Richard Mossner wasn’t in a celebratory mood for Christmas and New Year’s 75 years ago.
He spent that holiday season in an armored tank and in dangerously freezing conditions, during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most infamous skirmishes of World War II.
The battle began Dec. 16, 1944 – when the German army launched a counteroffensive that was intended to cut through the Allied forces – and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945.
The 94-year-old Mossner was born in Blumfield Township – just west of Reese in Saginaw County – where he still resides. He enlisted in the Army in December 1943 and arrived in Europe in November 1944 as part of the 3rd Army, 11th Armored Division, 41st Tank Battalion. That was the first time he laid eyes on the M-18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer.
During the battle, Mossner, a technician fifth grade, drove the M-18 tank.
“It had a nine-cylinder Continental airplane engine that would go 60 mph. It only had quarter-inch armor plates. It’s still the fastest tank used by the Army,” he said.
Mossner participated in most of the battle at Bastogne, Belgium, located around 30 miles west of the German/Luxembourg border.
“At Bastogne, we were support for the artillery,” he said. “We were at Reims, France, when all of a sudden on Christmas day, we moved out. We didn’t even get Christmas dinner and were headed for Bastogne where the artillery was lined up.”
Mossner said the artillery fired at all hours of the day, with his battalion tasked with relieving the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. In an 18-day span, nearly 350 members of the 101st were killed.
“They parachuted in and the Germans surrounded them,” he said.
Mossner believes that if the 3rd Army, led by Gen. George Patton, hadn’t arrived in the region when it did, German forces would’ve broken through to the west.
At Bastogne, Mossner recalls four American tanks taking out 14 German tanks. He said the speed of the M-18s was a great advantage.
“We’d get behind them and were so fast. If they saw us, they’d fire and shoot where we were. We had speed,” he said. “German tanks turrets only went from side-to-side. They never thought anything would be behind them, which is where we were.”
In addition to battling the enemy, American forces were up against miserable weather, with freezing temperatures and plenty of snow.
“It was cold. Cold, cold, cold,” Mossner said. “The roads would get slippery. Our tank had rubber tracks, but most had steel tracks, and you know what steel on ice does. It was like they were on skates.”
Attempting to stay warm and to prevent frostbite, Mossner tore blankets into strips and wrapped straw around his feet.
By the battle’s end, the Americans suffered about 75,000 casualties.
Toward the end of the war, in April and May 1945, Mossner was in Austria. His unit arrived at Mauthausen, a concentration camp, a day or two after it was liberated.
He said he also saw Dachau concentration camp, shortly before Germany announced its surrender on May 8, 1945.
“When we got there, the German people said, ‘You better get out there, there’s something awful happening.’ I saw trains going with people in them, and the trains would come back empty. I was one of the very first going into Dachau,” he said. “The prisoners were still there, skin and bones. You couldn’t believe that people could be alive and look that way.”
Mossner returned home in April 1946, marrying in 1948. He and his late wife, Patricia, had four children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Patricia passed away in 2011. Mossner worked for 42 years at Saginaw Grey Iron Foundry, retiring in 1995.