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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Wartime Stories: Alton Thomas Phipps in the Battle of the Bulge

SOURCE: Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007).


On a frigid December day in 1944, three powerful German armies slammed into the Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. Their goal was to trap the four unsuspecting allied armies there and broker a peace treaty for the Western front. Thinking the Ardennes was the least likely spot for a German offensive, American commanders had chosen to keep their defensive line thin, and the German offensive achieved total surprise. On the second day of the attack, General Patton described the situation to General Eisenhower thusly: “(Germans)…speaking perfect English…raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defenses.” This Battle of the Bulge became the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II’s European theatre. The Germans soon had the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division trapped and badly outnumbered inside their ring of defenses surrounding Bastogne, Belgium, a road and rail junction in the heart of the Ardennes Forest. But when the Germans called for their surrender, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe fired off his famous retort, “Nuts.” In snow and sub-freezing temperatures, mortar platoon leader Alton Phipps saw his assistant platoon leader, a gunner and his radio-telephone operator die and also saw a GI get shot in the feet when he’d stuck them out of the foxhole to warm them in the sun.

Sgt. Al Phipps in foreground at Fort Bragg, 1941

Fierce fighting continued until December 30th when the Allies finally turned the tide. “That’s when it really got rough, when we went on the attack,” said Al Phipps whose unit was poised on the outskirts of Bastogne. Phipps led a patrol out to the front to see just where the enemy was located, listening for the low rumble of tank tracks. When he’d confirmed the enemy’s movement, he hurried back to his lines, kept low until guards recognized his shouted password and then instructed the non-coms to dig foxholes deep enough so that if the German tanks overran them, their weapons would be safe in the bottom of the holes, and they would be able to stop the German infantry. As they were digging in, “all hell broke loose.” The Germans hit up and down their lines with 88mm and 120mm mortars, and some direct tank attacks. Right in the middle of the attack, the telephone line from the guns to the outpost went dead. Lieutenant Phipps ordered one of his staff sergeants to send someone to repair the line. The sergeant said that would be suicide, but Phipps repeated the order to get the line repaired. Before a private was convinced to go out, the sergeant had to point his rifle at the private. The shelling rained on long after the private disappeared into the fray. Then suddenly the phone lines came to life again. A few minutes later, the private tumbled down the foxhole, swearing. They were going to make it out alive. By January 7, 1945, US troops had trapped the German forces in the bulge, and soon the lines returned to where they had been before the German’s surprise assault.

Alton Phipps, who had parachuted over Omaha Beach on D-Day and swept all the way to Germany with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (a part of the 101st Airborne Division), would go on to fight in some of the worst battles of Korea, such as Pork Chop Hill. Phipps, who had joined the Army when he was only sixteen, eventually retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1962 and settled down in Columbus simply because Fort Benning was his final post, and he and his beloved wife, Bea, liked the town. This is where his children were raised. His daughter Shari met her future husband Ken Evans at Columbus College and now their children have children of their own, all living in Columbus. Alton Phipps died in 1998, a soldier to the end.

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