EVANS. Ga. (WJBF) – In December 1944, the Allies felt confident that a victory over Nazi Germany was near. A short time earlier, Sergeant James Elwood Wisenbaker, a Valdosta, Georgia native, was drafted and finished basic combat training at Fort Jackson in Columbia. After moving around with fellow soldiers, Sgt. Wisenbaker was put on the RMS Queen Mary at Pier 41 in New York City. Sailing across the Atlantic to Glasgow, Scotland.
The Georgia son was just 20-years-old.
“You wake up, next morning it looks like you’re right where you were yesterday. And they gave me a little duty up on the bridge. I was supposed to watch for anything, submarines or anything, and report it. Well this old country boy, I’d report orange crates floating, cans, anything I’d see I’d report it,” explained Sgt. Wisenbaker.
The trip to Scotland took five days. Then it was off to mainland Europe to fight against the Nazis. Specifically, in Belgium’s snowy Ardennes forest. Sgt. Wisenbaker moved to the front line.
He recalled, “It was terrible. One of the coldest winters they had in Europe. No airplanes could fly because it was just pea soup fog.”
“As I grew up, we kept stuff in the attic. And one day I crawled up into the attic and found a box with his picture and things in there. And I read the little diary or journal that he kept. Up until that point, I did not realize what my dad had gone through,” said Sgt. Wisenbaker’s daughter, Becky Balliew.
Sergeant Wisenbaker said there was not a lot of action going on when he first got to Belgium but then, a surprise by the enemy. On December 16, 1944, more than 200,000 Nazi troops attacked.
“The battle began when they attacked, for the Battle of the Bulge. And luckily for me I guess, they didn’t hit right where we were. They were on either side of us and they had captured our regimental headquarters before I ever saw one,” said Sgt. Wisenbaker.
Balliew explained, “He’s told me about watching one of his commanders die in front of him. Daddy was just a few feet away. He’s seen a man machine-gunned by an SS officer.”
“We were in a little wooded area. Something like pine trees. Thick. And they were shooting those 88s. And it hit in them trees and it was just like a hand grenade going off. Fragments of it, shrapnel and everything. I was standing very close to my battalion commander and he got hit with one of those things. And I got a tree between him and I. And I made it and he didn’t. I could see blood coming out of him and I liked him. He was a good man,” said Sgt. Wisenbaker.
The Germans moving forward created a bulge in the American lines. Next, more bad news for Sgt. Wisenbaker and his men.
Sgt. Wisenbaker explained, “We got the word that it was a hopeless matter for us and for us to get ready to surrender to them. They began walking us all the way across from St. Vith, which is in Belgium, all the way through Germany and I stopped at about four different prison camps.”
While reading over mail addressed to Sgt. Wisenbaker’s mother, his daughter said, “This was the letter from the war department to her, showing that he was missing and they offered her their heartfelt sympathy during this time of uncertainty. And I just know that they had a lot of letters to write.”
“They had some huge tents and probably about 700 in a tent. And they had five or six of them. You laid on the ground all the had was straw. You laid on that straw, like oat straw, and there would be five of you from the aisle to the back of the tent. Five on this side and went all the way to the back of the tent like that so there were a lot of people in there,” said Sgt. Wisenbaker.
Balliew added, “The Purple Heart is for what he endured as a POW. They starved them. “
In the prison camps, Sgt. Wisenbaker mostly spent his time reading his Bible.
He said, “You know, them Gideons. That’s all we had to read.”
Sgt. Wisenbaker’s family still has his old, tiny Bible but he also kept a journal that’s still around. He didn’t write in it much but in the journal is a beacon of hope.
Balliew read from the journal, “Russian tanks pulled into camp at 10:50 on April 22nd.”
Liberation by the Russians but the Americans were shortly behind.
“Government trucks arrived on May sixth to take us out,” said Balliew.
Sgt. Wisenbaker remembers that day fondly. He said, “And we walked down the road a little while and there was a field full of GI trucks. Prettiest sight I ever saw in my life. I was trying to get into the first truck. They said there was plenty of them!”
After regrouping at Camp Lucky Strike in France, Sgt. Wisenbaker sailed for 11 days back to the United States. Landing at the same pier he left from months before.
He said, “When we got there, to the mouth of the river, saw that Statue of Liberty, that is a beautiful sight.”
“Never brags or boasts about his service. Very humble and very grateful to be home,” said Balliew.
Back on home soil, Sgt. Wisenbaker came back to the Peach State to make a life for himself in the railroad business. He met his wife Betty shortly later. They’ve been together for 69 years.
He is now retired in Evans.
“Been a wonderful father, grandfather, husband. My mother has been devoted to me and my children and has loved us and supported us like, you just can’t describe. American dream,” said Balliew.
Sgt. Wisenbaker is 95 years young. He still has the eager heart of a young man.
His daughter said, “He goes to church. He still drives on occasion. He only has problems sometimes when his feet got frostbite from marching to the POW camp. He suffers a little nerve damage but other than that he goes.”
With humbleness, Sgt. Wisenbaker said, “I’m no hero. I feel blessed. I believe the good Lord blessed me beyond all worth and why I don’t know but if what I say can help anybody I’d be glad.”
Photojournalists: Brandon Dawson and Gary Hipps.
Edited by Wes Cooper.