IN?HONOR… Saluting area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

Felix Welka recalled when he was told “Old Blood n’ Guts” George S. Patton was bringing his tank division from 100 miles away. The trip was delayed because of low rations of ammunition, which is a little different from how the movies tell it. As the battle raged on in the Ardennes, Welka saw the military plans unfold. Phase one was to stop the German advance. Phase two was to move out and push the Germans back. The American soldiers gave it everything they had.

It wasn’t long before Welka was ranked as Platoon Sergeant. In his new position as squad leader, Welka was proud to lead his men and to serve his country, even amidst the raging winds of that bitter winter. To this day, Welka will tell you the reason the Allies won the Battle of the Bulge was because of the efforts of the American servicemen. He says those boys became men fast, and if a man was told to something he did it, no questions asked. They all had one common goal: to stop Germany from taking over and to win World War II. Everyone did his job and covered his brother soldiers. They used good judgment and trusted each other’s decisions. They worked as a team and did their best to get back home to their families.

As the Allies began the slow and steady push back, winning the counteroffensive seemed more and more likely. Many Germans were captured; many surrendered themselves to American soldiers willingly. They didn’t want to be captured by Soviet soldiers. When the German soldiers were questioned, many said they didn’t want to fight Americans. They feared America and its strength and numbers.

Welka remembers a 30-day period during the battle when he only received one warm meal. At times, he and the other soldiers added lemon juice to melting snow. Rations were limited; the men were always hungry on top of being cold. Welka suffered from frostbite. He was hospitalized for two months in England after the Allies secured the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge was won. Recovery was slow, but a hospital bed in England was better than sleeping on snow in the Ardennes.

Welka saw action in Germany, Bulgaria and France. After his ordeal with frostbite was over, he was ordered to more training. He was put in charge as Platoon Leader in a German P.O.W. camp. Here he was in charge of 55 officers from Hitler’s staff and high commands. The camp also held S.S. officers. Welka recalls that some of them weren’t shy about their crimes against humanity, openly speaking about concentration camps in Poland and Germany. It turned the Allies’ stomachs.

Most prisoners of war were happy enough to be guarded by Americans rather than the Soviets. Just like the German soldiers on the battlefield, the prisoners were afraid of instant death at the hands of the Soviets, who were still bitter over Stalingrad. Some of the prisoners tried to be on their best behavior, even singing Christmas carols for the U.S. soldiers in broken English.

At these P.O.W. camps, all the rules dictated by the Geneva Convention were followed. This was more than some prisoners could hope for, but the Americans held themselves to high standards.

When the camps and their business wound down, Welka’s unit was disbanded. He was assigned to new duty as a member of the Military Police. This sent him to Australia. Welka enjoyed this job for the most part. The only difficult incident he remembers was when a group of Australians attacked a U.S. M.P. After a confrontation between the attackers and a group of M.P.s, the Australians left the U.S. servicemen alone.

When his duty to his country had been fulfilled, Welka came home to Dunkirk and returned to his old job at Marsh Valve. Things were slower, more relaxed with the country at peace. Instead of making valves for Navy ships, Welka’s company made gas valves.

Welka was happy enough, but when a friend told Welka about a civil service exam he could take to land a job at the Post Office, Welka couldn’t say no. He did well on the exam and became a mail carrier. He enjoyed this job, but unfortunately, he found he couldn’t keep it due to the frostbite damage he had suffered in Europe. He stayed with the Post Office, but took a job indoors as a clerk. He held many positions there before his retirement.

As a retiree, Welka enjoys Buffalo Bills football and Major League Baseball. At home, he was a pal to the neighborhood kids and a valued member of his family. Now he resides at St. Columban’s on the Lake retirement home. He is a member of St. Hyacinth’s Catholic Holy Name Society, the VFW and the American Legion. He is also a life-long member of the Battle of the Bulge organization.

I was honored to sit and talk to Welka. Displayed proudly on his door at St. Columban’s is a Battle of the Bulge decal. Walking the hallways there, one will have no problem finding this honorable and courageous veteran.

Welka is approaching his 90th birthday, but he can recall the days and nights he spent in the frigid Ardennes as if it all happened yesterday. When he spoke about his time at the Post Office, it was harder for him to recall details. This is true with many veterans; their time spent in service to their country is etched sharply into their minds. They never forget their days as Army soldiers, Navy sailors, Marines and Air Force Airmen.

I first met Welka in the 1970s when I married his neighbor. I always saw him, two doors down, chatting with neighbors, giving candy to the children, or helping someone with a project. He never forgot any of the neighbors’ birthdays and always sent cards.

I had always assumed that his foot problems were the result of hard days spent as a mail carrier. It wasn’t until I interviewed him that I put two and two together. His foot problems were from the frostbite he sustained as a soldier. I spent so many years clueless about his time spent fighting one of the costliest battles in our history. What would have happened if the Allies lost that battle? Would the outcome of the war be different? No one will ever know.

Even though Welka did not have any children of his own, he was a father to many. All of the children in the neighborhood adored him and enjoyed spending time with him.

He was an avid bicyclist and taught many children how to ride a bike. The children often rode their bikes along the lake with Welka, often stopping to watch a baseball game, play miniature golf or enjoy an ice cream cone. When the fair came to town, he enjoyed the rides and especially Johnny’s Waffles.

Whether listening to music, playing badminton, picking cherries from his large cherry tree or enjoying yogurt or a candy bar, spending time with Welka was a cherished childhood memory.

I probably own every war movie Hollywood has ever made. But after interviewing Welka and so many other veterans, I know that those movies were only made to sell tickets and DVDs. We wrote the history books, not Hollywood. We were there, the veterans, in the battles and the airplanes, in the trenches and on the ships. We fought these wars and kept the United States free from enemy rule. Watching a movie can’t tell you what war was like. To really find out what it meant to be a soldier during the Battle of the Bulge, get permission to sit with Welka and listen to his stories. He is a true hero. Thank you, Felix, for sharing your amazing story.