World War II veteran Al Lerno, 88, doesn’t talk much about the war.
People know the Santa Margarita resident for his calm demeanor, the twinkle in his eye and his willingness to help someone in need.
But beneath it all Lerno is a survivor, a celebrated veteran who was part of the deadliest battle for American forces in World War II — the Battle of the Bulge.
As Allied forces pushed toward the German frontier, the German army staged a surprise counterattack that stalled the Allied advance.
It was there that he was captured and survived three months detained as a prisoner of war. Lerno was on the front lines as part of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion, 106th Infantry Division. It was the last drive the Germans would make before the end of the war, and many lives were lost. In Lerno’s division alone, 564 people were killed in action, with 1,246 wounded and 7,001 missing in action. Historians call it the coldest, snowiest weather ever in the Ardennes Forest on the German/Belgium border, where the battle raged in the winter of 1944-45.
Lerno received two bronze stars, the American Campaign Medal, a Purple Heart, a good conduct medal and the WWII Victory Medal.
Today he is being given the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Foundation’s 2011 Distinguished Veteran of the Year Award.
Lerno and 11 other men were hunkered in the basement of a house the night he was captured. Above them, the house was in flames, set on fire by German tanks. They were out of ammunition. It was Dec. 23, 1944, and he was only 21 years old. He would spend the next three months as a prisoner of war.
The infantry had held off the attack the first night using all of the ammunition they had.
“But that second night all hell broke loose,” Lerno said.
It was 30 degrees below zero, and Allied forces were dropping bombs on their own men because visibility was limited by the snow.
“I don’t think they knew who was down there,” Lerno said. “They killed a lot of our soldiers on our marches.”
Lerno believes that the Germans were tipped off to their location.
He survived in captivity on small rations of soup made of potato peels and brown bread that gave the soldiers dysentery. Occasionally, they would find turnips and sugar beets stowed beneath manure piles.
“We wiped it off on our pant legs and ate it gratefully,” Lerno said. “That was good eating.”
There was little water, no bathrooms and nothing but the body heat of his fellow prisoners to keep them from freezing.
In the three months that he was in captivity, Lerno lost 75 pounds, dropping from the 225 when he enlisted to only 150 pounds.
The Germans took the prisoners’ boots for themselves and gave them wooden shoes instead to march through the snow. Lerno’s ears froze. The scars from the frostbite are still visible today.
By day, they were forced to repair railroads destroyed by Allied forces, only to have those same rail lines destroyed again and again.
At the time, Lerno didn’t know where he was. He later learned the POW camp was Limburg Stalag X11A in Limburg, Germany.
Lerno tried to escape three times. He never got far. Each time, he was returned to the fenced camp where thousands of Americans were imprisoned.
They’d listen to bombs falling nearby, hoping that the Allied forces were gaining ground and that they’d be rescued.
When asked what kept him going — what kept him alive while he watched as others died — Lerno responds: sheer force. “I just kept going,” Lerno said. “I watched a lot of men go down and they were never able to force themselves to get back up. I forced myself to keep walking, to move each day.”
Eventually, the German forces grew weaker and the Allied forces stronger. On March 29, 1945, the camp was liberated, and Lerno was freed. The 9th Armored Division had arrived.
Lerno recalls piling into a Jeep with six other men from the POW camp and being taken to a nearby parlor for a beer.
“A beer was the furthest from our minds,” Lerno said. “Instead we ate oranges and apples, but what we really wanted was a sandwich.”
He was taken to a hospital in Paris and eventually made it back to recover at a hospital in Palm Springs.
On Nov. 26, 1945, he was honorably discharged.
After the war
Lerno said he doesn’t talk much of the war because there are happier times to reflect on. He came back to his sweetheart, who he married the day before he deployed, and started a family. He’s led a rich life working at local ranches and ultimately retiring in 1985 after 23 years at Cal Poly, where he was employed as a maintenance man working mostly on the university’s ranches.
His wife of 53 years died in 1997. He remarried a year later and lives happily with his wife, Marie, on a ranch in Santa Margarita.
On a recent afternoon, Lerno stood outside in the chilly fall air repairing fence posts. He talks proudly of his two children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In fact, his face beams when he shares their photographs. His family means everything. “What else are we here for?” Lerno said.
He’s never gone back overseas.
Twice a month he can be found distributing food to the needy and elderly at the Santa Margarita Senior Center, which he helped build. The memories of the war, and the time he spent imprisoned, while not as vivid as they once were, are still very much a part of him.
More than 60 years later, he still has night tremors — thrashing and restless in bed only to awake and find himself drenched in sweat. However, he is not a man of regret. By the time the Battle of the Bulge ended, there were more than 76,000 American casualties.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.