Warning: The following story describes images that may be disturbing.
He had chosen to tuck away the memories as best he could for more than 60 years.
Understandably, Pete Hardy didn’t want to think about the atrocities he encountered as an 18-year-old fighting in Europe during World War II with the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division in the 222nd Infantry Regiment.
Now 85, Hardy finds himself immersed in those wretched memories after being asked if he would be willing to sharing his war experiences for this story. Because he had repressed so many of those memories, he had to re-read the type-written memoirs he wrote for himself shortly after returning from the war in June 1946.
“When you called, I started reading this stuff,” Hardy tells me from his Powder Springs home. “I couldn’t sleep the last couple of nights. It’s just rough.”
Some of his memories include seeing dead bodies being used for a footbridge, women snipers shooting at American soldiers, and Holocaust victims stacked in boxcars at a liberated Nazi concentration camp. He also recalls how scared he often was during his 25-month tour of duty.
Hardy fired his first shot at the enemy on Christmas Day 1944, and he and his division would go on to relieve the 79th outside of Strasbourg, France.
Soldiers from the 79th division "said there wasn’t much going on,” he remembers. “But two nights later in the morning about daylight, a German patrol came out of the fog and ran right into our machine guns. We killed 30 and captured three. That’s what I don’t like about a war—all that killing, killing."
“It’s not pleasant taking a life,” he added. “You just don’t ever get used to it.”
'I found Jesus Christ in a foxhole'
On Jan. 24 and 25, about a week after taking over for the 79th, Hardy and the rest of the 222nd Infantry Regiment found themselves in the last throes of the bloody Battle of the Bulge, which is named after the "bulge" the charging German offensive created in Allied lines.
Soldiers were fighting in snow two feet deep against five desperate German regiments unleashing heavy artillery fire near Neuborg, France. The 222nd was ordered to “hold at all costs.” The regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, given to groups of soldiers for heroism, in 2001.
A picture of Hardy's copy of the award is attached to this article.
“Fighting back from ice-filled foxholes, the outnumbered defenders fought off wave after wave of enemy attacking all along the regiment’s front and infiltrating into friendly positions, as well behind the main line of resistance,” the Presidential Unit Citation report states.
“Wild fighting raged throughout the night and well into the next day as the fanatical attackers sought to break into open country, but every measure was met by determined counterattacks. On the night of the 25th, the frustrated enemy fell back to his original line, leaving the ground littered with enemy dead.”
During this continual onslaught, which would become Germany’s last push in the western front, Hardy explains he found eternal peace.
“One of the best things that happened to me was I found Jesus Christ in a foxhole,” says Hardy, who carried a copy of the Bible’s New Testament with him overseas. “I made some promises to Him ... and one was I’d join a church."
And he did make it out of the foxholes despite being "as scared as I’d ever been." "
"People were dying all over the place," he remembers. "The Germans were coming across the Moder River, a little bitty river, and we were killing them with machine gun fire and their bodies were stacking up. They were stacking up so much that the German soldiers made a footbridge (out of them)."
Hardy and his fellow soldiers burned through 33 boxes of machine gun ammunition one night.
“In fact," he says, "we burned out the barrel of the machine gun that night. We would’ve been in trouble if they hadn’t run out of supplies. I tell you, God was looking out for me. The rest of the war, I didn’t get a scratch on me.”
The Department of Defense reports that about 19,000 U.S. soldiers died, 47,500 were wounded and more than 23,000 went missing during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans had roughly 100,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured during the 40-day battle, which ended on Jan. 25.
Headed to Headquarters
After receiving about a week off following the end of the battle, Hardy was transferred to the 42nd Division’s headquarters. He was then trained as a switchboard operator.
As part of his new assignment, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Hardy carried a 60-pound switchboard on his back.
“We weren’t done yet,” says Hardy, who graduated from Powder Springs High School in 1943 as a 17-year-old. “We had to cross the Haardt Mountains (in Germany) because we were chasing them.”
With the Germans on the run, the 42nd and other members of the Allies were able to capture their first German town, Schonau, on March 18, 1945. They would next cross the Siegfried German defensive line.
“The planes bombed it, artillery shelled it, infantry and tanks assaulted it, and the Siegfried Line was broken,” Hardy says.
The 42nd then “crossed the Rhine and advanced into the cradle of Nazism, capturing Wurzburg, Schweinfurt, Furth (Nuremberg's twin city), Donauworth, liberating Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, and swept through Munich on April 30, shortly before the war ended on May 8," the Rainbow Division Veterans Memorial Foundation describes.
Hardy says his regiment referred to the notorious Dachau concentration camp as “the place of horrors."
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, American troops found more than 30 railroad cars filled with decomposing bodies. More than 188,000 prisoners were held at Dachau from 1933 to 1945, but how many of those died isn’t clear, the museum says.
“I had pictures of dead bodies stacked up in boxcars—skin and bones," he says of visiting the prison after its capture. "That’s where they cremated them."
Hardy says the photos, along with others he took during the war, were lost years ago when someone borrowed them and never returned them.
“Death was just everywhere—terrible. The worst part was I lost a lot of friends," he remembers. “You’d see horses and cattle all dead from artillery. There were women snipers in Wurzburg, and of course we shot them, too. I didn’t, but others did."
He continues: "I guess because you’re so used to death in war, you try to keep it out of your mind. That’s the only thing you can do because the war goes on.”
After winning the fight in the European Theater, American soldiers prepared to head to the Pacific front. But Hardy was one of the first to learn that a different fate would befall him and his comrades.
“I found out one day before the war ended,” he recalls. “I heard it on the switchboard, and I celebrated a day early with people of the switchboard. They told me if I didn’t take a drink, they’d throw me out the window. That was the only drink I took in the war. They celebrated the rest of the night and I ran the switchboard.”
Hardy credits his relationship with God as what got him through the war.
“God looked after me,” he says. “Not for what I’d done, but He loved me. He’d do that for anybody. I do feel guilty because I survived and they didn’t. The heroes are the dead ones."
Hardy pauses, putting down his personal wartime notes.
“I don’t talk to many people about (the war) because it brings back too many memories,” he says. “Plus, I don’t want people to think I’m bragging.”
Returning to Powder Springs
Leaving the Army with the rank of master sergeant, Hardy returned to his Powder Springs home on Old Austell Road in June 1946. His sister, Christine Morgan, remembers how excited she was to have her older brother back following the war’s end.
Morgan was 12 years old when her brother was drafted in May 1944. She recalls her mother writing letters to Hardy weekly and her doing the same occasionally. She also remembers her brother visiting her at school while he was on leave after basic training at Camp Blanding, FL, before he was shipped overseas aboard the oceanliner the SS America.
“I was just deliriously happy just to see him safe and sound,” says Morgan, 79, who now lives in Jacksonville, FL. “The good Lord looked after him.”
Not long after returning, Hardy married his high school sweetheart, Ray. They had been close since the latter years of elementary school. They both attended Powder Springs School, which combined elementary and high school.
Hardy recalls a note from Ray, who was a year younger than him, getting confiscated by the school’s principal when he was in fifth grade.
“(Principal) Paul Sprayberry somehow got a note that Ray had sent me through someone else, but Paul Sprayberry intercepted it and read it to the class,” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t too bad, I think, but it was embarrassing. I didn’t realize it then, but she’d become my wife.”
After the war, Hardy was hired by Atlanta Stove Works, where he worked for 40 years before retiring. He and his wife had a daughter and were married 58 years before Ray died in 2005—less than a month after being diagnosed with cancer in her lungs, brain and adrenal gland. Hardy says the cancer came as a shock since his wife didn't smoke or drink.
Hardy is thankful to have reached his 85th birthday after surviving two heart attacks, one in 1988 and another in 2007.
“There aren’t many of us (World War II veterans) left,” explains Hardy, who traveled to his regiment’s reunions before his wife’s passing. “That makes me appreciate how long I’ve lived. The Lord’s been good to me. He gave me 58 years with a wonderful wife."
Now Hardy does all the housework, all the cooking and all the washing. And if he wants a cake, "I cook a cake."
His friends have been there to support him following Ray's passing. He says he wouldn't be able to do it without them.
"Matter of fact," he remembers, "there were two women here from () the night my wife died.”
Hardy’s daughter, Pat Sandhagen, says her father has only in the last couple of years started to talk about his war experiences.
“He was just a young teenager and had never been out of the area, like a lot in the area, and was thrown into a place of hate and violence,” says Sandhagen, who lives in Dahlonega, GA. “But my daddy lived it and served honorably. He’s proud of his service and I’m proud of him."
Soldiers from the war, Sandhagen says, put the horrors they had witnessed behind them when they came home. They "built a life and didn’t let all the bad things they experienced and seen take over their lives.”
Although he may have a harder time getting around these days, Hardy is thankful for the full life he has led.
“People ask me how I’m doing and I say, ‘I’m getting older and happier every day,’” he says. “When I get up in the morning, I’ve had a good day. God’s given me a good life.”
Read more: Hardy was featured in an article about Powder Springs photographer Stan Kaady's Town Treasures project. The project aims to document the city's most longstanding citizens. To read, click here.