BY JAMES RUSSELL
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.
Conley said WWII veterans are dying off at an alarming rate.
"In a few more years, there won't be any more stories. If we don't archive them now, we won't have them," Conley said. "It's important for young people to know what happened."
Richard Rizzio is a member of the Battle of the Bulge Veterans Chapter 23, based in Traverse City. The 20-year-old group once boasted 35 members, but tonight only four veterans will make it to their annual dinner.
"It's in commemoration of the men who fought and didn't make it back," said Rizzio, 86. "We were the lucky guys who came home."
Fellow group member and Bulge veteran James Wibby said word of the Germans' push into the Allied lines was slow to trickle down to soldiers.
"When you got down to the guys in foxholes, we didn't know anything. We only knew what was in front of us," Wibby said. "We were getting ready to make a crossing, and once that was canceled, we realized a big battle was going on."
Rizzio was injured prior to the battle, which kept him off the front lines.
"I was very fortunate. I was injured before battle, so I was off the line," he said. "We lost four of our members on the front line. I could have been one of those. I'm fortunate and happy that injury put me in a hospital."
After the battle, Merrick helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp, which he called "the worst thing in his whole service." But he said he wasn't scared during his four years of service.
"It was an experience," said Merrick, who followed up his war years with a career as a local insurance agent. "You had to do it because they drafted you, and I wouldn't have volunteered to do it, but once you get in there, you take what comes."