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Local man recalls service during World War II Battle of the Bulge

DAILY LEADER / JUSTIN VICORY / Margaret Ann and Howard Britt recently returned from a reunion of World War II veterans in Austin, Texas.

DAILY LEADER / JUSTIN VICORY / Margaret Ann and Howard Britt recently returned from a reunion of World War II veterans in Austin, Texas.

It’s hard for me to talk about my experience during World War II; usually I end up breaking down and crying.”

Nearly 70 years after experiencing that time at war, longtime Brookhaven resident Howard Britt, 88-years-young, still feels the emotions run high as he reflects upon his time in the 13th Armored Division of the United States Army and the “Battle of the Bulge.”

Recently, Britt, who was a half-track operator during some of the war’s most vicious fighting in the European theater of World War II, attended a gathering for a reunion banquet in Austin, Texas.

While the banquet provided Britt the opportunity to see other surviving members of his division, it also helped to refresh his memories of those days so long ago. With this came a number of stories, some exhilarating and life affirming, others full of melancholy and loss.

After attending high school here in Brookhaven, Britt was drafted into the army at the age of 18. “I told them I was driving a school bus at the time. I guess that’s how I ended up driving a half-track during the war.”

Known as the “Black Cat Division,” the 13th Armored was activated on Oct. 15, 1942. After training for years, the division landed at Le Havre, France, on Jan. 29, 1945. Those in the division who made it through an excruciating three months in the French countryside during one of the coldest winters on record, would end up joining Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, going on to take part in the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns.

Britt recalls, “We slept in foxholes and were without any warm water to bathe in or to clean our clothes with … that’s when we weren’t running for our lives.” Britt said the weather conditions were so bad that he would be forced to follow the red light of the tanks in front of him in order to navigate his half-track through the countryside. It would be close to 60 days before he and his fellow soldiers had a warm meal, he said.

During the war, Britt and his men would capture many towns, including Hitler’s birthplace of Braunau, Austria. The “Black Cats” would see combat day in, day out. Those who survived would live to boast that they were directly responsible for the liberation of 11,000 prisoners of war, among them more than 4,000 Americans.

But most, like Britt, would keep these stories to themselves for centuries, perhaps waiting for time to ease the memories, the painful ones casting a shadow over the good ones.

Certainly, the statistics speak for themselves: 250 of Britt’s fellow soldiers were killed in just 16 days of fierce fighting and more than 900 were wounded. Eventually, history notes that the Black Cats were partly responsible for the Allied victory in Europe, but Britt talks about what most people – even hardened history buffs – don’t know.

Britt had just ended a one-week leave that brought him all the way back home to Brookhaven, only to be told that he was being deployed again, this time halfway across the world in the other direction, in the Pacific theater.

After returning to the United States, classified documents later revealed that Britt and the 13th Armored Division were slated to lead the perilous advance on Tokyo until the war ended with the Japanese surrender, following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Thinking back, Britt remarks, “I had just left Brookhaven. I was on my way to California when they dropped the bomb.”

According to Britt, if the mission to Tokyo had been carried out, it was predicted by the army that they would face a 90 percent casualty rate. It was almost so unlikely that any of the men would survive, that there was another company of soldiers deployed to follow the Black Cats, in the bid to capture Tokyo.

Back home again, Britt reflected on his past days in the U.S. Army with his wife, Margaret Ann Britt, who owns Fashion Jewelry by Margaret Ann Britt in downtown Brookhaven.

Margaret joined her husband on his trip to Austin to commemorate and to reminisce with fellow vets. They also celebrated Howard’s 88th birthday at the reunion, which happened to fall on the same date of Sept. 7. He was the youngest one of the veterans, he said.

Interviewed earlier this week about his wartime experiences, Britt paused as he completed his recollections, saying, “This is probably the first time I’ve been able to tell my story without crying.”