From Sandpoint to Berchtesgaden
Colorful tracers ripped through the black night air as shrieking artillery shells crashed in the snow creating a hurricane of fire and steel. Peering over the hole’s edge, a green steel helmet tumbled by, it’s owners head still inside. To Joe Delay, Hell had found a new home in the freezing Ardennes forest, and he feared he may never escape.
Just two years earlier Delay had been in high school formulating a way to escape the family farm. “You felt you were a prisoner of those animals,” he said with a chuckle.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941, an opportunity had arrived. “I volunteered the minute I got out of high school. My dad didn’t know this. Never knew this. Not even to his grave, I never did tell him.”
Originally intending on joining the Navy, Delay was disappointed to be redirected to the Army recruiter, desperate for men to fill their depleted ranks. Instead of clean white sheets and three meals a day, he would now be carrying a rifle and sleeping in the mud.
In Waco, Texas, he began to learn the basics of soldiering. Training consisted of rifle work, 20 mile runs, and forced marches, all for a measly 50 dollars a month. But that was soon to change. “They said you could double your pay by joining the paratroopers, so I said fine I’ll do that.”
Just a couple of months later, Delay found himself tightly packed in a rumbling C-47, nervously waiting to fling his body into the unknown, just beyond the door. “The first jump you built up in your mind about going out that door with nothing but silk on your back,” he said, “…but after that it was ok. I really enjoyed it…”
Not all his fellow troopers felt the same. “I learned soon going through jump school to be the first person because once in a while a guy would freeze in the door. And we had what they called a jump master, and the minute they would freeze in the door, he would take his foot and place it on your back or rear and push you out with his foot. That was kind of demoralizing…”
Christened with his shiny new jump wings, signifying five successful parachute landings, it came time to head for the front. Loaded on a cattle trains, re-designated as troop trains, they headed for Luxemburg. The closer they chugged to the front, the lower the temperatures plunged.
On December 16th, 1944, Adolf Hitler launched a last ditch offensive in the Ardennes region, later to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The offensive aimed to split the Allied advance in two by capturing the strategic port town of Antwerp. Catching the battle weary and newly arrived Americans completely by surprise, fresh German troops smashed through Allied lines
It was around this time Delay arrived, instantly receiving his first taste of what was to come. “When we went into Luxemburg, because the earth was so frozen, they had all the GIs that were dead stacked up like cordwood. Some of them had been dead for maybe a month or so. That devastated me. Made me think a lot.”
Continuing the march from Luxembourg, the men joined their new unit, the battle weary 101st Airborne. “They really pitied you in a way, because you didn’t know what you were getting into,” Delay remembered of the reception he and the other new men received. “They were short of people and happy to have replacements.” It wouldn’t take long before he too dissolved into the ranks as just another weary combat veteran.
“It was really something. The Germans had what they called the 88 artillery shell and that was very accurate and very devastating. A lot of Americans were decapitated,” his voice shaking with emotion. “You could see, sometimes a head in a steel helmet, and a head roll by your hole. A guy had lost his head because of the artillery shells.” Tears filled his eyes as he continued, “You could see these tracer shells going by and shells exploding. The close fighting with the bayonet was the most difficult.”
The freezing temperatures didn’t help the situation. “We didn’t have any over shoes and as a result we had a lot of trench foot. Even my feet to this day, I have to have a foot warmer because they were partially frozen.”
Food, or the lack thereof, was also a constant concern for the men. This resulted in more than a few quests to procure something other than their Army issued K rations. On one such occasion, at four in the morning, Delay and a few others ventured to a chicken coop they had discovered nearby. “You had to be very careful, you didn’t want to stir up the Germans or those people. So, I grabbed this chicken by the neck and made sure I squeezed it so tight it couldn’t cackle,” he said with a laugh.
Soon the fighting subsided and the 101st was moved to Alsace to aid in repulsing a new German offensive. Stuck in a fox hole along the river, with the Germans just on the opposite bank, fighting was sporadic, mostly coming at night.
Pulled off the line in April, they were placed in reserve to rest and regroup. For the first time since entering the line in December, the men were allowed to take a shower and change their weathered clothing. “It was great. It was wonderful. You didn’t realize how much a shower meant until you go without it…”
“We started to move pretty fast, day and night, because the Germans were retreating. I remember going through Munich and it was flat. There wasn’t hardly a building standing.”
At one stop, Delay and his fellow paratroopers discovered a bank vault busted wide open, its contents mostly intact. They piled up the money and burned it for heat.
Resistance began to lessen as they progressed deeper into the heart of Germany. “Once in awhile we’d stop and clear up a half dozen Germans in the woods. Hardcore SS troops.” But as the combat lessoned, a new kind of horror arose.
They could smell it before they saw it. After six years, Hitler’s final solution to the “Jewish question” was being unveiled to the world. “The smell and stench of human flesh was terrible. They would kill the people there and burn them. It was just bad. People were in the sack and hardly could move. They were just happy to see you, but a lot of them couldn’t even walk,” Delay recalled, the terrible site bringing tears to his eyes even now, 70 years later.
“The officer in charge went and got the mayor of the city and brought him up to show him what was going on. He had some other dignitaries from the Germans come up there, to let them know this was going on. I think it kind of hit home a little bit.”
Soon the paratroopers left the terror of the holocaust for the contradicting beauty of Berchtesgaden. “Hitler’s hideout is up in Berchtesgaden. His hideout is up on a hill, about 6,000 feet, and we went up. It had been bombed, but there was a lot of good wine in that cellar. The GIs sure cleaned that out in a hurry; they really did a good job of cleaning that house out. You were happy. Very happy.”
On May 8th, 1945, the Germans officially surrendered. The battle hardened 101stAirborne, who had battled their way from Normandy to Germany, converted from an elite offensive fighting force to a peacekeeping occupation unit. When the war in the Pacific ended in August of 1945, everyone in the 101st, regardless of combat experience or medals, would be going home.
For Delay, the family farm still didn’t hold any allure. He spent a year at the University of Idaho before transferring to Gonzaga, from which he launched a career in law that spans to this day. At 92, the former paratrooper is still practicing law in Spokane, Washington.
“Luck has a lot to do with it. One man right next to you might get shot and you wonder why it was he and not yourself,” he said pondering his good fortune.
Today, Delay still reaps the benefits from his good luck during the war, having enjoyed 64 years with his beloved wife, and many more with his kids and grandkids.
“It’s a great country. The best country that exists. Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, it’s still a great country.”