Richard Helling never heard the incoming German mortar shell.
It arrived hours before sunrise on Jan. 5, 1945, as a group of four U.S. Army soldiers from Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in Luxembourg were on post.
Shrapnel from the blast tore through Helling’s back, killed one soldier, and sent another running. Helling and a companion were left alone, wounded and bleeding on the frozen, snow-covered ground of the Ardennes Forest.
“I could not move and Harry Gartner, who I’d met just a few days earlier, wasn’t able to move either,” Helling said. “He would scream for a medic and then he would pass out. I can still hear the poor fellow screaming.”
Eight months earlier, Helling was graduating from high school. Now he was making his peace with God.
Now 93, Helling spoke about his experience from his rural New Hampton farmhouse. A display case on the wall held his two Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantryman Badge, a Good Conduct Medal and three Bronze Campaign Stars.
“I’m very, very lucky to be here,” he said. “I appreciated every day that I didn’t have to be in combat. That was a terrible, terrible experience.”
The Fort Madison native remains proud of his service but never intended to join the fighting in Europe. He served from July 1944 to March 1946.
“I graduated in May and was drafted in July,” Helling said.
During the battle, Helling remembers lying in the snow for 30 to 45 minutes before medics arrived. He was evacuated to a farmhouse and then a tent hospital, where a doctor removed shrapnel protruding from his back.
Less than two months later Helling was sent back to the front lines in the German Rhineland.
“I was wounded within 24 hours of my return,” he recalled. “The shrapnel cut my left arm to the bone. It probably saved my life. So many of them didn’t make it that day, I’m sure. That front line infantry company was a very tough place to be.”
Six weeks later, Helling was out of the hospital and back in battle as U.S. forces pursued retreating German forces in late March 1945. His company came upon a German hospital where a group of German soldiers had been seen going into the woods across a field.
Company G was ordered to prepare for attack.
“I thought, this is my third time,” Helling said. “I can’t be lucky every time. This time I don’t believe I’m going to make it. I better say my final prayers, which I did.”
At the last minute, a healthier company arrived and was ordered to charge across the open field instead. Several of those soldiers were killed and wounded in a hail of German machine gun and rifle fire.
“I firmly believe a young soldier died in my place in central Germany that day,” Helling said. “That was very hard to take.”
Helling was planning to become a veterinarian after the war, but chose farming instead. He got married, purchased a farm near New Hampton and raised five children.
“Life has been great to me since I was discharged from the Army,” he said. “We’ve done quite well with farming and raised a nice family.”
But memories of the war continued to haunt him.
“I never said a word about it for 30 years,” Helling said. “It was just too hard to do it.”
He was later diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and found talking about his experiences helped.
Helling also took the opportunity to seek answers to questions that had been on his mind for decades: What ever happened to the young soldier who was injured with him in that mortar attack during the Battle of the Bulge? Did he survive his injuries and the war?
An Army historian helped him find the answer some 43 years after the war. Harry Gartner was alive and living with his family in Bismarck, N.D. The two visited each other several times, both in Iowa, North Dakota and summers in Arizona, before Gartner died.
“It was remarkable to be able to get together with someone who’d been through all that,” Helling said.