The Selflessness of Heroism
Posted on November 19, 2017
Late in 2014 I had the honour of being a guest at National Australia Bank’s “Night of Nights”, a celebration of its best employees in south-eastern Australia.
Its geographical head of small business acting as master of ceremonies, asked rhetorically during his keynote address, “How can a business where team always comes first, overtly recognise individual achievements too?” Well he said, “Personal achievement comes with qualities essential to an organisation as a whole: passion, discipline, selflessness, courage and resilience”.
Ever-thinking of historical context, his words drew me to an anniversary the world would recall just two weeks later. December 16, 2014, would mark the 70th anniversary of “The Battle of the Bulge”. A World War Two campaign signalling the penultimate end of Nazism: its name deriving from its impact on the operational maps of Western Europe.
For the benefit of the non-military versed let me paint a brief introductory picture.
June 6, 1944, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the first of a series of epic manoeuvres thrust at the heart of Germany. In August after numerous delays born of desperate fighting, Paris was liberated. Then a great paratroop drop across Holland in September, hoping to leapfrog the enemy and end the war by Christmas, failed. By November, the Allies were spent, their logistics over-stretched. In an area of Belgium and Luxembourg straddling the German frontier they rested their weary divisions of infantry and armour. This was the Ardennes Forest. Yet, there Hitler had plans too. On December 16, 1944, he threw his now refurbished divisions of elite SS through it towards Antwerp aiming to separate the Americans from the British and negotiate a truce under his terms. Taken by surprise and suffering numbing losses, the Allies pieced together a strategic riposte. It is in that reply that our story is found.
Picture a straight piece of thread. Now hold its ends and push at its centre; you’ll begin to see a curve form. That’s exactly what happened in the Ardennes as the Germans struggled westward and the Allies applied pressure at the flanks. The resultant bend looked like a bulge and that’s how the campaign’s name came to be. Historians call it “America’s greatest battle”. In force size, it certainly was. Interestingly, Australian aircrew gave their lives in it too. But how exactly was it that the Allies managed to stop Germany’s crack forces in a wilderness protected by so few tired and untried soldiers?
Well, now picture the thickest snow you’ve ever seen, pour it on the densest woodlands and rolling terrain cut by the steepest river banks imaginable and you’ll understand how roads and bridges became critical to Germany’s hopes. Now place a few US troops, with the virtues spoken about on the Night of Nights, at just the right spots on those roads and you’ll see how individual Allied spirits lit like beacons for a battered whole. It was with that attitude that the Allied fightback began.
Take for example, the actions of Private First Class, William Soderman, of the US 2nd Infantry Division who on December 17, 1944, near the twin border towns at Rocherath-Krinkelt, stood facing five monstrous German Panther tanks with a bazooka tube perched on his shoulder. The bazooka was a two-person anti-tank rocket launcher. But Soderman’s partner—his loader—had just been hit. Utterly exposed Soderman triggered his rocket. The lead tank blew up. Unable to reload he dove away as the other vehicles passed him by.
That night, Soderman lay hidden against a relentless barrage of high explosives. Early next morning as the mist parted, five more multi-ton German panzers appeared. Soderman rushed along a ditch, he again leapt into full view and crippled the lead vehicle with a fresh bazooka round. This time the accompanying German tanks could not squeeze by and they pulled away. Later that day, the remnants of Soderman’s platoon received orders to blessedly retreat but Soderman wouldn’t comply. As he’d expected, yet more German tanks probed and knowing his team lay in the open he relinquished his cover: Soderman disabled a third tank but this time its machine guns tore at him. Severely wounded, life ebbing, no longer having a weapon he dragged himself away. Until rescue eventually came.
For his feats, Soderman won America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Few received it alive. It commended individual passion, discipline, selflessness, courage and resilience. Do those traits sound familiar? Indeed, through his initiative Soderman’s acts ensured the Germans spent days forcing a road junction that should have taken hours to breach. And the rest as they say is history. Antwerp never fell.
It was with these thoughts that a notable celebration by a bank coalesced with an equally remarkable epoch. For in sum, when you look at it you realise there is always an “I” in “team”; it’s the individual who leads by example.
In the history books a 70-year old citation now reads: “Through his unfaltering courage against overwhelming odds, Pfc. Soderman contributed in great measure to the defense of Rocherath, exhibiting to a superlative degree the intrepidity and heroism with which American soldiers met and smashed the savage power of the last great German offensive”.
What is most eloquent is that heroes never do it for the glory. They merely do. And it is for us, the onlookers, to celebrate their lessons in admiring retrospect.
© 2017 Adam Parker.