Little Joe's Christmas

Usually a week before Christmas, my father would gather some of his World War II veterans for dinner. They would reminisce about their days in the service. One of my favorite stories that he recounted was that of “Little Joe” and Gus. Recently, while rummaging through memorabilia that my dad left me, I found a small sketch that he did of “Little Joe” and Gus. It prompted me to recall this tale.

On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans attacked an 80-mile front along the Ardennes. My father was an infantryman with the 1st Division during that time. Near the town of Bullingen, Belgium, in the Northern Sector, fighting became fierce and chaos reigned. My dad’s buddy and squad leader was Gus. They were ordered to reconnoiter a small hamlet. As they cautiously entered, they found it deserted except for a small mongrel dog. Gus stuck the dog in his wool coat and they continued patrolling only to find the village abandoned. On returning from their reconnaissance, they brought this mangy little character to the allied lines. Gus dubbed him “Little Joe.” He quickly became the platoon mascot.

Within the next six hours, there was a thunderous barrage as the Germans began their offensive. Apparently Little Joe was spooked and ran into a snowy field. Gus instinctively ran after the little pup. About 200 yards from the trench, Gus was hit by a sniper. My father and his comrades watched in horror. There was no attempt to rescue Gus as the German infantry had their unit pinned down. They couldn’t see Gus through the drifts and sleet. They only hoped that Gus was still alive.

By evening they heard a faint barking in the distance. This alerted them that Gus may surely still be alive. The platoon waited till dark, and my dad and a few corpsmen crawled into the field to rescue Gus. They finally reached him, and to their surprise they found Little Joe lying on his chest. Apparently, the sapper’s bullet had penetrated both legs but miraculously missed any vital arteries. The corpsman believed that “Little Joe,” by lying on Gus’ chest, kept him alive through the freezing night. Gus was dragged back and was driven to a field hospital. Little Joe wouldn’t leave his side. A few months later, a photo was sent to my father of Gus and “Little Joe” celebrating Christmas in northern France. My father always said, “In the darkest of times, always look for the light.” Little Joe was surely Gus’s little beacon. I looked for the photo but all I could find was the sketch.

– Burt Baldwin, Ignacio