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A View from the Foxhole: Sam Siegel’s Story

By: by Gale Siegel Messerman and Penny Siegel Blachman

Above: Sam Siegel, (front row, seventh from left) with his platoon at Camp Blanding, FL, August 1944

Our father, Sam Siegel, was born to Russian immigrants on February 27, 1915, in Anderson, South Carolina, the fifth of eight children. At that time Anderson was a mill town with a small Jewish population and an active Ku Klux Klan. Sam and his siblings learned to deal with anti-Semitism from early childhood.

At the age of 19, Sam started keeping a daily diary, a practice that he continued religiously for 73 years, until his death on August 27, 2007. He left his family 17 volumes that chronicle his life and times. The daily entries continued throughout his active service in the US infantry between March 1944 and December 1945, including his harrowing experience in the Battle of the Bulge. 

Sam-&-Leona

Left: Sam and Leona Siegel, 1944

Sam was keenly aware of the events in Europe leading up to World War II, especially those involving the Jews. On September 11, 1938, he wrote: “Europe is waiting tomorrow to hear what Hitler has to say. —What he says means either war or peace.” The answer came quickly with the infamous Kristallnacht attack of November 9, 1938. On that night the Nazis broke into and pillaged Jewish shops, destroyed synagogues, demolished Jewish homes, and arrested, beat, and killed many Jews. Sam wrote: “Hitler is really giving the Jews hell, because one Jew killed one of his men. . . . The Jews are being punished all over Europe. Something to worry you. . . . The papers are telling of things that are being done to the Jew in Europe.—God pity them. . . . ‘Th’ time might be near.’” On November 14th he reflected: “Hitler has turned on full power against the Jews. . . . It seems to be coming to a head.—God can’t stand by for-ever.” 

More than five years after Kristallnacht, Sam was inducted into the US Army’s 78th Division on March 29, 1944. Twenty-eight years old by then, he was married, living in Walterboro, and the father of two children. His two older brothers had already been drafted. 

After eight months in basic training, the 78th was sent to Europe, arriving in England on October 25, 1944. Sam’s company spent some three freezing, wet weeks engaged in rigorous physical training and weapons practice. Sam was trained to use a bazooka. In November the men were shipped to France. “Still raining like hell,” he wrote, “the mud is ankle deep. . . . I haven’t taken off my clothes for days. I’ve lost the feeling of my foot. . . . Our tents are leaking like hell.” From France the troops traveled to Belgium.

On December 1st, as he neared the battlefront, Sam reported: “The buzz bombs are coming over fast, but our planes are also coming over.” Five days later he “found out we are moving up to the front, we are leaving in th’ morning. . . . I guess, I’m ready. . . . ‘I’ve got to be.’”

Sam was in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge. “Lots of casualties are coming back,” he wrote on December 13th. “Two fellows, anti-tankers, about two blocks from our truck got hit this morning by 88 fire.” Five days later his anxieties increased: “We keep getting rumors about paratroopers, etc coming our way. If they do, we are caught like a bunch of rats in a trap. . . . Our morale is still high. But we all hope to see the end of it all.” 

Sam’s company fought to defend against a massive German attack, often confronted by German soldiers in American uniforms invading foxholes.  In January 1945 he wrote, “Our positions are going to face an attack soon. If so, will be a real battle because we are dug in for a fight and it’ll be hard for us to withdraw. In fact, it might be impossible.” The bitter cold continued: “Th’ tears come from my eyes and freeze while on my cheeks. . . . ‘If we could only see the end.’” By February: “I’m so sick of hearing and seeing death.” 

Siegel-letter-1-crop

Right: postcard from Sam to Leona, dated February 24, 1945. Courtesy of the family of Sam Siegel. 

Finally, the Germans began to retreat. Several days before his company entered Germany, Sam and three other men left their foxholes in an effort to bring in a wounded comrade. That is when Sam was hit. “An 88 got me in the leg,” he reported on February 7, 1945. Sam was taken to a field hospital, then to a hospital in France. Over the next two weeks his daily diary entry was just one or two words, reporting only pain. On March 12th, he was flown to Atlanta and admitted to the VA Hospital. He remained there for nine months.

Repeated procedures failed and, in the end, Sam’s left leg was amputated above the knee. Although his long hospitalization involved pain, patience, and learning to walk with a prosthetic leg, Sam continued to write in his diary and to his family. Sam’s younger sister, Leah, who was the first family member to visit him, wrote to his wife, our mother, Leona: “What a wonderful husband you’ve got and how very proud I am of my brother. . . . Thank God he realizes how lucky he is; and he has a greater zest for life than ever. . . . He was full of jokes and stories and wants to talk about his experiences over there . . . golly, he’s the life of the hospital. . . . Sam says he’s going to be the best dancer in S.C., bar none and that you and he are going on an extended honeymoon. He’s full of plans for the future for you, Gale, and Nancy; and he loves you all so very much. Please don’t worry about him, darling, and don’t be afraid of seeing him again for the first time. You’ll see how easy he makes it for you. He’s such a great guy.” 

Sam returned home to Walterboro on December 20, 1945. For the next 62 years, he operated a store and other business enterprises and was involved in community organizations and activities in his town. He not only learned to walk again, but inspired many others to do the same. Sam was devoted to his family and to his country. The war memories were always with him, but they did not haunt him. He lived a life of service, grace, love, and humility.

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