In the months leading up to Hiroshima and Japan’s imminent defeat, Americans were also battling the Germans on a different frontier.
One of those encounters, the Battle of the Bulge, was a pivotal turning point in World War II and a Kaplan resident was part of that history making event.
Willis Baudoin started life out like most others in the 1920’s, poor, but happy. He didn’t know it then, but fate would put him in direct line to play a crucial part in world history.
Silvain “Willis” Baudoin was born July 17, 1925 and is the son of Nunez natives Dupre’ and Eucretia Baudoin.
He jokes that everyone has always known him as Willis, and in fact, he didn’t even know his own first name until he read it on his birth certificate upon joining the military.
Ever since he could remember, Willis worked in the rice and cane fields helping to earn a living for his family.
Like most people in the area, his first language was French, and Willis did not learn English until he attended grade school. He stopped attending school before the age of 16 due to the fact that he could no longer play football. He now considers that to be a bad decision.
“We were playing football,” he said. “And in those days we didn’t have any padding. I bumped into a guy and it split my eye lid. I had to go to the doctor and it cost my daddy $4. He told me I couldn’t play football anymore. So I told him if I couldn’t play football, I would quit school, and I did. It was a bad decision. When I got older I knew education was important.”
Willis’ decision to join the Army stemmed from the fact that all of his friends, at the time, were also enlisting.
Even though World War II had already begun and the attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh in everyone’s mind, Willis was not deterred from enrolling with the United States Army.
In December of 1943 at the age of 18, he left his family for basic training at Camp Fannin in Texas.
He would later attain further training at Camp Van Guard in Mississippi before being sent to Maryland to await overseas deportation.
“On the way from Mississippi,” he said,
“they lost my records. So everyone I trained with was deported except me. They had lost my records and I had to stay there without pay, it was like I didn’t exist!”
Finally after a two month wait, Willis was deployed in November of 1944 to the Ardennes region of Europe.
He recalls that the trip was arduous.
“It took us 11 days and there were a lot of sea sick guys. It was crowded on the boat.”
All in all, Willis stayed overseas for 18 months. During that time, he was stationed with General Patton’s 3rd Army. Even though Willis never got to formally meet General Patton, his presence was well known.
“We called him ‘Old Blood and Guts.’ He would say, ‘You have the blood, and I have the guts to send ya’ll.”
Willis and his infantry were involved with the Siege of Bastogne which preceded the Battle of the Bulge.
There they were successful in completing their major goal of liberating the Belgium town of Bastogne from German occupation.
It was from there that the division marched through the forested regions of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg.
In that area the infamous Battle of the Bulge, which has been hailed as America’s bloodiest battle, took place from December 16th, 1944 until January 25th of the following year.
Willis recalls what it was like.
“Show me someone who says they weren’t scared and I’ll show you a liar! I was scared all the time. There’s nothing brave about it. I wasn’t so scared as to run away, because when I joined the army I knew what I was getting into. I went to help my country, and I’m proud of it.”
Other painful memories that Willis shared were frightening close calls.
“We were making an attack on a town one day, and we got pinned down. I found me a little canal, and I got in there. It was cold, snow, and it was freezing. And after a while, there was a tank that passed about 12 feet from my head. I stayed in there about an hour. After a while I saw something fly over and I thought it was a long tailed mockingbird. And about four or five feet behind me that mockingbird exploded. It scared the heck out of me. It was a rocket from a bazooka.”
One incident left Willis injured.
“There was an attack on the town at night. The enemy had a pattern - they would drop a shell in the back of you, and one in the front. When that second one hit, you had better find shelter because the third one was coming right on top of you.
“When the second one hit, I was running to a house, but the door was locked, so I had to kick it in. But I didn’t kick it in fast enough. I had shrapnel in my arm.”
In the fall of 1945, Willis and his fellow soldiers were still traveling through snow and ice and it was beginning to take its toll.
“I was walking and the medic called me over because I was limping. He made me take my shoes off, and my feet were all black. I had trench foot (a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary and cold conditions above freezing point.) He took me off the battle field and sent me to a medical center, day before the war ended.”
While Willis was still in the hospital, the word reached him that the war was over.
“I was laying there when they told us that the war ended. They had taken all my shoes and everything I had. If I could have found my shoes, I would have gone find my outfit to celebrate.”
Willis remained in the hospital for two months recuperating from his frostbite.
After his release, he was reassigned to the 9th infantry division stationed in Germany. He remained there until his discharge in March of 1946.
During his active duty in the military, Willis received $50 a month starting pay and up to $85 a month after his promotions. Travel pay was set at $13.80.
For his duties, he received a purple heart, a good conduct medal, an EAMETO medal, and a WWII victory medal.
Upon returning home, Willis was a changed man. Even his mother commented on how the son she knew did not return home from the war.
It was a difficult period for Willis as he tried to re-adjust to civilian life. There were things that he carried with him that others just couldn’t fully understand.
About a year-and-a-half went by and Willis met his future wife Marie Hebert at the Reno Club in Kaplan. (The Reno Club was located where Dr. Granberry’s dentist office now stands today.)
It was love at first sight and the couple was soon married.
Today, the Baudoins have been married for 61 years. The couple has two children the company of their grandchildren.
Willis spent 30 years working on a tug boat until he eventually retired on disability.
Willis Baudoin is not only a veteran but also a two time survivor of cancer. At the age of 83, Willis carries wisdom and experience with him on a daily basis.
When asked what the major difference is between World War II in the 1940’s and the Iraqi Conflict of today he answered, “In World War II, when you went and fight, you knew who you were fighting, you were fighting the Germans. The war today in Iraq, I pity those boys because they don’t know who they’re fighting against. They started to fight one country, and now everyone is involved. I feel sorry for those boys over there.”
Overall, Willis Baudoin is proud to have served his country.
He sums up his thoughts by saying, “I was proud to serve my country, but when I left I was proud to leave it. I have some good memories, and I also have some bad ones. It’s not that I can say that I enjoyed it, but I can’t say that I hated it either. It was an experience.”