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Battle of the Bulge: Soldier’s four-legged savior on Christmas Eve 1944

Credit: Andres Leiva

Tucked between dollar bills, nestled next to a black-and-white of his wife Gloria, Stan Saltz pulls out a second snapshot, the one of him as a 19-year-old Army private and survivor of the bloodiest battle in the second World War.

But the photo isn’t about him, it’s about the German shepherd, a four-legged member of the German Army who by Saltz’s account saved him and everyone and his squad over the next month as they fought those Germans in sub-zero temperatures in the woods of Belgium.

Seventy-three years later, Saltz, now a Delray Beach retiree, still tears up over the pic of his buddy, the one he named Santa.

Sunday, Saltz was among friends who could relate – other survivors of the Battle of the Bulge gathered in West Palm Beach for a luncheon timed closely to the anniversary of the battle’s beginning on Dec. 16, 1944.

Their brotherhood – with some sisters including battlefield nurses in the mix – is shrinking rapidly as the generation ages. They were the youngsters that December so long ago, but now Saltz is 92. The local events’ organizer, George Fisher, is 94.

This chapter of Battle of the Bulge veterans began in 1998 with 425 former soldiers. In a time when other chapters across the country are folding as survivor numbers dwindle – Florida’s Southeast Chapter stands as the nation’s vanguard in terms of membership with 123.

As Fisher likes to say, “Many of us may not remember what we had for lunch, but we will never forget the 10 below zero, the snow and the horrors of frontline infantry combat.”

On Dec. 16, 1944, three German armies began what would be their last major offensive campaign on the Western Front. Adolf Hitler intended to split the Allied armies in northwest Europe by a surprise push through the Ardennes forest.

Saltz walked 27 miles with the Army’s 75th Infantry – enticed each mile to walk a little further by the promise of a truck down the road that never materialized. They arrived on Christmas Eve, in time for Saltz to relieve a soldier in what was left of the 106th.

“He gave me a hug and took off. Didn’t even tell me where ‘Jerry’ was,” Saltz recalled. “Must’ve been maybe a half hour later. I’m in the foxhole. And I heard this – “ at this point, Saltz makes a low, quiet growl.

Saltz got up for a look and found a German police dog that didn’t seem long for this world.

“He was bloodied up by his master. His tongue was hanging out. His eyes were glazing over,” Saltz said. What did Saltz do? Brought the dog into the foxhole with him, gave him water, fed him K-rations and named him Santa. “He lapped it up and never left my side.”

Not only did Santa stick around. He alerted Saltz every time a German soldier was nearby. He wouldn’t make a sound, but he would tug on Saltz’s pant leg. “He was very smart.”

“He could smell a German half a mile away,” Saltz said. “Everyone wanted to go on patrol with Saltz. Why? Because Santa was there.”

When Saltz was hit by shrapnel above his right eye and rushed down the hill for medical care, Santa went with and didn’t even let the nurse near the man until Saltz told Santa to sit and stay while she stitched him up. They both promptly returned to the front line.

Against all odds, the Allies held the line at a steep price: 81,000 American casualties including 19,000 dead. But none was from Saltz’s squad.

“My life and my squad were saved by a German Army police dog,” Saltz.

The Battle of the Bulge ended on Jan. 25, 1945. And shortly after, Saltz, still bandaged at his temple, and Santa posed for a photo.

In a room full of people remembering, Saltz has a couple other stories. Being given shots of whiskey to get past the cold that was turning his toes gray. Later putting his demolition skills to work trying to blow up a German safe in a depot – and managing to obliterate the depot while the safe remained intact and firmly locked.

He said he met General George S. Patton at a crossroads in the Ardennes. A “character”, Saltz said.

But most important, he says God sent Santa to him that Christmas Eve and was gone just as abruptly by February or March, hopping off a train full of troops to do his business on solid ground – the train then headed out without him. “We cried for a week.”

In another breath, Saltz will tell you that same year he became an atheist “when I saw Dachau.”

Saltz came home. Married Gloria who stayed with him until she died 67 years later. He went on to work in the food service industry. The couple had two children and four grandchildren, but no dogs. “Nobody could replace him.”

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© 2017 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.