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Battle of the Bulge survivor puts current events in perspective at EHS

By Brenda Sexton, The Courier-Herald

Fifty-eight years ago Charles Runland was helping the United States 99th Infantry Division, staving off German forces and freezing temperatures at Elsenborn Ridge in one of America's greatest military battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.

Friday morning, Runland - a rare Western Washington veteran of that battle - sat in a warm Enumclaw High School classroom recalling his memories of the battle and proudly displaying the Bronze Star for outstanding service he recently received from the Army.

He was one of a number of speakers rotating through Enumclaw Cooperative Hands-On Experiential School (ECHOES) classrooms as part of a history study on World War II. The speakers represented Pearl Harbor, Japanese Internment Camps and the Holocaust.

"Talking with people that have been there beats the heck out of textbooks," science teacher John Hofstrand told his class.

Fifty-seven years ago, Runland was a 19-year-old rifleman for the 394th Regiment, F Company, 2nd Battalion, in the 99th Infantry Division. Earlier, he was drafted from his Enumclaw home and sent to basic training. From there he was selected for the Army Service Specialized Training Program and spent five months in Texas. It wasn't long after, he arrived on the German-Belgium border.

He explained to the class, "I was no hero. I got drafted."

The thinly dispersed and outnumbered 99th encountered heavy enemy resistance in mid-December 1944. Thick woods, few roads, cold weather and constant snow did not help the troops, but spirits were high. Runland said in an earlier interview the troops were awaiting a USO performance featuring film star Marlene Dietrich.

It never happened. On Dec. 16, 1944, all hell broke loose.

The Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive in the west during World War II. Following the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Allied forces swiftly swept through France but were stalled along the German border in September. On Dec. 16, taking advantage of weather that kept Allied aircraft on the ground, the Germans launched a counteroffensive through the forested countryside and advanced into Belgium and Luxembourg. Their aim was to divide the Americans and the British and retake the vital seaport of Antwerp.

At the onset of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, the 99th repelled the fierce Von Runstedt attack. Although cut in two and partially surrounded, the stubborn and gutsy 99th soldiers defended the crucial Elsenborn Ridge on the north shoulder of the Bulge against repeated, violent German attacks.

If the north shoulder had not held, the German Army would have captured Liege, Belgium, and possibly Antwerp, cutting off the American and British armies and prolonging the war a considerable time.

Hitler's army would never be able to rally.

Runland came out of the attacks alive, but with a bad case of trench foot.

"Every day you wonder 'is this the day I'm going to be killed or is this the day I'm going to be injured... or will I live to live another day,'" Runland said.

Runland's been trying to get his Bronze Star since attending a 50-year reunion with battalion members in 1994.

"The Army said 'Be patient,'" he laughed. "I've been waiting 58 years and three months."

Accompanying his Bronze Star was a combat infantry badge.

And all the history was not lost on current events, at least not for Runland.

"You're going through the same thing we went through in 1936," he told the class. "Only the two guys names were Hitler and Mussolini.

"I don't advocate war. I'm against war, but there are certain things we have to do. Everything will work out OK."

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com

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