ARLINGTON — Larkin Dilbeck recalls rounding a road in La Gleize, Belgium, to find himself staring down the cannon barrels of three German tanks.It was Christmas Eve 1944, the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, and winter had never felt colder. Dilbeck, resigned to meeting his fate on that icy road, was spared, he says, only after the Germans ran out of ammunition. But he would face death again in the coming weeks. “They were shooting and killing everything in their way,” Dilbeck, who turned 95 late last month, recalled at his home in Arlington.The battle, which ran from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, would prove to be the costliest in World War II for the United States, which suffered about 89,500 casualties, including 19,000 deaths. This summer Dilbeck returned to the spot in La Gleize where he thought his days would end nearly 69 years ago. Instead of the gray of winter as before, the landscape was filled with the bright colors of early summer — life instead of death.The 740th Tank Battalion Association took the trip to mark the battalion’s 70th anniversary. Dilbeck and two other veterans flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and spent two days visiting villages in northern Belgium where they had helped residents so long ago.“If you ever go to the memorial at Neufchâteau [Belgium], you’ll see my name on the upper left side,” he said. “The right side lists all the men that died.”A woman told Dilbeck how an American soldier had given her, at the time a famished child, some chocolate — the only food he had. “She made Daddy Belgium waffles and stuffed chocolate in between,” said Dilbeck’s daughter Larka Tetens, 60. “She just cried and kissed him on the cheek.”Visiting the spot in La Gleize was a memorable moment for her, too, because she knew what it meant to him.“When you go through something like that you don’t forget it,” she said. Another close callAt 22 years old Dilbeck was drafted into the Army. He was sent to Wales where he did clerical work in a post office. But when the Germans attacked, he was assigned to the tank battalion, though he had never worked in one.For six weeks Dilbeck fought in one of the fiercest battles of the war. A few weeks after it was over, he narrowly escaped death once again. “I was in the head tank when we went up to the Siegfried Line and German artillery was just falling all around like rain,” he recalled. A shell fell through the top of the tank, and though he and the driver jumped out just in time, the other two crew members were blown to pieces.The driver’s face was badly burned, and Dilbeck was temporarily deafened and lost the feeling in his left leg.His combat duty ended when he developed appendicitis. The Army flew him on a plane in a hammock to Paris for surgery, but he had done enough to earn a Purple Heart and a Presidential Citation. ‘We slept on straw mats’When Dilbeck was just shy of 2, his father abandoned him, his mother and his four older brothers. One brother had polio. His mom did the best she could to support the family, including by washing laundry for sawmill workers.“We moved every one to two years. We lived in an abandoned log house and then an old barn. We slept on straw mats on the floor,” he said.Dilbeck didn’t start high school until he was 18. Days he should have spent in the classroom were spent farming.“I always had an inferiority complex growing up. It was hard to be older than everyone in school,” he said. When he was 20 he signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a job creation measure under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The CCC provide public works jobs for young men so they could send money back to their families during the Great Depression. “We were hungry. I made $30 a month, but $25 had to go back to my family. The Depression ... you just can’t understand how bad it was unless you were there,” Dilbeck said with a sigh. He worked building roads, recreational areas and trails, including a lake in the woods near Mena, Ark. Keeping activeDilbeck wed in 1943 while he was on furlough. “They were married until my mother’s death in 1989,” Tetens said.The family moved to Arlington in 1958 and Dilbeck worked for decades as an American Airlines ticketing agent. Nowadays he uses a walker and plastic leg braces to help him get around and tend to his garden. Despite nerve damage that left him numb from the knees down, he is adamant about maintaining tomatoes, peanuts and strawberries in the back yard. Whether it is through his recent tip to Europe, the battalion association’s national reunion every Labor Day or his monthly visits to the local Civilian Conservation Corps legacy chapter, Dilbeck stays connected to his past. He smiles when he speaks and sneaks in jokes when he can, but his recollections of combat are somber. “Younger generations,” he said, “just don’t seem to realize what World War II was like.” See a video of Larkin Dilbeck recalling his experiences at youtu.be/sUamskON7Fw.
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792 Twitter:@MonicaNagyFWST