Editor's note: This is the first of two parts
United States Army, World War II
Platoon Sergeant E-6
Felix Welka, U.S. Army
Medals/awards: World War II Victory Medal, European Achievement Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Expert M-1 Rifle, Expert M-1 Carbine
Growing up local
Felix Welka was born on Nov. 27, 1924, in Dunkirk at Brooks Memorial Hospital. The newborn spent the first few days of his life in the hospital, and was then released to his parents to go home to Webster St. in Dunkirk's First Ward.
Growing up in the First Ward meant there were unlimited opportunities for having fun. A kid could go behind Dunkirk Radiator and catch bullheads with nightcrawlers or bread crumbs. Wright Park Beach was great for swimming and hanging out. The local churches let kids play sports while being safe.
Welka's father Frank was employed by the Alco Co., a local steel plant. He was a crane operator. This was great for the family; work was only two blocks and a five-minute walk away. Welka's mother, Dorothy (Wesolowski), worked at Dunkirk's Van Raalte Co. (the silk mill) in addition to being a homemaker.
Welka had a sister, Joan, and two brothers, Adrian and Frank. Frank would serve in the Korean War.
For Welka, school started at nearby St. Hyacinth's, the Catholic school where he attended classes from Kindergarten to eighth grade. Welka got to play basketball there, as well as take Polish classes. This was something all students at St. Hyacinth's learned; one hour each day was spent learning and speaking Polish. The church's Father Helminiak demanded it. Many of Welka's memories involve the old church and school. In the 1960s many of these buildings were removed and replaced with more modern versions.
High school came, and again, Welka's trek was only a few minutes' journey. He decided that the best way to land a good job at one of the factories was to get some education from a machine shop, so he chose to go to Dunkirk's Industrial High School. They offered electrical, auto, and machinery classes. There, Welka got the opportunity to work on machines from drill presses to lathes to routers.
Welka's planning and experience paid off. After graduation he was hired by Marsh Valve Co. on Brigham Road. Welka's job involved working on U.S. Navy brass valves and large Army gun tubes used for artillery pieces. Because Marsh Valve mainly worked with brass, though, the pay there was lower than that at the steel plants. Brass work was considered easier work.
When he wasn't working, Welka enjoyed hanging out with friends Hank Stranz, Joe Polinski and Leo Zavich. During this time, rivalries raged between Dunkirk's First and Fourth wards - that meant you stayed in your own neighborhood and only hung out with and dated people who lived near you. These rivalries were often played out in the form of sports. Baseball, football and volleyball games were played to see which ward was the best. Everyone knew the boundaries: the New York Central Railroad.
At work, Welka felt appreciated and looked after. The Union officials kept things fair and safe at Marsh Valve. He understood that the Union kept wages lower, but that also meant better benefits and job security. He enjoyed his time there.
Answering Uncle Sam's call
In 1943, Welka entered the service. He could have chosen any branch of the military, but he decided the Army was right for him. After completing his basic training, he was off to Fort Lee in Virginia, where he mastered the M-1 rifle and shot expert with the M-1 Carbine. After all of this training, he received orders to go overseas.
He was assigned to the 75th Division, stationed in England. From there he sailed across the English Channel to France.
A chill came over Welka as he crossed the Channel. Less than 100 days before, the largest armada of combat-loaded Naval ships ever assembled had sailed the very same waters. As Welka's ship moved forward, it passed ships returning from combat, loaded with sick and injured soldiers. Welka's ship traveled alongside others going in the same direction, equipped with fresh supplies and newly-trained soldiers to replace the ones who hadn't made it. Welka wondered, which of these poor guys was he replacing? What had that man been like? Where was he from? Who did he leave behind? And even more frightening, would he, Welka, share the same fate? Staring at the sky and water gave him no answers.
On Sept. 14, with D-Day a little over three months away, Welka landed and reported to the 83rd Infantry Division. He and his fellow soldiers had no idea that they were being assigned to one of history's most deadly World War II battles, one they would fight during a winter so cold and bitter that its temperatures would make the record books: the Battle of the Bulge. Welka recalls those days in mid-September, days that were as cold as December in Western New York.
"The Battle of the Bulge" is the most popular name for the German offensive strike that took place in the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front. The term for the battle was coined by the press, because of how the Allied front line bulged inward on wartime news maps. The Allies were completely unprepared for the attack. They scrambled to bring in troops and equipment, organize defensive campaigns, and keep the Germans at bay.
Germany wasn't going down easily, though. Hitler's plan was to split the British and American forces apart, capture Antwerp for its fuel reserves, and then systematically destroy Allied armies. The Western Allies would have to sign a peace treaty in the Axis powers' favors, and then Germany could shift its focus and resources to the war in the Eastern theatre.
Between the sheer number of troops reporting for duty, the amount of equipment to sort out, and the stress weighing heavily upon every service member in the ranks, things did not go smoothly for Welka and the other Allied soldiers. Because of the horrible weather, the superior Allied air forces were grounded, meaning aerial reconnaissance was poor to nonexistent. The Germans had been silent and sneaky. The Allies were focused on other offensive campaigns and had put the majority of their troops in other regions. The Axis powers had found the Allies' Achilles Heel in the icy Ardennes.
Welka was thrown into a situation where much of his training did not apply - rules like making sure you had the proper gear in the appropriate sizes, completing unit sizes and following protocol to the letter wasn't possible in the middle of that frozen hellscape. Soldiers and officers alike could only pray and do their best.
Welka reported to his unit as the temperature dropped yet again. Snow and biting winds followed. These soldiers were sent in to fight with no winter gear - no boots, no gloves, no winter hats or thick jackets. They wore simple khaki pants, worn out and threadbare since the soldiers boarded the ship to come to Europe. The men shivered, pulled triggers with numb fingers, watched for signs of frostbite and hoped conditions would improve.
They didn't. The weather worsened. As the battle raged on, the Allies could see that they were outnumbered. Just like Hitler had planned it, the Americans got cut off from the British. They were outmanned, outgunned and out of supplies. The Allied troops were literally freezing to death, but were told to hold their positions regardless of the cost.
Welka remembers the desperation of those days. Survival was hard; troops didn't know if they would meet their ends by enemy artillery or the cruel whim of nature. The food was cold; no hot meals. No supply tents. Socks and gloves were the most wished-for items. It was warmer to sleep on a foot of snow and cover up with a poncho than to bed down on the frozen ground. Every man drifting off to fitful sleep in the Ardennes spent his last few moments of consciousness wondering if he would wake up in the morning.
Next week: Part two.