A different Christmas story
Looking from the window of his Moravian House apartment on a cold December morning, Bethlehem native Forrest Taylor commented to a guest that the rapidly falling temperature reminded him of the Christmas of 1944, which he spent in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.
He had been an army platoon sergeant then, the link between the officer who commanded the 40 men of the unit and the three squads and assorted specialty troops into which it was divided. Forrest joked that he never understood how a guy who was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 120 pounds ever got the responsibility of leading dozens of men in one of the decisive and most costly battles of the Second World War, the Battle of the Bulge. But his guest, an army brat, had already figured that out. Modest in demeanor and a true gentleman, Forrest reminded him of many of the World War II veterans he grew up among.
The Battle of the Bulge was the U.S. Army’s largest land battle of World War II and also its costliest in terms of men killed in action, more than 8,000. Beginning in mid-December with a German assault numbering several hundred thousand, the battle continued until late January 1945, when Allied air power and the stubborn refusal of the Americans to surrender forced a German surrender. The brutal cold, a record for western Europe during December at that point in the 20th century, took a high toll on American troops. Because they had advanced so rapidly from Normandy, they had left their supplies behind. Many men died of exposure, including three in Forrest’s platoon.
During basic training in Missouri, Forrest had the good luck to be in a unit directed by a highly decorated sergeant from the Tenth Mountain Division, Joseph T. Dye, who had led a seven-man team in a daring assault on a German position on a mountain above American positions in Northern Italy. Sgt. Dye was a role model for the young man who would soon be promoted to sergeant himself.
Forrest’s unit sailed from New York to Wales and from there to southern France. From the French port, they traveled three days by train – using boxcars to maximize the number of men who could be accommodated – to a site near Liege, Belgium. Just minutes after leaving the train they heard an aircraft pass overhead, its engine sputtering and then falling silent. Seven seconds later, there was a huge explosion nearby. They had almost been hit by a German V-1 rocket, better known as a “Buzz Bomb.”
Forrest’s platoon was engaged chiefly in firefights with German squads, not full-scale battles. The Germans’ objective for these operations, he believes, was to slow up the Americans and disrupt their movements. At one point, Forrest’s regiment moved forward to relieve the 509th Airborne. On the way, Forrest spotted a paratrooper, armed with a Thompson submachine gun, whom he immediately recognized: it was Jimmy Johnston, the brother of a classmate of Forrest at Bethlehem HS.
In Forrest’s opinion (and the opinion of other veterans of service in Europe in World War II), German weapons were often superior to American weapons. Forrest’s platoon had three Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), weapons introduced in World War I. They fired at a rate of 450 rounds/min. The German “buzzsaw,” as the GIs dubbed it, had a firing rate of 1,300 rounds/min. It got its nickname because, according to the GIs, it could cut a man in half.
When the war ended in 1945, Forrest returned to Bethlehem and his wife, Pat. He joined the Bethlehem Steel Co. and rose to the position of assistant division manager of the Billing and Accounts Receivable Department, a remarkable achievement for a man who hadn’t attended college or participated in Steel’s “Loop” program for executives.
The army had been right about his leadership ability, it appears.
When he retired in 1980, Forrest took a position with the Bethlehem Police Department, where he was given the title of “Special Investigative Assistant.” He laughs when he adds, with characteristic modesty, that he was really just a clerk. When the chief warned him that he would probably hear some strong language occasionally in his new job, Forrest described his service as a platoon sergeant, and assured the chief that he could help the cops expand their vocabulary.
Forrest and Pat moved to Florida in 2001, but not many years later Pat died, and Forrest decided to return to Bethlehem to be nearer to one of his daughters. He went back to work for the Bethlehem Police Department, where he still volunteers three days a week. He is also active at Wesley Methodist Church.
By 2016 Forrest’s service in Europe lay decades in the past, and he thought about it chiefly when he was invited to speak to school or community groups or on very cold days in December. Then in October, 2016, he was surprised to receive a letter from the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., informing him that as a veteran of the liberation of France, Forrest had been named a “Chevalier,” or Knight, of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor -- civilian or military -- that the Republic of France awards for service to the nation.
The citation was instituted by Napoleon, and has been awarded to generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, among other Americans. The letter concluded: “I would like to take this opportunity to express the French Government’s deepest gratitude for your courage. We are forever grateful to the men and women who fought for our freedom and to whom we owe it today.” Forrest was invited to receive the award in a ceremony at the French Embassy Nov. 10.
Thanks to the assistance of a friend from Wesley Methodist Church, a retired Army colonel, Forrest was able to attend the ceremony. He was one of 11 Pennsylvania recipients of the award who could be present. Afterward, his friend drove him around important sites in the city and its environs, including the Pentagon.
Forrest has also received other awards for his service. In September 2002, he was named an honorary member of the Bethlehem police force. In November of this year, he received special recognition by the City of Bethlehem. He has also been honored by decrees from the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
On the wall above Forrest’s bed is a framed display of his military citations. These include three Bronze Stars for the battles of the Ardennes, Rheinland, and Central Europe. In the center, with everything else arranged around it, is the insignia of a Sergeant First Class, or platoon sergeant.
Forrest has not been back to Europe since returning home. He has “no desire to return to the fields of fire,” he says. Nor is he prepared to discuss the violence he witnessed. If you’re interested in that, go see “Band of Brothers,” he says. But he is concerned that the sacrifice of so many GIs not be forgotten. As Forrest and a small band of his brothers learned at the French embassy, their sacrifice is remembered and honored by the people who most benefited from it.