Editors note: This is the first of two stories about the Veterans Day themed program recently held at the Bolan School House. The event featured two guest speakers with two very different experiences during World War 2. The first, Marcus “Stub” Bartusek of Manly, was an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge, and was recently pinned with the medal of France’s highest distinction for his service in liberating the country during the conflict. The second is a German immigrant, Karl Schaper of Nora Springs, who spent his childhood and teenage years in Hitler’s Germany up to and during the war, before he immigrated to the United States.
Through the windows of the Bolan Schoolhouse blazed the quiet sunshine, bathing the old classroom in a warm glow deceptive of the brisk Iowa winter on the other side of the panes.
Gingerly, Marcus “Stub” Bartusek stepped onto the stage at the front of the room, and sunk his 93-year-old frame into the chair provided.
The crowd had taken their coats off and settled into their chairs, and the old veteran gazed over them with a half-mind; the other half fingering the memory of a winter far away, long ago.
“It was about a foot of snow. Wet snow. And the mud, you couldn’t believe it.” Bartusek said.
Belgium, 1944. Allied forces had all but pried Hitler’s stiff-jointed grip off of central Europe — his tyranny had lingered for nearly a decade over Germany, not unlike the frostbite and trench foot that nibbled at the extremities of the soldiers keen on his demise.
“It was the worst winter Belgium ever had, to this day. The worst one on record. It was below zero all the time, snow all the time,” Bartusek said.
A few years prior, an 18-year-old Bartusek could only remotely surmise the drama that was playing itself out across the Atlantic. But a letter from Uncle Sam had plucked him from his rural upbringing and dropped him into the 106th Infantry Division, and now the gravity of the conflict was present as the cold Belgium winter with which he now had to contend.
“We set up on the Siegfried Line. We were stretched out on a 27-mile front. Usually a division only occupies five miles,” Bartusek said, recalling from memory.
“We heard a little gun fire here and there, like firecrackers going off. Then on December 16, they sent a barrage on us for 4 hours. 7th Panzer Division. We held out till the third day, and in the meantime, two of our regiments got captured. We held out as long as we could. They said: ’hold the line at all costs.’ We did until there was no ammunition left. At about 11 o’clock one night [we were told we’d] either surrender, get killed, or what — we were on our own.”
The crowd fidgeted as they shook images of themselves in similar situations from their minds.
“Finally, General Patton came in. [We] called in for reserves, and said ‘how soon can you get here?’ Well, ‘three days’ [Patton said]. We said that was impossible. But by golly, he made it. And we started pushing, and retook France again. After that, [the Germans] were surrendering so bad, they’d come in by truck loads. Some were 14, 15-year-old kids. They could hardly handle a rifle. I felt sorry for them, I really did. But what can you do?”
Bartusek’s laconic, steady tone recalled the incidents that lined the traces of his memories. He spoke of leaving the states, landing in France and Belgium, and passing through towns and villages that dotted the Ardennes, with names he could scarcely remember, let alone pronounce.
His meanderings then came upon his first brush with the enemy.
“My sergeant and I were making cocoa. We had what they called D bars, and one of those bars would last you one day’s rations. You couldn’t break them, you had to put a bayonet knife on it and hit it with an ax to break them they were so hard. So we would shave them and make cocoa, but we had to melt snow for the water. We were sitting there, and he’s a big guy, my sergeant. Then I heard a ‘ding’, and all of a sudden he just fell over. Hit right there.”
As Bartusek thumped the base of his neck with his finger, the same gunshot went off in the minds of the audience, and gasps took the air from the one-room schoolhouse.
“We sent out a squad, but they couldn’t find [the sniper]. He had come up during the night I suppose, camped out, waited till the next night and took off again.”
For the folks that gathered in the Bolan Schoolhouse on that Sunday afternoon, Bartusek’s stories served as a reminder of the price of freedom not given but earned. His tales highlighted how the reality of war parallels the highs and lows of life, but with the greater sacrifice comes greater extremes.
“You could go a day and a half, and nothing would happen,” Bartusek said. “But when it did, all hell broke loose.”