My father and his fellow soldiers were so hungry they could’ve eaten a German bear. All they could find were potatoes.
They were on the edge of Bastogne, they were freezing, they were ready to surrender.
Some of them decided to search for food in a nearby village one evening. Their Army rations had run out, and nobody really knew when to expect more.
In a deserted home in a deserted neighborhood of the deserted village, the men found some potatoes, enough to fry up as a snack for several of them. They found frozen lard, too, and a skillet.
They walked through the snow back to their trench and made a small fire over which they melted the lard in the skillet. Their mouths were watering. They had never been so hungry. Never had they worked so hard and eaten so little.
The Krauts were not shooting. Some of the old veterans still call them Krauts. It’s a war habit. Americans vs. the Krauts. My father told me several years ago, “We were hungry and tired. If they had asked us to surrender, we would’ve done it.” The Krauts didn’t know that, of course, and ended up taking a bad beating from the fatigued Americans.
But first, there were several potatoes to fry up. With any luck the aroma would drift across the battle line and make the Germans jealous. The men sliced the potatoes with their Army-issue Barlow pocket knives.
My father gave me a Barlow. He got it from a soldier who was killed next to him in a foxhole at another location. He took the guy’s sleeping bag for himself that same night because his own had become a casualty. Something inside it woke him up every time he moved one of his boots. The military footwear gave his feet little comfort against the bitter cold. In fact, he eventually returned from the war with frostbitten feet.
The previous owner of the sleeping bag was resting in peace next to him. Not even a round of mortar fire could stir him. For that soldier, it was over. No more misery. Meanwhile, my dad wanted nothing more than a few hours of undisturbed sleep. He finally reached down to find what his boots were hitting. It was that stupid, stupid Barlow pocket knife.
On the other hand, the men were cutting taters with their Barlow blades this evening on the edge of Bastogne, watching their dinner sizzle in the melted lard. It was incredibly exciting to think of enjoying fried potatoes in a war zone. It was simply unbelievable!
The soldiers removed the skillet from the fire after sufficiently frying their prized catch. There in the winter cold, the hot lard immediately seized up, locking the potato slices in. It was German paraffin wax. An elderly German couple explained it to me. They said, “We all used paraffin to wax our cooking pans.” Just a thin film to prevent sticking.
How were the enemies of the Krauts supposed to know that? They threw the paraffin out with the potatoes and suffered another hungry night on a frozen battlefield, where more men would perish during the next 24 hours, as they did every day.
As a memorial service, I’m going to slice some potatoes with my Army-issue Barlow, the stupid knife that survived the Battle of the Bulge. I will contemplate the story I just told you while I feast on fried potatoes with eggs and other simple ingredients that my full-blooded German mother used to put in the skillet.
Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com.