Lyle Bouck looked up at the cuckoo clock on a wall in a café in Lanzareth, a small village in Belgium. He was being held as prisoner with the platoon he had commanded that day, 16 December 1944. He was wounded, shot in the leg after being pulled from his foxhole. Two of his men were critically injured. His runner, a 19-year-old called Bill James, was beside him, terribly disfigured, his blood soaking Bouck’s field jacket.
At midnight, Bouck would be twenty-one – 17 December 1944 was his birthday. One thing was certain: there would be no celebration. He settled into a dazed, dreamlike state. Nothing felt quite real. His mind wandered, searching for meaning amongst all the craziness. Finally, it settled on his aunt Mildred. Just before Bouck had joined the National Guard at age fourteen, she had asked to read his palm.
“If you live past your twenty-first birthday, you’re going to have a good life,” his aunt had predicted.
Bouck had received orders early that morning of 16 December to hold his position on a hillside at all costs. Others might have turned and run when confronted by the spearhead of the most ruthless SS strike-force on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. Not Bouck. He and his men from the 99th Division had fought to their last bullets, massively outnumbered, repulsing several attacks, leaving the slopes above Lanzerath littered with German corpses, before being overrun and forced to surrender or be killed.
The hour hand of the cuckoo clock struck twelve at last.
Bouck felt a kind of release. He was twenty-one. Maybe his aunt had been right.
Then rage surged inside him.
“Damn them all,” he thought. “Damn them all.”
For six years, Bouck had risen inexorably through the ranks, becoming one of the youngest commissioned officers in the U.S. military. He had imagined fighting all the way to Berlin, winning promotion. And now? It didn’t mean a thing. He’d gotten his platoon captured and shot up, and he would probably end up being killed.
Lyle Bouck’s aunt was right. He would almost die from malnutrition and hepatitis during a winter of captivity but would make it home to St. Louis. He would lead a long and prosperous and fulfilling life, working as a chiropractor. He was a devoted husband to wife Lucy, a grade school classmate, and raised three wonderful children before passing away in 2016, aged 92.
It was one of the most treasured experiences of my life to get to know Lyle at his home in St. Louis and at his condo in Florida twenty years ago. I was researching my book about him and his platoon, The Longest Winter. Lyle had agreed to me writing about him on one condition: I also focus on every other member of his 18-man platoon. He did not want to be the star. For hour after hour, he told me his story, sharing his sense of failure during the war, his agony, his deepest feelings.
Lyle profoundly affected me. He inspired me. He made me grow. He taught me about grace, humility, and forgiveness. I look back and feel incredibly honored to have been trusted by him with his story. He touched my family too. My son was just three-years-old when he met Lyle. He swam in the pool beside his condo. He laughed with him. He talked to him on the telephone for a middle school project about veterans before Lyle passed away. He remembers Lyle to this day. He knows he was fortunate to meet the finest American leader he’ll ever encounter.
Lyle discovered in the 1960s that his actions on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, 16 December 1944, had not been in vain. By carrying out his orders – to stand and hold – he and his men had delayed arguably the most critical SS advance, buying invaluable time for other American units. They had made a vital contribution to victory in the biggest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.
Decades after the war, Lyle and his platoon were recognized for their efforts and awarded medals for valor. In 1980, Lyle and three other men from his platoon received the DSC. Five more gained the Silver Star. Every other survivor received a Bronze Star with Valor Device. The platoon was honored too with the Presidential Unit Citation – today, it is known as the most decorated U.S. platoon for a single action of WWII.
As we approach the 78th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, I think about Lyle more than ever. There are so few of his ilk. He was a man of unwavering principle. His sense of duty was absolute and he always looked after his men.He was utterly selfless. After the war, he devoted his life to easing others’ pain and he fought long and hard to make sure his men were not forgotten. He helped them heal by being able to look back and know they had done the right thing – they understood that they had suffered so much to achieve something truly significant.
Lyle Bouck changed my life. He blessed me and so many others with his humanity. He gifted me success but gave me so much more. Every year at this time, I marvel at how he came of age that longest of winters in WWII, surviving trauma, loss, and humiliation. If any single man could be said to personify what made the Greatest Generation great, for me that sublime human being was and always will be Lyle Bouck.