January 12, 1995
Interviewer: Rheba Massey
Bill Aiken was born and reared in Granbury, Texas, a small town just west of Ft. Worth. He graduated from high school at 16 and was working at a bus station, "a real good job for a boy," when a friend called to tell him Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
"I knew then I was probably going to get to fight a war. But I didn't volunteer at that time." He was drafted in 1942 and trained briefly in Medford, Oregon. He was assigned to a battalion that would have an 85% casualty rate on D-Day, but Aiken got a lucky break, partly because he could type and mostly because he did well on a series of tests which seemed impossibly difficult. To his surprise he passed all the tests and was sent to Santa Clara University in California to study engineering. Years later, long after the end of the war, he was in a bar and recognized someone from that battalion. This veteran was disabled and still so angry with Aiken for "testing out" that he barely spoke. "He'd been my best friend," Aiken said, hurt at his bitterness, yet grateful for being spared himself.
If it took luck to get into the university program, staying in took hard work and ability. There was a great incentive to do well, as flunking out meant being sent back to the army. The program was started under the assumption the war would outlast the military's supply of engineers. When the D-Day Invasion approached, the program was abruptly terminated. Despite the fact that by then he had a wife and twin babies, Aiken found he was assigned to the 11th Armored Division, preparing to go overseas.
He got leave to see the twins when they were three months old. Then in the summer of 1944, his division was shipped to France at about the time the Germans launched the offensive, which would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Aiken found himself driving a truck across France, not knowing where he was going, only following the truck in front of him. Later he would learn he was part of history's biggest mass of army troops ever moved in such a short time. They passed through villages recently captured by the Americans, but at night were strafed by bombers and were without air support. It was the coldest winter in Europe in decades, and the 101st Airborne was completely surrounded by the German army. Hitler was relying on the bad weather to keep the planes grounded. If luck was with the Germans; Hitler still might win the battle. Aiken's ground division struggled to get to Bastogne, France, a control point essential to the Germans. Having lost most of their communication, they didn't know who was where or what was happening. German soldiers dressed as Americans compounded the confusion.
Then suddenly, on December 23, the weather broke and planes from England soared above! "I've never seen such a beautiful sight in my life. The planes started coming over and they were stacked probably a thousand feet above each other, up 6, 8, 10 stacks. Not only were they going toward Germany, we could hear them bombing the German front lines." Before long the empty planes were coming back as others were on their way to bomb. He remembers he could hardly see the sun for the airplanes. "Historically, the GIs don't like the Air Force. That day we loved them. We thought they were the greatest people on earth - they were up there!"