Seventy years later, Battle of the Bulge looms large in Overland Park veteran’s memory

Today, 96-year-old Paul Rogers of Overland Park is considered the oldest surviving member of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division, which was immortalized in the book and TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
Today, 96-year-old Paul Rogers of Overland Park is considered the oldest surviving member of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division, which was immortalized in the book and TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.” The Kansas City Star

Outside his window, rain threatened to turn to ice.

“I thought we might be getting some Bastogne weather,” Paul Rogers said, standing in his Overland Park living room but thinking back to his forest foxholes in Belgium during the World War II Battle of the Bulge, which began 70 years ago Tuesday.

Not to worry, he said, his hands gripping the metal walker that steadied him. “This isn’t like Bastogne.”

Every December, Rogers, 96, employs his own standard of measure as to how cold it can get. That was the frigid weather that prevailed during the 29 days he and his paratroooper comrades spent near that small crossroads community, fighting Germans in well-below-freezing temperatures with no gloves for their hands and their feet wrapped in gunnysacks.

“It was the worst place you could be,” Rogers said. “It snowed, and it got cold. And I mean cold. People don’t know what cold is. Nobody could get to us, or they didn’t even try because it was so cold. I was able to pack some extra socks, but not everybody had them, so a lot of guys had their feet ruined.


They lit fires during the day — that’s how Rogers kept his socks dry — but never at night because of the constant siege the unit endured. Even though they crouched in scattered foxholes, artillery rounds often found them anyway.

In 1992, author Stephen Ambrose chronicled Rogers’ unit in the book “Band of Brothers.” In 2001, HBO debuted its miniseries based on the book, expanding a community of admirers for what has become one of the most celebrated units of World War II.

Today, Rogers is considered the oldest surviving member of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division. Of its original 140 members, Rogers is among perhaps six who remain, and so to his mailbox comes an unceasing series of invitations.

Some request that he serve as a featured guest on battlefield tours, for which travelers pay about $6,000 to follow Easy Company’s rugged path. Rogers has returned to Europe in this way about 10 times, often visiting the old foxholes that still can be discerned in the earth near Bastogne.

Years ago, organizers of the annual December Bastogne anniversary liberation celebration hoped to entice his appearance by sending him a jacket with his name in script over the left breast. But the manufacturer’s tag still hangs from the jacket, which Rogers never has worn. He’s only been back to Bastogne in warm weather.

“Never in winter,” said Shirley Caldwell, Rogers’ companion and travel partner.

“Too cold,” Rogers said.

Rogers grew up south of Kansas City in Adrian, Mo., and enlisted in the Army at Fort Leavenworth in 1942. Wanting “something different,” he asked to join the parachute infantry.

In his first combat jump, he landed in a tree on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Three months later, he jumped into Holland. Ten days after that, shrapnel from a mortar round tore through his right arm. He spent weeks in a hospital in England before returning just in time for the German offensive that began Dec. 16, 1944.

Easy Company members climbed into 10-ton open-topped trucks and rode through rain and snow to the forests near Bastogne, where Germans soon surrounded all U.S. troops there.

His first foxhole was a slit tench. “But frost got in that right away,” he said.

The next foxhole was more spacious, with a roof of tree limbs and dirt to protect against “tree bursts” — the rain of iron and wood that fell when an artillery round detonated in heavy timber overhead.

That was how Rogers’ unit spent much of its time fighting near Bastogne, even after elements of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army broke through on Dec. 26.

Rogers sometimes helped lob motor rounds into advancing German troops, some clad in white uniforms as they tried to sneak forward through the snow.

During the occasional lull, Rogers visited other foxholes, encouraging younger soldiers. One night, which Rogers refers to as the “Night of Hell,” two Easy Company members died when an artillery round landed on their foxhole. He spent that night carrying wounded comrades to aid stations.

For battle veterans, it remains a mystery how they survived. “I have no idea,” said Ed Shames, a resident of Virginia Beach, Va., who is Easy Company’s last remaining officer.

“Below-zero temperatures are especially difficult if you have no clothes. It was not only 29 days on the ground, but 29 days in the ground, with no structure whatsoever. None. Zero.”

It was on that “Night of Hell,” that Shames promoted Rogers to platoon sergeant.

“Paul just had a certain knack in handling his men,” Shames said. “He did it without being forceful, as I had to do.”

After Easy Company pulled out of Bastogne that January, its members advanced into Germany, entering Bavaria that May before making their way to Berchtesgaden, site of German dictator Adolph Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat.

By war’s end, 49 of the unit’s men had been killed in action. More than 360 men, including replacements and transfers, rotated through the unit, which suffered a 150 percent casualty rate, according to one accounting.

After the war, many Easy Company veterans kept in touch, sometimes vacationing together with their families. The unit’s post-war camaraderie, not to mention its wartime sacrifice, attracted Ambrose, whom Rogers met in 1990 for an interview in Lawrence.

“When the battle was over, that’s when I would shake,” Rogers told Ambrose. “You can’t shake while it’s going on, you don’t have time.”

The first episode of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” miniseries, co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, included an actor portraying Rogers who can be glimpsed during a training exercise. Rogers himself also appeared in on-camera interviews.

HBO flew Rogers and Caldwell to France for a weeklong premiere celebration.

Today, Rogers attends physical therapy sessions to remain limber enough to travel. In September, he and Caldwell flew to Philadelphia to meet Shames and fellow Easy Company member Roderick Strohl to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their jump into Holland.

Easy Company’s enduring story continues to prompt new books, some written by company members. Shames, who will publish a memoir next year, calls Rogers “the finest soldier who ever served in the U.S. Army.”

“If I had been half the soldier that Paul Rogers was, I would be very happy.”

Rogers shrugs off such praise. He was 24 at enlistment, or older than the company’s rank-and-file members, and maybe that helped.

“They called me ‘old man,’” he said.

In recent years, the children of Easy Company members have continued to organize reunions. George Luz Jr., the son of a Rhode Island veteran, sends Christmas cards to survivors or their widows as a way to remain close to his father, who died in 1998.

“Everybody who saw the series on TV could relate to those these men,” Luz said. “These men stared death in the face, but they also could have been their (the viewers) own fathers, uncles or grandfathers. And so all this adulation has been bestowed on them since, yet they have behaved with such humility.

“To a man, they will tell you that they didn’t do any more than anybody else.”

A reunion is set next year in Toccoa, Ga., where Easy Company trained in 1942. Rogers, who has two daughters and four grandsons, hopes to attend with Caldwell.

Still on the table, meanwhile, is an offer from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans — an all-expenses-paid trip for both to return to Normandy and Bastogne next year. The per-person rate for tourists starts at $5,695.

Rogers and Caldwell think it might be too rigorous.

Then again, the group is to arrive in Bastogne on June 11.

It might be warm by then.

“That might not be bad,” Rogers said.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.