TRAVERSE CITY — Clifford Merrick knew something was up when they issued him a rifle.
He was serving in a medical unit in France on Dec. 16, 1944, when fighting broke out in what was to become the biggest and bloodiest land battle of World War II. He didn't typically carry a gun, but when the Germans started to push through the Allied lines, rifles were handed out to everyone.
"Our unit was actually in a horse stable for racehorses, but there were no horses. We cleaned it all out and bivouacked there," Merrick said. "We didn't get much news, but we knew something was going on. Why else would they issue us rifles?"
Today marks the 67th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, when German troops advanced into a forested region of Belgium and Luxembourg in an effort to separate American forces from their supply divisions and reclaim a critical supply harbor.
Forty-one days later, Allied forces regained control of the lost territory, but thousands paid the price. Among U.S. troops, 19,000 of the 500,000 who participated were killed.
Merrick was drafted in 1942. Over four years, his tour of duty carried him through northern Africa, Sicily, Rome and southern France. By December 1944, he was stationed near the front line working in a motor pool for the medical unit.
"There were lots of injured. The doctors and nurses took care of them, but we set up tents -- big wards -- so there was enough for us to do, that's for sure," said Merrick, 89, of Kingsley. "All we were hoping for was to get out of there."
Rick Conley is trying to capture Merrick's stories to ensure that they're not lost to time. They meet every Friday, and Conley tapes conversations about Merrick's war memories.