Tucked between dollar bills, nestled next to a black-and-white photograph of his wife Gloria, Stan Saltz pulls out a second snapshot, the one of him as a 19-year-old Army private and survivor of the bloodiest battle in the second World War.
But the photo isn’t about the Florida resident. It’s about the German shepherd, a four-legged member of the German Army who, by Saltz’s account, saved him and everyone in his squad as they fought Germans in subzero temperatures in the woods of Belgium.
Seventy-three years later, Saltz, now a Delray Beach retiree, still tears up over the picture of his buddy, the one he named Santa.
Sunday, Saltz was among friends who could relate, He and other survivors of the Battle of the Bulge gathered in West Palm Beach for the anniversary of the battle’s beginning on Dec. 16, 1944.
Their select group is shrinking rapidly as the generation ages. They were youngsters that December so long ago, but now Saltz is 92. The local events’ organizer, George Fisher, is 94.
This chapter of Battle of the Bulge veterans began in 1998 with 425 former soldiers. In a time when other chapters across the country are folding as survivors’ numbers dwindle. Florida’s Southeast Chapter stands as the nation’s vanguard with 123.
As Fisher likes to say, “Many of us may not remember what we had for lunch, but we will never forget the 10 below zero, the snow and the horrors of frontline infantry combat.”
On Dec. 16, 1944, three German armies began what would be their last major offensive campaign on the Western Front. Adolf Hitler intended to split the Allied armies in northwest Europe by a surprise push through the Ardennes Forest.
Saltz walked 27 miles with the Army’s 75th Infantry, enticed to continue with the promise of a truck down the road that never materialized. They arrived on Christmas Eve, in time for Saltz to relieve a soldier in what was left of the 106th.
“He gave me a hug and took off. Didn’t even tell me where ‘Jerry’ was,” Saltz recalled. “Must’ve been maybe a half hour later. I’m in the foxhole. And I heard this – “ at this point, Saltz makes a low, quiet growl.
Saltz got up for a look and found a German police dog that didn’t seem long for this world.
“He was bloodied up by his master. His tongue was hanging out. His eyes were glazing over,” Saltz said.
Saltz brought the dog into the foxhole with him, gave him water, fed him K-rations and named him Santa. “He lapped it up and never left my side,” he said.
Not only did Santa stick around. He also alerted Saltz every time a German soldier was nearby. He wouldn’t make a sound, but he would tug on Saltz’s pant leg. “He was very smart.”
“He could smell a German half a mile away,” Saltz said. “Everyone wanted to go on patrol with Saltz. Why? Because Santa was there.”
When Saltz was hit by shrapnel above his right eye and rushed down the hill for medical care, Santa went with and didn’t even let the nurse near the man until Saltz told Santa to sit and stay while she stitched him up. They both promptly returned to the front line.
Against all odds, the Allies held the line at a steep price: 81,000 American casualties including 19,000 dead. But none were from Saltz’s squad.
“My life and my squad were saved by a German Army police dog,” Saltz said.
The Battle of the Bulge ended on Jan. 25, 1945. And shortly after, Saltz, still bandaged at his temple, and Santa posed for a photo.
Saltz says God sent Santa to him that Christmas Eve, and he was gone just as abruptly by February or March, hopping off a train full of troops to do his business on solid ground. The train then headed out without him.
“We cried for a week,” Saltz said.
In another breath, Saltz will tell you that same year he became an atheist “when I saw Dachau.”
Saltz came home. Married Gloria who stayed with him until she died 67 years later. He went on to work in the food service industry. The couple had two children and four grandchildren, but no dogs.
“Nobody could replace (Santa),” he said.