Seymour Reitman remembers the start of the Battle of the Bulge as the time "when all hell broke loose."
Reitman, 89, of Avon, was a private first class in the U.S. Army as Allied troops forged into Germany in late 1944.
But the German army launched one last counter-offensive in the densely forested Ardennes Mountains to halt the Allies' surge. That surprise German assault with 250,000 troops became known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the deadliest offensives of World War II. More than 19,000 American troops were killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 missing.
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Reitman, who was a second vice president for financial planning at Travelers when he retired in 1988, remembers in great detail that harrowing time 70 years ago.
He enlisted when he was 17, joining the Army just days after his high school graduation in Atlantic City, N. J., in 1943.
"We were getting stories about what was happening over in Germany and the concentration camps and I just felt I had to do something," he said from his home in Avon, where he lives with his wife of 64 years, Shirley. "If I had gone in at 28 or 38, I would have been much more frightened than I was. When you're a teenager, you think you're immortal. I didn't know enough to be fearful. "
The following year he found himself on the front lines near the German-Belgium-Luxenberg border as a platoon runner.
His memories of those weeks-long battles, as well as the snow, wind and especially the freezing temperatures were included in a The Weather Channel show, "When Weather Makes History," several years ago. "I froze my feet, ears and hands," Reitman said.
The Bronze Star recipient will also be heading to Germany later this year to participate in a documentary for German television about the taking of a bridge in a key battle at the end of the war.
Reitman — who was in Company G, 2nd battalion, 395th infantry regiment, 99th infantry division — said the start of the German offensive began on Dec. 16, 1944, at 5:30 a.m: The Germans fired "continuously for 30 minutes all kinds of stuff: heavy artillery, light artillery, rockets," devastating the troops, killing communications and dividing American positions. The German super-offensive, however, "went right around us" and Reitman and his battalion found themselves behind enemy lines.
Discarding everything except ammunition and food rations and dressed inadequately for the harsh weather, two battalions made their way back over six days to the allied side, digging foxholes during the day "hoping the Germans wouldn't find us" and traveling at night.
Reitman later learned from his mother that he was reported missing in action. He was advised by a fellow GI: "Tell her what I told my wife. I didn't miss a … bit of action," Reitman said, laughing.
The Allies rallied and gained the offensive in January. Battles with mortar, snipers and shelling continued for Reitman, His last day of combat was on his birthday, April 30. He returned to the U.S. in 1946, then went to school on the GI bill. He first came to Hartford in 1956.
The war experience "made me a little braver than I would otherwise have been, I think. I was just a trumpet player in a high school band. I never fought anybody in school. But I still feel today if someone tried to beat me up — or someone else up — I could run in and do something about it.
"As every one of us said, I wouldn't go though [the war] again for a million dollars, but I wouldn't take a million dollars for having not gone through it. When I came back here, at least those of us who went through combat, we felt 'This is my country, dammit, we fought, we own it.' It's a nice pride to think I did my duty and this is my country."