Sixty-eight years ago, Mike Campana was about to become a member of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne as the Battle of the Bulge began.
The exploits of Campana, a Lorain resident who died in 2008 at 88, are documented in a new article in World War II History magazine.
The Battle of Crossroads X details how members of the U.S. Army 401st Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division delayed the Germans Second Panzer Division in the first week of the infamous German counterattack that threatened to change the war.
Under heavy fog on the morning of Dec. 21, 1944, a German column of 11 half-tracks (armored vehicles with tank treads) and tanks closed in on Bastogne, Belgium. Campana, a 3rd Platoon sergeant, ordered the platoon to fire an antitank gun at the lead vehicle in the column. The direct hit was followed by another direct hit on the last vehicle in the column trapping the Germans.
“As the German soldiers jumped down from their vehicles, Campana’s riflemen blasted away at them,” article authors Leo Barron and Don Cygan wrote. “Deadly and sudden, within a few short minutes it was over.”
About 50 Germans were killed in the ambush for which Campana won a Bronze Star, one of three he earned during the war. A bullet ricocheted off Campana’s ammunition belt, scraping his stomach during the fight.
“Imagine that — a bullet getting stopped by more bullets,” Campana told Rich Riley, a military historian from Strongsville, in a 2006 interview. “The good Lord was on my side.”
Small-unit actions like the ambush Campana was involved in slowed the German advance and are credited with winning the battle. The Battle of the Bulge — the bulge refers to the penetration of Allied lines — was the deadliest battle of a war in which about 60 million people died.
Approximately 19,000 American soldiers were killed and 47,500 wounded in the month-long battle, according to the Department of Defense. About 100,000 Germans were killed, wounded or captured.
Campana, who received a battlefield commission to 2nd lieutenant before his discharge in 1945, was praised in the article for his coolness under fire. He had already seen a lot of death before the battle and nearly drowned landing on Utah Beach during D-Day.
“Nothing can prepare you for seeing your buddies right next to you getting knocked off,” he told Riley. “Getting ashore safely was just a matter of luck.”
Campana also participated in Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ disastrous invasion of Holland in which the Germans repulsed an advance on the Arnhem Bridge. Campana, who hated gliders, flew in during the largest airborne assault of the war. He recalled admonishing British soldiers for lighting fires at night to heat tea that drew German shelling and digging water-logged foxholes.
“You’d dig one foot, and it was all water,” he told Riley. “Unless you got shelled, you didn’t go in them.”
Growing up on Apple Avenue before the war, Campana was a lot more comfortable digging in at the plate. A .300 hitter and good fielding third baseman, Campana excelled in Lorain’s sandlot baseball league before the war. He joined the Class A Verhovay aggregation at 16 and quarterbacked the Lorain Ex-Hys, a semi-pro football team in the off-season, according to
The Lorain Sports Hall of Fame into which Campana was inducted in 1985.
Campana graduated from Lorain High School class of 1938-B and took a job at U.S. Steel. He enlisted in 1942.
The day after the ambush outside Bastogne, the Germans demanded the Americans surrender.
“If this proposal should be rejected, the German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. (anti-aircraft) Battalions are ready to annihilate the USA troops in and near Bastogne,” the German commander wrote to acting 101st commander Gen. Anthony McAuliffe. “All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.”
McAuliffe, whom Campana described as “a good egg” in a letter home, sent a written reply of “Nuts!” one of the most remembered aspects of the battle. Like most Americans, Campana was shocked by the counterattack and recalled being shaken by the sight of fleeing soldiers when Baker Company arrived in trucks Dec. 20 near the 326th Field Hospital, which was overrun by the Germans.
Many soldiers from the 326th Medical Company were killed or taken prisoner, and survivors said some Germans were dressed in civilian clothes or American uniforms. English-speaking Germans, some of whom had lived in the United States before the war, infiltrated American lines during the battle, wreaking havoc.
The article tells of B Company arriving at the hospital to find burning trucks, dead bodies and the sound of a truck horn blaring from a dead soldier’s corpse pressing against it. Two paratroopers with slit throats were found inside the hospital.
Capitalizing on German carelessness and the dark and snowy night Dec. 21 — conditions were so cold during the Battle of the Bulge that soldiers urinated on their weapons to keep them from freezing — Campana’s company was able to ambush the Germans and retake the crossroads with only one minor casualty.
The ambush Campana ordered led Panzer Division commander Col. Meinrad von Lauchert to suspect the Americans had a greater presence at the crossroads and led him to commit more troops.
Campana said while B Company held the crossroads, there wasn’t time to contemplate that they were surrounded. “We had a job to do,” he said.
Pfc. Carmen Gisi fought alongside Campana in the battle. He said Campana took him under his wing and made him a better soldier after Gisi joined the company as a replacement after Operation Market Garden.
“We got along great,” Gisi told Riley by phone Wednesday from his home in Texas. “He took good care of me, and all the men.”
After repulsing three attacks over three days — including one in which soldiers with bazookas faced off against a tank on a road and blew it up — the company was withdrawn. The delaying action caused the already overextended Germans to use more fuel.
After the bad weather that had kept U.S. aircraft grounded broke on Dec. 23, the Panzer Division was stopped Dec. 25.
After the war in Europe ended May, 8, 1945, Campana played baseball in the military. After being discharged, he received a tryout in 1946 with the New York Giants and was offered a minor league contract.
Free agency and multi-million dollar contracts were still 30 years away and some major leaguers still had second jobs in the off-season. Pre-expansion, there were only 16 major league teams — there are 30 now — and competition for major league jobs was more fierce.
At 26, relatively old to be starting a minor-league career, Campana turned down a $150 per month contract to return to U.S. Steel as a stationary engineer where he earned $300 per month. Campana has said he doubted what he would’ve made the majors.
“If I’m not good enough, I’m not going to ride buses from one little town to another,” he told the Morning Journal in 1985. “To heck with that noise.”
Campana went on to play for local baseball, softball and fast-pitch softball teams in the 1950s and retired from U.S. Steel as a foreman in 1981.
Married in 1949, Campana and his wife, Josephine Campana, had four children. Josephine Campana died in 2001.
Tom Campana, 57, of Westerville, said his father was a devout Catholic — he once received communion on a Jeep during the war and was a member of St. Peter Church and an usher at St. Mary’s Church — and a humble man.
Toni Campana, 52, of Vermilion, remembers her father as fun loving and a good provider.
Tom Campana said he has saved the many letters his father sent home during the war. Mike Campana wrote of eating candy from home in fox holes and of soldiers shooting anything that moved at night. In the morning, they found themselves surrounded by dead livestock.
In a Morning Journal article about the D-Day anniversary, Campana said the lesson of World War II should be that more should be done to avoid war. Other than interviews, the Campanas said their father rarely spoke of the war.
“He never felt he did anything different than anybody else did at that time,” Tom Campana said.
Riley, the military historian, said he met the elder Campana in 2004 and during the course of several interviews they became close. He said Campana became like a second father to him.
“He is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” Riley said. “He was truly a humble man who was just doing his job.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or email@example.com.