OTTAWA — James “Sandy” Sendelbach was a 21-year-old Army combat engineer in December 1944 when his unit hit Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.
“A little kid came up and asked, ‘The Yanks coming?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, the Yanks are coming,’” the Ottawa-area resident remembers nearly 70 years later.
But the Germans were on the move, too. A last desperate offensive into the Ardennes forest briefly split the Allies’ defenses, but the attack collapsed on itself and turned into a rout by the American, British and other forces allied against the Third Reich.
Sendelbach, now 89 and living in Greensburg Township, north of Kalida, said his unit was responsible for maintaining radio telephone lines, and his service was mostly routine, even boring. But the diary he kept offers a glimmer of day-do-day challenges at the front of one of history’s fiercest battles.
“Somebody asked me recently, how did you do that? Did you write every day? And I honestly can’t remember,” Sendebach said during a recent interview. “It’s a note every day, or most every day, anyway.”
About 15 years ago, Sendelbach transcribed and edited the diary on his home computer. He emailed it to several relatives. Last year, a nephew had the diary printed and bound in book form, using an online book publisher.
The diary begins with an Atlantic crossing laden with seasickness, one encounter with a German submarine, and an officer, “Capt. Dan,” who had a fondness for alcohol and who once tried to jump out of a port hole.
“Once they had chicken and it must have been spoiled because the smell permeated half the ship,” he wrote. “Wasn’t sick but had a funny feeling in my stomach so Tisch (a buddy) gave me a seasick pill. One minute later I was in the latrine heaving. Should have left well enough alone.”
Other excerpts from Sendelbach’s diary:
•Dec. 22, 1944, France, Belgium and Holland: Figured on spending Christmas here (in France) but our plans were thwarted so today we packed and started moving east. We passed through a lot of France but didn’t hit any large towns. It was very cold as it always is when we move. ... The roads were littered with wrecked German vehicles — more evidence of the work of our Air Force during the dash of our armies across France. ... Out of France and into Belgium. We stopped in Pepinster, Belgium, and there we learned that [German Field Marshal Gerd von] Rundstedt had broken through the 1st Army and threatened Liege. The people gave us everything and were scared to death that the Germans were coming back.
•Dec. 24, Merkstein Holland [near the Roer River and German border]: Laid a telephone line from battalion headquarters to our orderly room. Plenty of snow here since we are pretty far north. So far, just what our job here is no one seems to know. The boys have been out maintaining roads. Until something happens to break the stalemate around the Roer, we may stay here.
•Jan. 1, 1945: We were treated to quite an aerial show today as the Luftwaffe came out in strength not shown for a long time. I saw the Ack Ack [antiaircraft gunners] get two of them and am told that the full total was eight. I have a little more respect for those antiaircraft boys now than I did have. I had the idea that all they did was keep the planes high but I can see from today’s work that they can hit them too.
•Jan. 6: Spent most of the day repairing a break in the phone line to battalion. Had to dig the wire out of ice and snow to find the break. Very tedious and cold work.
•Jan. 22: A German plane dropped two bombs in our little town tonight at 9:30. Old “Bedcheck Charlie,” as he is affectionately known, came close this time. They hit in the vicinity of B Company, demolished a four ton trailer and damaged a bulldozer. No one was seriously hurt but one kid was knocked across the room where he was playing cards. ... It was our first bombing and it’s not a pleasant sensation.
• Feb. 23, 3:30 a.m.: H-hour and the assault is under way. The artillery is still keeping up its ear-splitting roar. Reports are filtering in from the [74th Light Pontoon Company, attempting to install a bridge across the Roer], they say that there is heavy mortar fire on the road and they’re having trouble getting the equipment down to the site. All through the morning the artillery keeps pouring it on. ... Jerry is dropping 88s [antitank fire] in again. ... At one time [the explosions] started to “walk” down the street toward our command post. About four of them hit in rapid succession, each one a little closer. The fifth one didn’t come.
•March 1: We move out around 11:30 p.m. After a long, cold ride in the moonlight, we pulled into Kipshoven. The offensive has pushed far beyond the Roer. The houses on the way here looked in pretty good shape. That’s probably due to little German resistance ... in fact the whole town hasn’t been touched by gunfire of any kind.
•March 13, on leave in Paris: Read this morning that the 1st Army has captured a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen. Jerry and I went to Glenn Miller’s band at the Olympia.
• April 5: Drove some 50 miles to battalion headquarters this afternoon. The roads are packed with slave laborers and war prisoners of every nationality. They all salute and shout something in their native tongue. There are a lot of women, particularly among the Russians.
•April 16: The Germans have cut the main supply route behind us in several locations. It’s nothing serious but our rations may be held up for a few days.
•May 7, at the Elbe River: Reports have been filtering in all day about complete German surrender. ... The boys were down at the river and they say the Germans are pouring across, civilians and soldiers alike. They are terror-stricken of the Russians.
•May 8: Today and tomorrow is being celebrated Victory in Europe day. [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill and [U.S.] President [Harry S.] Truman both made speeches on the occasion. Somehow it doesn’t make me feel as happy as it should. I can only think of that unfinished business with Japan. I believe it will be over before a lot of people think but there are still a lot of boys that won’t celebrate Victory in the Pacific day.
Sendelbach, a Delphos native and 1941 graduate of St. John’s High school, returned there briefly after the war before attending St. Louis University on the GI Bill. He retired in 1978 after a career as a Social Security administrator.