Leon A. Jedziniak, 89, remembers the Battle of the Bulge as if it were yesterday: the below-zero cold, the merciless Nazi mortars, the lack of food and medicine, the utter filth.
"I got a shower on 18th of December, and I didn’t get another shower until the end of January," said Jedziniak, a U.S. Army medic who found himself in the midst of one of the most horrific battles of World War II.
Jedziniak—or "Jed," as he is known—was talking about a period in 1944-1945, shortly before the end of the war, when the Germans were attempting to retake Bastogne, Belgium. The Nazis' goal was to advance to Antwerp, separate British from American troops and cut off supplies.
The fighting in Bastogne was dubbed "the Battle of the Bulge" due to the way the Allied front-line bulged inward on wartime news maps.
Jed was serving his first combat mission with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division when he rolled into the beleaguered city on Dec. 18, 1944 to support a scattering of troops.
"We got to Bastogne, and it was a nice sunny day," the former "A"-Company medic explained with characteristic aplomb. "You dug a foxhole, got in it, and in the morning woke up with two feet of snow on top of you."
He may be hard of hearing, but Jed’s recall is spot on—even if he does recount many of his war experiences as if he were leading up to a punch line, which he often is.
For example, as a medic who "didn't know from sh--," he said, "I was classified as a surgical technician and told: 'There’s only one thing you need to remember. Never put the tourniquet around the neck.'"
When referring to a Memorial Brick dedicated to his 101st Airborne Division that will be part of the Memorial Day Ceremonies at Veterans Park on Monday, he scowled at the inscribed dates, Dec. 20-27, 1944.
"They’re trying to cheat us out of two days!" he quipped, reminding those present—including Vietnam veteran , a retired U.S. Army Special Forces captain—that he had landed in the combat zone two days earlier.
Masi, chairman of the Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial Task Force, regularly joins Jed for breakfast at on Artesia Boulevard, which is where our interview took place.
On this particular morning, the two were discussing the Veterans Park event (scheduled for 1 p.m. Memorial Day), during which Leon Jedziniak will be presented with the U.S. Flag by Chief Warrant Officer Keith Willoughby, USMC, the senior instructor of the Marine Corps Junior ROTC at .
The presentation will occur right after the flag is lowered, and before a new one is raised, a fitting tribute to a veteran who experienced "a nightmare" battle in 1944, Masi said.
"People have no idea what those guys went through in WWII," Masi said, talking about the 10-day siege in which the Allies, surrounded by Germans, suffered through one of the bitterest winters in Belgium's history. "The 101st went in there with nothing—(only) summer uniforms, no ammunition, no food, a couple of day’s rations. That’s it.
"And they were primarily the force that stopped the German advance."
Masi, who was wounded in a mortar attack in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1969, said nothing compares to the unspeakable deprivation men like Jed endured in WWII. "You live like a rat," he said. "Think about not being able to clean up, minor things like no toilet paper."
And scant medical supplies.
Part of the irony of Bastogne was that a new shipment of uniforms, weapons, ammunition, and supplies had failed to reach the 101st paratroopers before they were ordered to Belgium by Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"Some guys went (into combat) with just a bayonet or a trench knife," Jed said. "That’s was it."
As the days wore on, shivering with cold in light summer uniforms, limbs blackened with gangrene, the 101st paratroopers had "no galoshes, no gloves, no jackets, no nothing," Jed said. "Your boots are all wet, frozen. If you want to walk, you bang that boot against a tree, get the ice off."
At the risk of a few more punch lines, let’s back up.
When asked where he was born, Jed says, "I was hatched." (Although he doesn’t smile, not even for pictures, you can tell the vet—who describes himself on his business card as "Proud to be a Battered Bastard of Bastogne"—enjoys playing to his audience.)
One of six children (two girls and four boys), Leon A. Jedziniak grew up in New Britain, Conn., "the Hardware City of the World," he said. "They made mess kits, toasters, electric stoves, you name it."
His father, a locksmith, emigrated from Krakow, Poland in 1910, as did his mother. “In fact, my oldest brother was born in Poland,” Jed said.
Drafted in 1943, Jed was the first of his four brothers to serve. The Army "held me back to send me to OCS (Officers Candidate School)," he said. His response: "Are you kidding? I never even finished high school!"
Tapped as a medic (he had no choice in the matter, he said), he trained for six months at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Since the paratroopers "were short 15 medics," he volunteered.
Sent to England for parachute training, he graduated from jump school, receiving his gold jump wings on Dec. 3, 1943.
Jumping from C-47s (or "Gooney Birds,” as they were called), paratroopers carried 80-pound parachutes and 40 pounds of equipment, Jed said. They were taught to "scrounge" for whatever they needed—potatoes, turnips or anything else—once they hit the ground.
Trouble is, Jed never made a wartime jump. "I missed the Netherlands jump by four days," he said, referring to the largest airborne assault in history that took place in Holland.
Instead, stationed in Mourmelon, France with the 101st Airborne, he was told, "Saddle up, we’ve got to go to Bastogne."
He saw action his first day when told to rescue a fallen comrade. Jed, a priest and another paratrooper were edging along a railroad track when they encounted a spray of machine gun fire from a lone German firing from a disabled tank.
"He was firing at Father Samson, myself and the kid," Jed said. "The kid got hit in the arm, (but) Father Samson and I dove over the bank. The kid got back by himself."
Jed and the priest finally reached the fallen comrade, who was given the last rites. Then Father Samson and the young medic managed to get the deceased back to the aide station.
That’s when Father Samson said to Jed, "I’m going to put you in for a Silver Star."
Jed allowed a dramatic pause, his comic timing, as always, perfection. "The next day, Father Samson gets captured by the Germans."
Sgt. T-4 Jedziniak never got his Silver Star. "They gave me a bronze one instead."
He saw Father Samson again, however, 31 years later in Fort Benning, Ga. Always the jokester, Jed tapped the priest on the shoulder and said, "Father Samson, are you still working on the railroad?"
Jed had to remind Samson who he was. "So you’re the medic!" the priest exclaimed. "I was wondering where the hell you were!"
How did Jed like being a medic? "I didn’t like it," he said, scowling again. "Running around with a bedpan and a urinal? Come on."
He wasn’t even given a proper medical kit or a weapon. And his helmet—emblazoned with the red cross—made him a great target for the Germans. Discarding the helmet after the first day, he was given a .45 by "a guy who was wounded."
Jed treated the sick and wounded as best he could in a seminary and churches. "We had no hospital, no morphine," he explained. As for the fallen, bodies "were stacked up like cordwood" behind the aide stations, dog tags—then equipped with tooth notches—slammed up between the front teeth for later identification.
Since the Allies were based primarily outside the city, in the Ardennes Forest, scrounging for food wasn’t easy.
On the one occasion Jed and some buddies located an abandoned farmhouse, they discovered a Coleman stove, potatoes and Oleo Margarine. "We had French fries until we ran out of gas," he said.
When the weather finally broke, they heard the heavenly drone of U.S. C-47s.
"You’ve never seen anything like it, one hundred planes coming over and dropping supplies," Jed said.
Not all were usable. "We got morphine syrettes (syringes) that we couldn’t use because they were frozen," he explained. "You build a fire and the mortars come in. We were surrounded."
Even when the Germans retreated and U.S. forces occupied their foxholes, "they knew exactly where we were and put mortars in on us," Jed said.
Masi, a confessed history buff, said the Germans issued an ultimatum to the Allied commander of Bastogne, General Anthony McAuliffe, to surrender within two hours or face annihilation from a massed German artillery bombardment.
"They brought the dispatcher to McAuliffe’s headquarters blindfolded," Masi said. McAuliffe’s reply? "Nuts!"
German commanders asked what "Nuts!" meant. "Go to hell!" was the reply.
"That story spread like wildfire," Jed said, and gave a "huge boost" to the demoralized troops. The Germans didn’t realize just how depleted the U.S. forces were, he added. "If they’d hit us all at once, we would have been gone. All of us."
Instead, the U.S. prevailed, and the last great Nazi offensive of WWII was over—although not officially.
Jed accompanied the 101st Airborne Division to Adolph Hitler's vacation retreat in Berchtesgaden to hunt members of the Nazi leadership that had gone into hiding. He saw combat continually for the next few weeks.
There were some high points of his service, such as running into his oldest brother at Berchtesgaden, another brother in France, and another in Liverpool. Someone asked Jed how the brothers made contact without cell phones. His answer? "Brains."
By the end of January, he finally got his shower.
In the end, he served two years to the day. "We were the only division in the whole U.S. Army to receive the Presidential Citation," he said, pointing to the place on his uniform where the small, gold-trimmed blue medal awarded by President Theodore Roosevelt resides.
It was time to go home to Connecticut.
Three years later he married his high school sweetheart, Florence, and they had one daughter, Karen. Jed worked a series of jobs: prison guard, gas station owner and security guard among them. After his wife died, he moved to Florida, where he spent 35 years. "I loved it," he said. "I’ve had a good life."
It was only after his girlfriend passed away several years ago that he decided to move to Redondo Beach. "My daughter has been trying to get me to move here for 15 years," he said, remarking on how Karen Engle, a nurse who recently retired from UCLA Medical Center, now works part-time at Torrance Memorial.
Jed lives with Karen and her husband, David Engle, a professional photographer, and two dogs, Goldie and Pilaf.
Some of his best times nowadays are spent at annual reunions with the few remaining veterans of his generation. "We’re getting fewer and fewer," he said. "We only had 13 guys show up last year in Kentucky."
But there are plenty of local vets, though they're perhaps a little younger. Among them is Masi, 71, who listens enthusiastically to Jed’s stories about what really happened to the men of the 101st Airborne who fought in Belgium in below-freezing weather 68 years ago.
Leon Jedziniak will receive the U.S. flag at the annual at , located at 309 Esplanade in South Redondo Beach. The ceremony starts at 1 p.m. and will be followed by a barbecue at the Elks Lodge next door.