Published February 08. 2013 4:00AM
Stuck for days in a hole in the frozen earth that filled each night with snow and ice, wearing cotton garments, no shelter, no stove, no relief, just relentless misery compounded by raw terror – though nearly 70 years have passed J. Niel Spillane of Mystic remembers that awful ordeal as if it were yesterday.
"There was no escape," he said the other day, recalling his experience as a young soldier hunkered down in a foxhole in Germany during World War II. "Everything froze – from our hips to our toes."
I've known Niel for years – he was mayor of the town of Groton when I was a cub reporter – and always regarded him as a hard-working, civic-minded public servant who helped initiate such worthwhile projects as the Pequot Outpatient Medical Center, Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School and the Pequot Woods Park. Professionally he was a respected administrator at Electric Boat who had been chief of planning for construction of the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine.
But I never knew one aspect of Niel's life: his military record.
"It's not something I like to brag about," he said.
Nevertheless, Niel called me after reading my most recent dispatches about enduring extreme cold conditions while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – not to denigrate my recreational experiences, but to compare notes and to reflect on the human capacity to endure.
"We were all kids," he said of the fellow soldiers in his company who took to the foxholes in a forest outside a German village near the French border in February 1945.
"The German winter was bitter, the holes were dug in snow-covered frozen ground, and water would freeze overnight in the hole," Niel, now a spry 88, recalled.
After talking with him on the phone, I drove to Niel's handsomely maintained historic home on High Street, where in his typical, well-organized fashion, he gave me a detailed written account of his wartime exploits, from which I now quote:
"The fun ended abruptly when the Battle of the Bulge commenced and we were tossed into rather violent action in towns abutting the Siegfied Line. The Moselle River was somewhere to our north and our first job was to hold the southern corner of the German arrowhead salient.
"When the German advance was blunted our next order was to penetrate the Siegfried Line and commence the first penetration toward the Rhine River. From a base in Wochern my company and others were sent on attack to a town called Tettingen and a few hundred yards northeast was a German town called Butzdorf. In an intense attack and much street fighting we secured Butzdorf."
Next, Niel's company wiped out a German tank division with machine guns and mines, earning a Presidential Unit Citation.
"I was sent back and forth to Tettingen during the battle to return with re-supply of machine gun ammunition. My journeys earned me a Bronze Star," he said.
Then came those frigid nights in the foxholes, from which there was no relief.
"Movement in the daylight hours invariably drew enemy fire: machine gun, mortar or 88 mm guns. My closest call was from an 88 that hit the berm around my foxhole. Fortunately it hit the side away from the Germans but buried me and my mate neck deep in frozen dirt clumps. I discovered that two pieces of shrapnel, each about 6" by 1" had passed my head perhaps a foot apart and were settled in the opposite side of the hole. My head survived. …
"Late in January we were ordered to make a dawn attack across a wide open field, up a slope and into a defended forest … The attack was bitter with almost face-to-face combat but we did secure the forest only to be met with an intense artillery defense using air bursts into the trees where we suffered huge casualties and I got small bits of shrapnel in exposed wrists...
"Overnight without shelter our overcoats froze solid. I tried to bend mine by laying it across a foxhole… The active remains of the battalion, about 24 men, had been told to continue the attack, but the division surgeon inspected us and ordered us to he nearest field hospital. Thus began my journey to medical care and recuperation in England."
Niel spent the next three months recovering from frostbite, and considers himself incredibly lucky to have survived with his extremities intact.
I never have fought in a war and, thanks to a high lottery number during the days of the draft, never served in the military. The only uniforms I've worn were as a Cub Scout and Little Leaguer.
Every near-hypothermic ordeal I've experienced and chronicled – a January ascent of Mount Washington in blizzard conditions; a night on Camel's Hump at 35 below; flipping my kayak in ice-choked rapids, to name a few – resulted from my own twisted notion of adventure.
As Niel noted – not disdainfully, simply matter-of-factly, I had a choice. He didn't. Plus, nobody was shooting at me.
So before I write again about hardship on the trail or the water, I'll think about those who have endured far worse travails on much nobler missions.
Thanks, Niel, for offering a decidedly different perspective on outdoor survival.