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The missing man: One family’s story of the Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II. After almost constant Allied gains following the D-Day and the Normandy invasion, it was the German High Command’s hope that focusing their last reserves to seizing the Belgian port of Antwerp and splitting the British and American forces would force the Allies to sue for peace.

The battle began on December 16, 1944, and lasted about a month. The Germans surprised the Allies when their initial assault unleashed over 400,000 troops against an Allied line of only half that strength. While some of the Allied line held experienced fighting units, other parts were thinly held by fresh units.

One soldier on that line was a young man from Salisbury, Maryland, named Vernon Lee German. After marrying, he moved to Chester, Pennsylvania, where he became the manager of the local Montgomery Ward. In September 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act was instituted and a month later Vernon German signed up for the draft.

A Purple Heart medal in a box.
Vernon German received a Purple Heart for his actions at the Battle of the Bulge. This is his story.

Three years later, his number hadn’t been called. So on October 9, 1943, German went to the recruiting station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and enlisted. After basic training in Fort Eustis, Virginia, he attended Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry and shipped out to France in October 1944.

Two months later, he was on the line when the Battle of the Bulge began. Vernon German was further south of the main German offensive, but the fighting was intense since the enemy was defending its own soil. On both sides, casualties mounted. Several days later, on December 23, 29-year-old Vernon German became another.

The army sent a Western Union telegram to Vernon’s wife, Roxie, on January 15, 1945, informing her that he was reported missing in action since December 23.

A telegram reading "THE SECRETARY OR WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND SECOND LIEUTENANT VERNON L. GERMAN HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION SINCE 23 DECEMBER IN FRANCE."
Initial telegram sent to Roxie German, January 1945.

Long months passed without any word, and then, during the spring thaw, a gruesome discovery was made: Vernon German’s body. He had lain undisturbed under a thick blanket of snow and ice for months on the battlefield. Identification was made easier because Vernon German was wearing a bracelet engraved with his name and serial number.

An identification bracelet.
A bracelet with German's name engraved on it. 

A second telegram was dispatched to Roxie German on June 5, 1945, this one more emotional than the last:

A telegram that begins: "I AM DEEPLY DISTRESSED TO INFORM YOU CORRECTED REPORT JUST RECEIVED STATES YOUR HUSBAND SECOND LIEUTENANT VERNON L GERMAN ... WAS KILLED IN ACTION."
Second telegram sent to Roxie German, June 1945.

Vernon German’s commanding officer wrote to Vernon’s widow with more information:

The company was in an attack near Medelsheim. Lieut. German led his platoon under severe enemy fire when it encountered concealed German machinegun nests. The Germans opened fire, killing Lieut. German instantly. The remainder of the platoon retreated and Lieut. German’s body was never recovered as the area was taken over by the enemy.

The blue field of a flag shows in the box it was sent in.
Burial flag of Vernon German in the box it was sent to Roxie German in. 

Vernon German was laid to rest in Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in Hamm, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, in 1946. The burial flag was sent to Roxie German, who kept it for many years in its original shipping container, along with Vernon’s Purple Heart medal, awarded posthumously. Roxie lived for almost another half century. As for Vernon German, he forever remains the young, blond-haired, blue-eyed manager of the Montgomery Ward in Chester, Pennsylvania, surrounded by those like him: young men who went off to fight a war on foreign soil, never to return.

Kathleen Golden is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History.