Ralph Kephardt had his Christmas dinner canceled Dec. 25, 1944. He and an Army buddy serving in northern Europe had planned to dine with a Dutch family, a couple and their two young daughters. "These were the nicest people you ever seen. Nicest people," Kephardt said.
The family lived in the city of Heerlen, near Maastricht. The father was part owner of a local coal mine and befriended Kephardt and the other young American soldier. He allowed them a rare luxury for soldiers in the field: a hot shower in the facilities available at his mine. "We thought that was the greatest thing in the world, because you used to be in your clothes for two or three weeks," Kephardt said.
The elder daughter, about 14, learned English in school and served as interpreter between her folks and the Americans. "They said, 'Christmas is coming up, we want you to come down to our house for Christmas,'" Kephardt said.
The GIs procured a ham from their outfit's cook and some fresh coffee for the Dutch to prepare for the holiday feast. Other commodities were scarce, but the family planned to share what they had. The meal never happened for the young soldiers. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany had made other plans.
Instead, Kephardt and comrades spent the day heading 100 miles to the south -- into Belgium, through a heavy layer of snow, blinding fog, winter cold and an uncertain fate. There, the Germans had broken through and overrun American positions in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. "We left the food there," Kephardt said. "We were on those trucks headed south. (The mother) probably would have had a good dinner for us."
This holiday season marks the 70th anniversary of that battle. More than 19,000 Americans died and 62,000 were wounded in the weeks-long struggle, more U.S. casualties than any other battle in World War II.
By the time Kephardt and his comrades in the U.S. 2nd Armored Division were ordered to move out, the battle had been raging for nine days, driving the Allies back except for a pocket of resistance at the city of Bastogne, defended mainly by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. "It caught them by surprise," Kephardt said. Germans dressed in American uniforms caused further confusion behind the scenes, changing road signs. "I don't think even our officers suspected this was going to happen."
Kephardt recalled the biggest hindrance in the battle was slogging through the heavy, slightly thawed snow cover and the thick fog, which kept U.S. planes grounded.
Fortunately, a few days after Kephardt and comrades were ordered into Belgium, the fog lifted, American planes hit the German positions and ground forces advanced, stopping the Germans short of their goal: seizing Allied fuel installations to keep the offensive going. German tanks and other vehicles were abandoned in the field, stalled and out of gas.
"I don't think the Germans thought they were going to win the war" at that point, Kephardt said. "But what they were trying to do was make a better peace -- give it one last push and maybe they could sue for peace" on better terms, as opposed to unconditional surrender.
But Kephardt said Allied leaders like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and President Harry Truman would not have allowed the Nazi regime to remain in power and "weren't going to settle for anything but unconditional peace." The human slaughter going on in the Nazi concentration camps was becoming more widely known at that point.
"We got into one of those camps. We knew what it was. You can't imagine what those Germans were doing," Kephardt said. "Now, the (regular) German soldiers were pretty nice guys and I talked with several of them. But I'll tell you, the ones that were bad were those SS troops," who ran the death camps and made up some of the forces fighting in the Bulge.
The German defeat there allowed Kephardt and his comrades to resume their march into Germany and secure an Allied victory the following spring. Within the Second Armored Division, Kephardt served in Company E of the 17th Armored Engineers.
Their job was to place portable floating pontoon bridges at river crossings so troops and tanks of the 2nd Armored could advance into Germany. He entered Europe at Omaha Beach a few days after D-Day.
Part of his job was running a generator that supplied the air pressure to inflate the large pontoons under the bridge deck. They also plugged holes when pontoons were shot up by the enemy. Crews always kept their rifles near, he said.
Kephardt served three years in the Army, including service in North Africa and Europe, and earned six battle stars for the various campaigns he was involved in. His outfit received a Presidential Unit Citation for its quick work in setting up a bridge crossing of the Rhine River into the heart of Germany in March 1945.
His closest call came a short time later, when German artillery shot up and sunk their bridge as troops were about to cross the Elbe River. Two companies of U.S. troops who had already crossed had to be retrieved by boat to be saved from the Germans. Many were. Some weren't.
During the artillery barrage, Kephardt and a buddy, taking cover under their trucks, decided to make a break for a stone house they thought would provide better shelter.
"We got to the door of that house, and an explosion blew us both right into the house. In fact, it blew me over the top of him," Kephardt said.
"We stayed in that house and they hit that house two or three times and we decided we'd better get out of there." They and two other comrades taking shelter grabbed a truck and escaped.
Kephardt said he took a piece of shrapnel in his head but never sought a Purple Heart. "It didn't hurt me. It just burned," he shrugged. "That was the worst deal I ever got into. They just blew hell out of stuff."
His unit withdrew several miles to be re-equipped and returned to the same crossing -- only to now find it occupied by Soviet troops who had advanced upon the Germans from the other direction. The war was over.
Kephardt recalls the presumed Soviet allies to be less than hospitable. "They weren't too friendly," he said. They denied the Americans a crossing at that point on the Elbe, forcing them to ford at another location. Also, Kephardt recalls being stuck in American sector of Berlin at the war's end for several weeks when the Soviets blocked a main road out of the city.
Kephardt, a lifetime mechanic and retired instructor at Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar, is a very healthy 93-year-old. Born in nearby Oran in Fayette County, he has lived in Hazleton since 1933, save his military years.
He loves to tinker with computers, play guitar and electric bass and carve wood. He and wife Margaret both still drive and travel. Widowed and remarried, he has two sons, living in Cedar Rapids and Minneapolis, and several grandchildren.
Some effects of his military service are apparent. He used to startle easily from sleep, and Margaret says he's still a light sleeper. When he returned from service, he told his mother never to touch him to wake him, only to call him, because he didn't know how he'd react.
Though names fade, he still recalls his brothers in arms.
He was given a chess set by a friend in North Africa who taught him how to play. That buddy told him to keep it until he saw him again. Kephardt still has it.
He also recalls a buddy in Europe who nursed him back to health and kept him fed for several days when he took deathly ill.
"I'll tell you one thing: Nobody can believe it unless you've done it. Nobody can believe how close you can get to another guy," Kephardt said. "You get pretty close to a guy, see. You get awful close to somebody else because that's all you've got."
Then there was the Dutch family Kephardt and his friend never got to share Christmas dinner with. But the family's gesture in itself was an expression of gratitude for something even more precious the American soldiers shared with their hosts: freedom.