It is a strange thing when somebody tells you how close you came to never existing. Not to dying, mind you, but to never having lived in the first place.
That happened to me about three years ago when I interviewed Robert Louis Higgins Sr. for a historical sketch I was writing about General George S. Patton. Granddad was a living witness to Patton’s greatest feat: breaking through the German lines at the Siege of Bastogne. So I naturally called him up for quotes.
In the course of our conversation he told me that he came within an inch of death at least five times in the Big One, all but one of those times during the siege. I had never known this. It was a cold realization to learn how close Nazi artillery had come to taking out not only him, but me and most of the rest of my family too.
Well, on Monday, May 14, cancer finally did what Hitler’s Panzers could not do. Granddad died at age 93.
Bob Higgins, as his friends knew him, grew up in Depression-era Youngstown, Ohio. The city was famously crime-ridden at the time — the Saturday Evening Post called it “Mobtown, U.S.A.” — but my grandparents always spoke fondly of it as a great, All-American town. As Grandma would put it, “Yes, there were a lot of gangsters, but they only ever killed each other.” Otherwise, it was safe.
In 1941, with war already going on in Europe, Granddad decided to go ahead and enlist. To the brawling Irish-American, it seemed better than sitting around and waiting for the draft notice to arrive.
He became a first sergeant in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and, at 24 years old, he hang-glided into Normandy shortly after D-Day.
Whenever Granddad talked about the war, he told about things like how impressed he was with the British soldiers (“the best fighters,” in his estimation) and how terrible their officers were (“They kept getting their men chewed up”); how the one time he spoke to General Eisenhower it was about whether any of the men in his unit had contracted STDs; and his fellow soldiers’, ahem, disdain for the French (“We had a saying for them: They fight with their feet and [blank] with their mouths”).
Mostly, though, it was the bone-chilling cold he remembered. The winter of 1944–45 was one of the worst Europe had had in generations. Soldiers had to sleep with their boots on to keep them from freezing solid. Frostbite took out nearly as many members of Granddad’s unit as enemy artillery.
As Christmas 1944 approached, he found himself in the quiet Belgian town of Bastogne. The calm ended on December 17 when the Nazis made one final push. Control of Bastogne was key to the Battle of Bulge: Literally all the usable roads ran through it.
The Nazis surrounded the town and demanded surrender. They received a one-word response from the 101st: “Nuts.” An American medic helpfully translated this into German as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen,” which, roughly speaking, means, “You can go to Hell.”
“We were paratroopers,” Granddad told me. “Landing behind enemy lines was what we were trained for, so when the Germans said, ‘We have you surrounded,’ we thought, ‘So?’ We were always surrounded.” The 101st dug in, and that was it.
At one point, Granddad’s jeep was totaled by a Nazi shell. Another took out the makeshift kitchen he shared with other soldiers. Luckily, it wasn’t chow time. Another time Granddad took refuge from German fire only to realize he was hiding under a truck filled with cases of grenades. He quickly chose another spot.
“The Germans never realized how bad off we were,” he recalled. By Christmas Eve, their food, ammo, and medical supplies were almost all gone. “We were getting to the point where we didn’t have anything to shoot them with.”
The tide turned when Patton broke through and reestablished supply lines. Granddad was always a bit chagrined that Patton got so much credit. He would only grudgingly concede that Patton made victory possible.
He returned to the States, and the next 67 years passed more peacefully. He settled down, raised a family, and became a businessman of some note. He ran the National Electrical Contractors Association for nearly two decades.
To me, he was just that lively, broad-shouldered lug I saw a couple of times a year who loved to talk about sports, politics, hunting, and all things Irish. He could quote the John Wayne flick The Quiet Man by heart.
The last time I saw him was less than two weeks before he died. My father had warned me that morning that time was running out. So I paid a visit that evening. Granddad was thin and drawn but still had his wits about him.
We split a six-pack of beer while he told me he was recording all his wartime experiences and wanted his writer grandson to edit them for him. I’d be honored, I told him.
He never got a chance to finish his account.
I miss him, of course. When somebody lives to 93 and survives what he did, you start to think he is immortal. I consider myself lucky to have had him around for as long as I did.
Heck, based on what he told me, I’m lucky to be alive myself.
— Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily.