‘Escape from the Ardennes’

  • Cover design by the author, Keith C. Chase of Athol. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2019 8:42:28 AM

On the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, the German army initiated what would become one of the deadliest battles of World War II: “The Battle of the Bulge,” also known as the “Ardennes Counteroffensive.”

More than 400,000 axis soldiers faced off against 600,000 Americans in a brutal month-long battle. Both sides took heavy casualties. When the smoke cleared, nearly 20,000 American troops lay dead, making it the second deadliest battle in United States history.

It takes a soldier to understand the experiences of another soldier. In his book “Escape from the Ardennes,” Athol author Keith C. Chase draws on six years of active duty service in the Marine Corps to recreate a fictionalized account of that bloody battle fought in the Ardennes — personalizing the statistics.

While stationed in Germany, Chase says he was able to explore many of the battlefields that are included in the story. In writing the book, Chase says he went so far as to spend three nights in the northern Ardennes on the German-Belgium border during the middle of winter. At one point, it became so cold that he came down with frost-nip. His hands and feet were injured.

“I only brought the same gear that Americans had during the war, so I could accurately gauge what they went through,” Chase said. “I was very lucky to survive.”

The book, which is about 330 pages long, follows a U.S. tank crew maneuvering its way in an aging M4 Sherman tank through the carnage of war. His writing is immediate and vivid.

Throughout, Chase pauses from his narrative to zero in on details — like a sniper might focus on its mark — leveraging them to create tension and build momentum: a finger brushing against the trigger; the putrid stench of thick smoke; the black silhouette of a 50-caliber machine gun against a dusky sky; desperate screams from a soldier who has just lost his leg; gunfire flashing into the night.

A good example of this can be found about halfway through the book when two American soldiers, Nick and Wilson, survive a German shelling.

Chase writes: “The ground shook. Explosions were everywhere, showering hot pieces of metal in all directions. Pieces of tree limbs and jagged fragments of bark showered down on the two cowering figures. Debris from fir, poplar, and birch trees fell onto the snowy floor of the torn forest. … Only one Garand spoke now, and the Browning automatic rifle continued its futile protest until the howling and screaming of a second barrage of rockets succeeded in silencing the lone gunner.”

Another particularly vivid scene comes when a grenade lands in the snow next to Wilson. The grenade doesn’t explode — it’s a dud — but Wilson breaks under the pressure.

“Abruptly, Wilson went completely silent as a look of unrestrained anger contorted his face. Nick looked more closely, not sure what he’d seen,” Chase writes. “The Germans opened up on them again. Rounds whistled overhead. Wilson gaped at Nick, his eyes white with surprise and fright, his mouth quivering. ‘Grenade, the grenade, they want to kill me with a grenade,’ he spoke slowly at first, then faster.”

The emotional thrust of “Escape from the Ardennes” and Chase’s intention in writing the historical account can be summed up in the dedication included at the book’s front: “For the Belgians, Americans, and Germans that vanished in the vast Ardennes forests and hills during the cold, bitter battles within The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 through February 1945. They are still out there. May all their souls be reunited with God.”

“Escape from the Ardennes” can be purchased online for $17.95 at https://amzn.to/2MJn6fO.

While an original manuscript was written by Chase in 1984, the book was published by Drachenfels Press earlier this year. Chase’s first and only other historical fiction book, “Souvenirs,” which is also set in World War II, is available through the Hadley Barnes and Noble. Currently, Chase is working on a crime novel and a third World War II book that’s set at the tail end of the great war.

Andy Castillo is features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University and can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

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