World War II Veteran remembers Christmas in 1944
December 22, 2007
Steve Eles doesn’t take anything about his life for granted. He hasn’t since 1944, when he fought and emerged alive from The Battle of the Bulge, the last great conflict of World War II in Europe. He was 22 years old. Today, at 85, he lives comfortably with his wife, Madeline, in Blackhawk near Kimball Junction. Eles, a gentle man who describes himself as outgoing, caring and reflective, rarely dredges up memories from that terrible time over half-a-century ago.
History records that the battle began on Dec. 16, 1944, 63 years ago last week, when German forces launched a massive counter-attack against advancing Allied troops. The casualties were staggering. It’s estimated that 19,000 American soldiers died in the brief, bloody battle. Another 60, 000 were wounded. Over 80,000 German soldiers died. Most died in the first three days.
Eles had arrived on the continent months earlier. He crossed the English Channel in an American landing craft just six days after D-day in August of 1944, when Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Private First Class Eles fought his way across France into Germany as an American Army foot soldier, carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun. Like many of his generation, vanishing Americans who fought in the war to end all wars, his harrowing odyssey changed him forever.
He was born in Perthamboy, N.J. in 1922, the only son of Hungarian immigrants Ethyl and Steven Eles. He grew up in the Yorksville section of New York City. His father was a professional musician and photographer.
As a child, he played stickball on the streets of Manhattan, "hung out" with his friends in John J. Park and swam in the East River.
"I learned to swim when some of the boys from the neighborhood threw me in the river. That’s how a lot of us learned," he laughs. "The river was polluted even then, but not as badly as today. I wouldn’t swim there now."
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Eles attended Public School 30 in New York City, graduating in 1939. He excelled in carpentry classes and showed an aptitude for mechanics. He enjoyed school field trip to the New York Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eles learned to play the harmonica when he was 14 years old, and still plays on occasion.
After graduation, Eles stayed home to help the family. "It was the end of the depression and we all worked hard to stay afloat. I got a job in a local factory for $8 a week. It might not sound like much today but it really helped back then," he says.
Like most young men of his generation, he was drafted into the Army early in 1942. From the induction station at Fort Dix, he shipped to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia for basic training. Eles was trained in reconnaissance and stationed on the east coast, where he patrolled the beaches looking for enemy submarines. The war dragged on until, in 1944, he was assigned to the 113th Cavalry Division, Troop C, and boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the perilous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to England.
"It was the fastest boat trip across the Atlantic I ever had," recounts Eles. "We zigzagged at top speed for three days. There were German submarines out there trying to torpedo us, but we made it. I got very sea sick. It’s a good thing I didn’t join the Navy; I don’t think I’d have survived."
Within days of his arrival in England, Eles and his troop landed in Normandy. That was just the beginning of Troop C’s war. "Our job was reconnaissance. We were supposed to locate the enemy and report back. That’s what we did all the way across France into Belgium and Germany."
When the Germans counter-attacked, his troop was forced to fight. "There were about 1200 men in my troop and 154 of them were killed. I lost a lot of friends and had a lot of close calls. As a machine gunner, I know I caused many casualties. It was horrific. I don’t think about it much, it was so long ago now."
The battlefront extended some 80-miles from southern Belgium, through the Ardennes Forest, and into Luxembourg. "It was war, you know, them or us. I did what I was supposed to do. It was very, very bad. It was a bitterly cold winter and a lot of the casualties were from exposure. I spent Christmas Day of 1944 somewhere in southern Germany. I don’t remember where exactly."
The battle of the Bulge ended on Jan. 25, 1945, when German troops completely withdrew. The 113th Cavalry advanced into Germany and stopped in Magdeburg. "We met up with Russian soldiers near Apollendorf on April 30, 1945 and stayed there until the war ended in May. That was it."
Eles would remain in Europe for another year. He was stationed in Paris, France. "It was very exciting because the war was over and we were treated real nice over there," he says. "Everywhere we went, no matter what, I can’t begin to describe the champagne and the food."
Eles received many medals while in the Army and after the war, including the combat medal, the American and European theater of operation medals, the good conduct medal and several marksmanship medals. He also received a much-belated medal for conspicuous service from New York Governor George Petaki in 1997.
He retuned to the United States on a Liberty Ship in April, 1946, again battling sea sickness all the way across. The war came home with him. "When I got home I had nightmares recalling the things I went through," says Eles. "It took some time. I just kept thinking about the friends I lost. It was hard to think and dream about it. Finally, after about a year, it passed through me."
Eles says staying busy helped. He got on-the-job training though the G.I. Bill soon after his return. "I went to work for a company called Coinmach Industries. They taught me how to repair coin-operated washing machines and industrial dryers. They gave me a set of tools, a car and a route. That’s what I did for the next 35 years," he says nonchalantly.
Eles met his wife, Madeline, at a church dance in 1946. "I used to love to dance and she was a great dancer and a very pretty girl. I just fell in love with her and we got married," he says.
The newlyweds set up housekeeping on Long Island and raised a family. They have three grown children, William, Margaret and Jacqueline, and seven grandchildren. Two of his children also live in Park City.
Eles’ patriotism and sense of duty run deep. He’s a poster child for what a good citizen should be. Astoundingly, from 1950 until his move to Park City in 2006, he volunteered regularly at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Northport, New York. "I’d come in there every week, serve coffee to the vets and play my harmonica for them," he says, noting, "It just always felt like the right thing to do."
"Those men and women were all soldiers like me. I’d like to keep it up here but it’s getting harder for me to get down to Salt Lake City regularly," Eles laments. "I still go down there for my medical treatment and I still take my harmonica and rattle off a tune. My doctors look at me in amazement."
Eles is also proud of his six-decade association with the American Legion. He was a member of Post 694 in Newport, N.Y. from 1948 until he moved here and now attends meetings regularly at Post 14 in Park City.
He says he and his wife moved to Park City to be closer to their children and grandchildren. "I’ll be honest with you, it was real hard to leave because I’d lived in New York and New Jersey all my life," he confesses. "But I wanted to come out here and spend what years I have left closer to family."
Eles says he’s enjoying his new life here. "I’ve made a lot of new friends and I like to help out at the toy store my daughter and son-in-law own at Redstone. I don’t have any pet peeves about the town at all. It’s a very nice place.
Reflecting on a life well-lived, Eles would prefer to forget the war years. "I don’t think about it anymore because it was very, very sad," he says softly. Of today’s war he notes, "At least in my war, we know who the enemy was. They wore uniforms."
In this holiday season, so many years and so far away from the battlefields of World War II Europe, Eles delivers a simple, heartfelt message: "I just hope we can come to some conclusion with this war and bring those boys home. God bless America and peace on earth."
Age 85, married, three children and seven grandchildren
Favorite things to do: Play harmonica and read the newspaper.
Favorite foods: Hungarian goulash, stuffed peppers and all kinds of soup
Favorite music/performers: Big band jazz, Artie Shaw, Gene Crupa
Pets: An 18-month-old "Havanese" dog named Clancy [a Cuban breed]. "I have a great love for all animals, especially dogs."
CORRECTION After reading the article about my father, Steve Eles, I was compelled to write you to clear up a few inaccuracies. In honor of my mother’s memory, it is of great importance that you know that Madeline is his 2nd wife that he met in the late 70’s. My mother, Evelyn Eles, was his great love from his teenage years to her untimely death at the age of 52 on June 2, 1974.
The reason this is so important to me is that she was by my father’s side before the war and stayed with him while he was gone those few years. They had a wonderful life together which he can confirm and the loss of her was devastating for him. He still mourns her so it is with great respect that she be recognized as the woman who weathered the storm of WWII, not Madeline. My mother and father did settle on Long Island together and bought our home on 336 Lincoln Ave in Brentwood NY in 1966. We did not move to Northport NY until 1976 when he met Madeline.
My mother and all the wives that struggled through those years also deserve recognition as well. As I am sure you know, having a husband you love being out at war can be devastating. Also, the 3 children are my father’s step children and I am his child with Evelyn, his first wife. They adopted me together in 1967. He also has 8 grandchildren, not 7. He called me this week to let me know about the article so thank you for recognizing him. He fought for this country and is a man of great honor and loyalty.