A World War II veteran remembers Bastogne

Billy was surrounded by young Island women in front of the post office before he was sent overseas. His sister, Dot Clark (in uniform), helped identify the group as did Jean Dickerson and Phyllis Wallace at Havens House. From the left is Doris Clark, Fran Klenawicus, Charlotte Hannabury, Dorothy Avona, Billy and Dot, Joan Magale and (this identification is somewhat disputed) Virginia Spataza.

Billy Dickerson grew up on Shelter Island and went to school here. When World War II began in December 1941, he tried to enlist in the Air Force. Traveling into Manhattan with a friend (Glenn Waddington’s uncle) he was sent back home — enlistments in the Air Force were closed. By the time enlistments were once again being taken, he’d been drafted at the age of 19. In January 1943 he spent his first months in the army being shipped from one camp to another. 

Leaving Shelter Island was itself an adventure for young people back then who had never “been anywhere.” Finally, after a lot of starting and stopping, he ended up in a fort in Texas, where he was told he was to be trained in “the long gun.” 

The gun, actually, had a name — it was called the “Long Tom.” When he first arrived at the fort, the guns had yet to appear. The men cut down trees, rolled the logs into camp and worked with them as if they were the real thing. Eventually, given the time it took America to arm, they had them. Interspersed with his gun training, he spent months on and off in headquarters, where he was something of a jack of all trades. He handled payroll, legal matters, files and typing. Eventually, however, he was back with the guns.

In 1944, ready for deployment overseas, he was sent first to a camp in upstate New York and then found himself on the Queen Elizabeth, bound for England. When his battalion was initially formed, it had consisted of 500 men from the Long Island area, so he was not surprised that Ben Byington, his Shelter Island High School classmate, was on the liner with him. But standing on the chow line one evening, he was surprised to find another Islander, Charlie Avona, standing next to him. Charlie didn’t have Billy’s luck — his plane was shot down on his first mission and although he managed to land, he was killed by the Germans.

When Bill and his group reached England, they were first stationed in Wales. “It was miserable, the worst weather you can imagine. We were wearing our overcoats and it was July!”

They thought they would be going in on D-Day, but instead they were landed from LSTs in Normandy six weeks later. “Even though it was that many days after the landing,” he remembered, “the sky was still red with tracers and there was still firing everywhere.”

His training with the long gun, a 155-millimeter cannon, had been extensive, but to work with it in real time was something else. First of all, the guns had to be carried to their destination. The men often moved them 10, 20 or 30 miles in a single day as the front moved forward. They had to dig all the holes that were needed, in preparation for setting them up. Then, every time the gun was fired, it would sink some inches down into the ground. By the end of a siege of heavy firing, the gun had to be dug up out of the mud and moved to the next station. “It took 15 men 12 hours, to move the gun, and that was back-breaking labor.” 

“Anybody ever thought they were tired, they should have been with us. After 12 hours of taking down a gun, traveling 20 miles, setting up the gun, digging more holes for the ammunition and the gun spades and things like that, you think it’s time to get a little nap and then the phone would ring and you’d hear ‘Okay, everybody! Nobody goes to sleep until everybody’s dug a foxhole.’ By that time, you just thought, ‘Let them shoot me and put me out of my misery.’”

Then American troops were besieged, encircled, in northern France in what came to be known as the “Battle of the Bulge” at Bastogne. Billy was in General George Patton’s group that was sent to relieve those troops and break the siege. 

“The interesting part was the trip up to the Bastogne area, all that traveling. We started at 7 o’clock at night, traveled all that night, all the next day and most of the next night, through sleet, snow, icy roads, fog to get up to the Bastogne area.” The battle ground had been totally fogged in, air support completely unavailable. 

“One town was blocking the entrance roads into Bastogne. We set up 156 guns, literally in a row, all scheduled to fire at the same time, 10 rounds apiece. That town was simply obliterated. But there were many German soldiers who had hidden in cellars and the men that went in there faced hand-to-hand combat and it was very fierce fighting.” Billy felt lucky, being outside the town, manning the guns. 

Outside Bastogne, Billy remembers firing the gun, pulling the lanyard and waking up in an English hospital. He has no memory of being wounded or evacuated. One moment he was firing his gun and the next moment, he was in a hospital. He’d been hit in the head, fractured his skull, gotten a concussion, and lost hearing completely in one ear, partly in the other. He was hospitalized for six months and then discharged.

He has a gold, embossed scrap book with his army pictures and other memorabilia, that “my daughter gave me,” and it’s clearly a treasured possession. He was kind enough to loan the Reporter the photographs reprinted here.

“When I look back on it,” he said, “I think I was really lucky. They told me that almost everyone that had the wounds I had died from them. I think the reason I didn’t — it was that I was a little guy. If I’d been any taller, that recoil would have taken my head off!”

In honor of Veteran’s Day, the Island, and all America, owes the Billy Dickersons of this world a debt of gratitude.