:

"I saw a lot of my buddies get shot up. I feel bad."

 

 

 

 

 

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