WEATHERFORD — It all happened nearly 70 years ago, but it takes only a second for the cold, the cannon fire and the death to come rushing back to war veteran Chuck Katlic of Weatherford.Katlic, 90, is a survivor of the Battle of Bulge, Hitler’s last desperate attempt to reverse the Allied advance near the end of World War II.He was a 20-year-old infantryman in December 1944, positioned between two southeastern Belgian villages in the Ardennes, a forested region of rolling hills and rough terrain.“We were a green unit,” Katlic recalled. “They put us up to get some combat experience. Eisenhower had said the war would be over by Christmas, so we went out on our patrols. Then, everything changed.”Katlic has turned his horrifying experiences in that bitter cold battle, which claimed more than 75,000 U.S. casualties, into a campaign to remember the nation’s veterans — on Veterans Day as well as every other day.For him, it all started in 1999, as he visited North Texas cemeteries with his wife, Ola, and was troubled by signs of neglect.“They were all grown up with weeds,” Katlic said. “I said to myself, ‘We’ve got to do better than that for our veterans.’ ”He began by lobbying local cemetery associations to cut the grass.At Whitt Cemetery in Parker County, the final resting place for veterans going back to the Civil War, he was joined that first year by his wife and second-graders from nearby Poolville in placing about 70 flags.His restoration efforts grew from there.Katlic has used the project as a way to teach children about World War II, and the need to honor the nation’s veterans.“I like to get them young,” he said. “Not many of them know much about World War II, but they learn quickly.”A surprise attackThe Germans launched the surprise attack in the Ardennes at about 5:30 a.m. Dec. 16, 1944.“We heard all of this cannon noise,” Katlic recalled. “The damn trees got to shaking since we were in the middle of the forest. They hit us with artillery, then the Germans came with their tanks and infantry.”At one point, Katlic’s 2nd Battalion was cut off. Three times, the soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets in preparation for hand-to-hand combat.“We were surrounded for three days and three nights,” Katlic said. “I thought we were going to be captured, although if you look back then, they didn’t take many prisoners. “They probably would have killed us.”The battalion finally fought its way out, and on Jan. 25, 1945, the Germans were turned back.Katlic was left with a lasting reminder of the cold.“I got frostbite,” Katlic said pointing to a right hand that is permanently clenched. “That whole winter, it started getting cold and just got colder. It snowed every day. The snow was waist-deep. The forest had about six hours of daylight a day. Those were some long, cold nights.”Somehow Katlic, who was drafted as a private and left the Army as a sergeant, survived. Although many of his fellow soldiers were killed or wounded, he was unscathed, except for the frostbite.“I have a guardian angel,” Katlic said. “He was watching over me so I wouldn’t get hurt.”Katlic insists that an unseen voice saved his life at one point during his service.“A voice from nowhere told me to get out of this hole, and I saw another one 20 yards away and jumped in that one,” he said. “Right after that, a mortar went off in that other hole. “See? He was looking after me.”A new life in TexasKatlic moved to Parker County from Maryland upon his retirement in the late 1970s. He has been been active with the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars ever since.Now, he distributes his U.S. flags for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and and July Fourth, then removes them when the holidays are over.He proudly tells of the teenager who approached him at the local grocery store.“He came up and said, ‘Hey, Mom, I want you to meet the flag man, Mr. Chuck,’” Katlic said. “He was a teenager, but he still remembered that. All of these kids around town know me.”To pay for the flags, Katlic writes letters to local businessmen and doctors. He raises $4,000 to $5,000 annually for the purchase of new flags and even monuments at some cemeteries. Katlic is taking steps to ensure that the flags continue to be handed out after he is gone. Another member of American Legion Post 163, John Cobb, has agreed to learn the ropes. But Cobb said Katlic is showing no signs of slowing down.“I don’t know where he gets the energy and the stamina,” Cobb said. “It’s just unbelievable. “I’ve seen people he talks to at the post. He’s really got a keen interest in what he does. He’s one of the most dedicated men I know.”Katlic also spearheads an effort through the Post to secure transportation for veterans to a Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in Fort Worth and the VA Hospital in Dallas. “I got a seven-passenger van donated, and we take trips 15 to 20 times a month over to Fort Worth and Dallas,” he said. “If they can’t afford to pay for that, we take them anyway.”Once a month, he seeks donations via a newspaper ad, and also asks for help from local groups to pay for the van’s gasoline and upkeep.All of it is aimed at one goal: to ensure that veterans are cared for — and remembered.“There’s one thing worse to a veteran than dying, and that’s being forgotten,” Katlic said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna