Bag back from Battle of Bulge

The Baltimore Sun

Henry J. Roth cheated fate in 1944 when severely swollen feet earned him a coveted seat on a train to an English hospital, weeks before his Army division was pounded by advancing Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.

Sixty-three years later, a faded relic from his foxhole arrived at Roth's home in Catonsville.

Roth, an 85-year-old retired accountant, received the package this week from Belgium. As his mailman and wife looked on, Roth opened the box and pulled out a dark green canvas duffel bag, emblazoned with stenciled lettering:

"Henry J. Roth 33383648"

It didn't take long for Roth to recognize the bag. It had once contained some of his Army gear and a picture of his wife. He had left it with the other members of the 395th Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division in a foxhole near the Belgian-German border as he went to wash up in a nearby farmhouse.

Before he could return, doctors diagnosed his trench foot - a condition that afflicted scores of soldiers during the war - and sent him to England.

He would probably never have seen the bag again were it not for Pierre Godeau, a collector of war memorabilia in Belgium who has returned nearly two dozen items to American veterans and their relatives over several decades.

Godeau, in a phone interview this week, said the bag came from an attic of a house in the Belgian villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath, where the 99th Infantry Division fought the Nazis.

Godeau found Roth's phone number online and called him a few weeks ago, saying he had found something Roth had lost during the war.

"The first thing I was thinking is, 'What is this, a scam?'" Roth said, adding that he had almost forgotten about the bag. "I can't believe this happened."

Godeau told Roth he would send him a picture. Instead, he decided to surprise him by sending the bag itself.

Roth was two years out of Mount St. Joseph High School when the military drafted him in 1942. He spent some time in the Army Air Forces before being assigned to the 99th Infantry Division as a rifleman. In 1944, Roth left for Europe at age 22, stepping off a train onto snow-covered ground in France in October, he recalled.

His division relieved Allied soldiers who had been camped for a month in foxholes, though Roth is not sure whether it was in Germany or Belgium. On the second or third day, a sergeant gave Roth permission to wash up at a farmhouse used by soldiers several miles away, Roth recalled.

"I went back and took a nice, soaking bath," Roth said. "When I got up to put my combat boots on, I couldn't get them on. My ankles were swollen."

He spent the night in the house, and the next morning, medics looked at the swelling - caused by cold and wetness - and hung a cardboard tag around his neck that read "trench foot," Roth said.

He was immediately put on a train, never to return to the foxhole.

After four months in a hospital, he would spend the remainder of the war as a maintenance worker in the Army Air Forces outside combat areas in Europe, where, among other duties, he laid down chalk lines for a basketball court for soldiers.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm alive,'" he said.

He gave little thought to the duffel bag he left behind.

During four months in the hospital, he read newspaper articles about the war and the 99th Division's many casualties.

"The trench feet saved my neck," he said. "I would have been in the Bulge."

On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans began what would be one of their last major offensives in World War II.

Also called the Battle of the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge took its name from the bulging distortion the Nazi advance left in the line separating the opposing forces - a salient that enveloped some Allied forces.

Historians credit the 99th Infantry Division's resistance along the "Northern Shoulder" as a key to the German defeat.

"Thanks to their resistance, valuable time was gained so that the Germans didn't make that good progress they had planned," said Roland Gaul, a historian with the National Museum of Military History in Luxembourg who has written on the Battle of the Bulge.

In the first two or three days, about a third of the 99th Infantry Division's 15,000 soldiers were killed or taken captive, said Harry McCracken, the division's archives chairman.

Godeau, 41, of Vaux-sur-Sure, Belgium, a former employee of the American firm Fidelity Investments at its regional offices in Luxembourg, said he became interested in World War II memorabilia as a teenager after buying his father a book on the subject.

He is part of a circle of history buffs who spend countless hours in forests with metal detectors, searching out lost relics.

He has found duffel bags, dog tags, beat-up helmets, canteens, grenades.

Godeau said he believes he has returned at least 20 items to families in the United States in the past 25 years.

Melissa Etheridge once called him on stage during a concert in Europe after he gave her a relative's old barracks bag, according to Godeau. Etheridge's mother had set up the meeting between Godeau and her daughter after she saw an Internet posting by Godeau looking for the soldier's relatives. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about the meeting last year. A publicist for Etheridge could not be reached for comment.

Godeau said he never charges the families for the items.

"It's my pleasure to know that I will bring a terrific surprise to the family in the United States for doing that," Godeau said.

Several weeks ago, a friend of Godeau's met an older man who said he had war relics in his attic. The friend recovered three military duffel bags and gave them to Godeau, who said he did not know how the bags ended up in the attic.

All three bags had names and serial numbers written on them. But Roth was the only owner he reached.

Godeau said he first researched Roth's name through the National Archives Web site to confirm that he served in the military. Then he found his name on an online phone directory.

When postal carrier Joseph Moore delivered the package Wednesday, Roth was surprised to see the label from Belgium.

Then he pulled out the duffel bag. "For a moment it just seemed like he was speechless," Moore said.

"I'd love to know the story if that bag could talk," said Henry Roth's wife, Mary Ann.

Roth said that while he's happy to have the bag, he doesn't understand the fuss from his wife and their three adult children over the bag.

"I guess it's historical in a way," he said with a laugh. "What am I going to do with it, hang it over the fireplace?"

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