Bill Pilger, an artillery spotter who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, talks to Veterans United Network about his extraordinary life this Memorial Day.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Pilger: I took it one day at a time, you were either here or you aren’t. Wasn’t a thing I could do about it, one way or another. So we just went until we couldn’t.
Meet retired army private first class Bill Pilger. As a World War II veteran, he’s one of the most decorated and seasoned members at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.
Pilger: I had just celebrated the 47th anniversary of my 39th birthday – I’m 86.
In those 86 years, he’s traveled across the country and around the world, but you probably wouldn’t guess where his story begins.
Pilger: I traveled with a carnival all of my life until I went into the military. So, my life has been a lot more interesting than a lot of people’s has.
By the time he turned 18 in 1943, the United States was in war with Europe and Japan. Like many other young men, he was eager to enlist.
Pilger: I looked like I was 13 when I finally got to be 18. Went to the draft board and they thought I was lying about it. After the examination and everything, there’s two officers setting at the table. One was Army, and one was Navy. They said I had three choices. I could either join the Army, join the Navy, or go to Leavenworth. And I had already heard bad stories about Leavenworth, so I decided I would go Army.
It wasn’t long before his unit shipped out across the Atlantic. By the time Pilger has reached Europe, allied forces had already broke through German lines at the beaches of Normandy.
Pilger: It wasn’t like you’d done basic training and got shot up to a different outfit. My outfit, we trained together and we left together.
Shortly after his unit arrived in the Western shores of Belgium the fall of 1944, German forces were gearing up to launch the largest counter offensive in World War II. The Battle of the Bulge was on the horizon.
Pilger: Conditions were cold. It was pretty much cold the entire time I was in Auchin. It got colder when we got to the Ardennes. I was in the Hurtgen Forest. I spent the entire six weeks at battle in the Hurtgen Forest.
More than 19,000 American troops lost their lives in what some call the greatest ally victory during World War II. While Pilger’s unit never reached the front lines, the stress of war took a toll on him years after he made it home.
Pilger: When you’re out there, beating your brains out, trying to raise a family, you ain’t got time to sit back and reminisce about what happened yesterday… Today you got to worry about tomorrow. Yesterday is already gone, you survived today and hopefully you’ll live until tomorrow. But for 50 years, I wouldn’t talk about it… nobody would listen.
Pilger’s story, untold for 5 decades until a group of World War II vets helped him share his experiences with the community. A way to cope, but also an outlet to share his generation’s sacrifices with the younger crow, years removed from the pain of World War II.
Pilger: In some instances, you would not believe how enthusiastic they are and they want to learn. I get groups of kids to come over to the monument with their scout troops. I’ve gotten to where I’m kind of starting to enjoy what I’m doing. I get to brag about how I won World War II all by myself!
Even at 86 years old, Pilger is not letting anything hold him back. He’s up-to-date on the latest computer technology and he’s even on Facebook and a frequent commenter on the Veterans United page.
Pilger: I do a little bit of computer stuff, not much, but enough to get me by and make me feel like a genius. I learned to turn it on and off after about 3 years.
A hero of the armed forces, Pilger continues to honor military tradition. As a volunteer at Jefferson Barracks, he works to keep the base in shape. But Pilger says his best days are yet to come.
Pilger: And I’ve done made up my mind, in 14 years I’m going to retire and stop everything I’m doing… Oh, I might go 20 years… then we’ll buy an RV and run around to see the country. It’s a plan! I know it ain’t going to work, but, what the hey, it’s something to shoot for!”