Jim Watkins: Kent dies in Belgium months short of 21st birthday as wife delivers son stateside

By JIM WATKINS | Guest Opinion

The World War II battle that would eventually be referred to as the Battle of the Bulge was especially lethal for our Brown County Boys.

Marvin “Jeep” Tutterow, James Gregory, and Mary Woods’ uncle, Clifford Kent, were all victims of this most historic and horrific battle.

Local resident, Mary Beth Kent Woods, contacted me several weeks ago after reading the article on James Ault. She said she was the niece of a war veteran that had been killed during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. She asked me if I was going to write an article about her uncle, Harry Clifford Kent.

I let her know that her uncle was on my list of Brown County’s fallen and that an article would be forthcoming. I also let her know that I did not have a picture of Clifford and asked if she had one. She did, and she emailed it to me. I was thankful as a picture of the individual always adds so much to the article.

Pfc. Kent was usually called by his middle name, Clifford. He was the son of Lobie and Iva (Deckard) Kent who lived on Kent Road near Belmont. He had an older brother, Edward, Mary Beth’s dad. Edward was also in the Army stationed at Love Field, Dallas, where he was an airplane mechanic.

Clifford married Ruth Stevens of Bloomington in January of 1943, just a few months before he entered the service that April. Clifford had just turned 19. He would be part of the 75th Division, which was an Army Reserve Division.

The following 18 months would involve extensive training in a variety of states highlighted by maneuvers in Louisiana that would most closely resemble what the 75th would face in actual combat.

Clifford would have a couple of furloughs to visit home during this training period, one in December of ‘43 and another in April of ‘44.

After the final weeks of training in Kentucky the men of the 75th boarded ships in New York in November and headed across the Atlantic, first to Wales and then to France.

The 75th Division would eventually be referred to as the “Bulge Busters” for their heroic efforts in January of ‘45 when they played a major part in stopping the German advance.

This appellation was far more complimentary to these 18- and 19-year-olds than their earlier designation which was slapped on them upon their arrival in Europe in the late fall of ‘44. At that time, they were derisively called the “Diaper Division”! They were in fact, average age-wise, the youngest division in the United States Army.

They were replacement soldiers. They would be taking the place of the Allied Normandy invaders who for the last six months had been moving the Germans step by step in desperate fighting back across France and Belgium towards the German border.

These dog-faced, grizzled veteran GIs most assuredly made disparaging comments to these new young newcomers to the effect that the hard work had been done and their only task was to do the mopping up and to get this mess over with.

That type of thinking all ended at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944.

Hitler’s final offensive of the war caught the Allies off guard. The German Panzer tank units burst into the Allied line in the heavily forested Ardennes Forest of Belgium. With the goal of reaching Antwerp, the main supply depot of the Allies, the Germans were aided by overcast skies that thwarted the Allies usual control of the skies, and this coupled with heavy snow and bitter below freezing temperatures saw the Germans create a large “bulge” in the Allied line.

Among other units the 75th was summoned to fill some of the gaps in the line. Loaded into trucks, they were sped 250 miles to the combat area. On Christmas day they made a direct assault on a hill controlling the approach to Hampteau, Belgium.

Although pinned down by withering machine gun and mortar fire, the units of the 75th seized enemy positions. The high-water mark of the German drive had been reached.

The Allies were on the defensive the next couple of weeks as additional units and supplies were brought up to stifle the Germans. By Jan. 14 that strategy would change.

The following is taken from the booklet, “The 75th: The Story of the 75th Infantry Division.”

“At 0914, Jan. 14, 1945, a terse message was received by the 75th:

“Your division attacks tomorrow. H-Hour: 0300.”

Gen. Ridgway, sent the following:

“Now we propose to attack, attack and attack until a final decision is reached on the Western Front … Tomorrow morning begins the final challenge by German brutality, venality and inhuman warfare. Behind us stand 90,000 of the best manhood in the world. The outcome is certain. I should like to impress upon the mind of every individual the stake for which he fights … the future of the United States of America.”

The enemy was firmly entrenched along the bank of the Salm. His bunkers were built of timber and camouflaged with snow. He lurked in cellars and stone buildings of every town and waited — waited to be ferreted out. This was an enemy composed of elements of three divisions that knew it “was now or not at all.”

Jan. 15, 1945. Artillery, and tanks heralded the attack with a devastating 10-minute barrage beginning at 0250. Promptly at 0300, the 75th smashed across the river in pitch darkness, Clifford among them.

Every type of resistance was encountered. Clothing was soaked. But they continued to maneuver across the snow-covered ground. Still, no one thought of anything but going forward.

Clifford was a casualty that day, three months short of his 21st birthday.

Back home Ruth was in the hospital having delivered their son, Gary Richard, three days earlier on Jan. 12. Ruth had turned 21 on Jan. 14. She would not remarry. She was blessed with two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

All the family were heartbroken of course and as Mary Beth relayed to me, her dad, Edward, could hardly bring up the subject of his little brother.

He would say to Mary Beth, “All Clifford wanted was to be with his family, have a farm, and raise some chickens.”

Clifford and Ruth are buried side by side at Duncan Cemetery in Nashville.

Jim Watkins is a Brown County Historical Society member who wrote “The Fallen,” a memorial document about young men from Brown County who never returned home from World War II. Watkins was a public school teacher for 42 years and has always been interested in learning about WWII. He can be reached at [email protected].

Jim Watkins is a Brown County Historical Society member who wrote “The Fallen,” a memorial document about young men from Brown County who never returned home from World War II. Watkins was a public school teacher for 42 years and has always been interested in learning about WWII. He can be reached at [email protected].