Vet served in Battle of the Bulge

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.

CORTLAND – When you shake hands with Jim Shaffer, there’s sort of a frosty grip to the welcome he gives.

The handshake is a strong one and the kind that allows him to skillfully hang on to any golf club in his bag and strike the ball down the middle of the fairway, often times scoring better than men half his age.

”Do you feel that though? A lot of people I meet tell me it’s cold to the touch,” Shaffer said, stretching his fingers and explaining that the frostbite he suffered in his hands and feet 70 years ago is the only lasting effect of his time fighting in the Ardennes Forest.

”Guess what they gave us for the frostbite: a double shot of scotch whiskey in the morning and another one at night,” he said, describing bullets whizzing by his head so close you could hear them.

”I never got hit. It was close though. It sounded like someone cracking a whip,” he said.

Shaffer’s unit was among the reinforcements that straggled in from other battlefields to lend support to the 101st Airborne Division that was defending Bastogne during the brutal Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

”The 101st was trapped in Bastogne by the German Armored Army that crossed the Rhine (river). The weather was so bad and we had so much snow that no aircraft could get in and help,” said Shaffer, who was married, had two kids and was working in a Youngstown steel mill when he got drafted.

Like most military historians, Shaffer credits Gen. George S. Patton with quickly developing the strategy to save the day and relieving the besieged allied defenders of Bastogne during Christmas of 1944.

”They didn’t call him ‘Old Blood and Guts’ for nothing,” said Shaffer, who still keeps a portrait of the famed general in his home.

Patton pushed tanks and troops sometimes 50 to 75 miles a day to get to the fight, finally breaking through enemy lines.

”We were probably two days away (from Bastogne) when we got our orders. We ended up getting there in 19 hours,” Shaffer said, explaining that the weeklong battle was the first really heavy combat he experienced.

Shaffer had been trained in advance work and reconnaissance after basic training the spring of 1944 at Fort Hood, Texas. He went overseas in August of that year – by boat to Scotland, by train to England and by boat to France.

He was taken by truck to the 4th Armored Division.

”There wasn’t much going on when I got there. They were taking a break and refilling gas tanks and things were at a slowdown until we got the call,” he said.

”Instead of the recon work I had the carbine and a sidearm and I was pure infantry. We were part of an armored unit but I stayed away from those tanks. They were major targets,” he said.

Shaffer said after the first day or so of the heavy fighting, the weather cleared allowing U.S. planes in to lend more support.

Finally, allied troops got the better of the attacking German troops that were bogged down in the snow and running out of fuel and supplies.

After the enemy was pushed back across the Rhine, Shaffer took on a position of temporary corporal, leading night patrols since he had 20-20 vision.

”You still had to be careful. German snipers would aim at our guys smoking cigarettes. You could see that glow at night,” said Shaffer.

”We picked up many lost Germans, some of them in their early teens. They told us the German SS forced them into the battle or they would have been shot,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer, who also did design work for U.S. and Republic Steel at different times and who earned a pilot’s license at age 55, also remembers hearing Patton in person explain to his unit how they were not going to Berlin after the Battle of the Bulge since the Russian troops had been given the go ahead to take the city.