Utah veteran, survivor of Battle of the Bulge, reflects on incredible 100 years

Nov 11, 2023, 1:00 PM

DAYBREAK — Wayne O. Ursenbach, a World War II veteran, explosives researcher, man of faith, husb...

Wayne Ursenbach from his service in the U.S. Army during WWII. He survived the Battle of the Bulge in the European theater. (Ursenbach family)

(Ursenbach family)

DAYBREAK, Utah — Wayne O. Ursenbach, a World War II veteran, explosives researcher, man of faith, husband, and father will turn 100 years old on Dec. 4, 2023. He currently lives a quiet, unpretentious life at Sagewood, a senior care facility in Daybreak, Utah. Despite his quiet life now, Ursenbach had harrowing experiences in World War II and an incredible life that followed.

Ursenbach was born in Alberta, Canada in 1923.

“I came down to the United States to go to BYU,” Ursenbach said.

Ursenbach had just been married to his wife Bernice, when he was drafted into the army on Nov. 6, 1943. He would spend two years fighting in World War II. Ursenbach said his wife wrote him a letter every day from home and that kept their marriage strong, despite the distance.

(Ursenbach Family)

“A lot of them I never really saw, but a lot of them I did.  I tried to write as many letters as I could but of course, in the infantry, we had no way of doing a good job of that so I just did the best I could,” Ursenbach said.

That love would go on to span 77 years of marriage.

While serving, Ursenbach fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major German offensive during World War II. The battle lasted five weeks from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 28, 1945.

“We were headed to the North and we were gonna prepared to go with Montgomery’s army but then we ended up putting all of our stuff there,” Ursenbach said. “I pulled out my scriptures and left the rest of it and we ended up in combat in the Battle of the Bulge.”

The battle was the largest and deadliest battle fought by the United States in World War II. Approximately 19,000 Americans were killed in the battle, with 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 missing. It is estimated that over 1 million Allied troops fought in the battle, including 500,000 Americans.

“It was difficult, we weren’t properly equipped we didn’t have any field gear,” Ursenbach said. “We saw so many things and it was not easy.”

Ursenbach served in the 289th Infantry Battalion, in the 75th Infantry Division that played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Bulge. From his company of 178 men, only 42 returned.

“Never knew what was going to come next,” Ursenbach said.

Ursenbach recalled one experience when he narrowly escaped machine gun fire.

“A Machine gun opened up on us and I just flopped down on the dirt and I could hear it,” Ursenbach said. “I took off my glasses and touched my face and found fingers completely covered in blood.”

(Ursenbach Family)

Fortunately, Ursenbach survived the battle. But he did suffer frostbite on his feet.

“They had to put a needle in sixteen places in my foot and I didn’t feel it. So they said ‘you’re fortunate we caught it right now,’” Ursenbach said. “So I was at the aid station and the doctor examined me and he said ‘yup you’ve got problems.’”

Soon, feeling returned to his feet.

“In the morning, I guess my foot had thawed out enough and it just felt like somebody putting pins and needles through my foot, all the way through and my feet swelled up,” Ursenbach said.

He was transferred to a hospital where he said many others were in worse shape. Ursenbach said he asked the doctors what he would have to do to get out of there, and they told him he’d have to walk all the way down the aisle.

“I had to walk down between 25 beds on one side and 25 beds on the other side,” Ursenbach said. “Finally after about four days of that, they transferred me to rehab and just went from there.”

Ursenbach was honorably discharged because of his medical diagnosis on May 22, 1946.

He returned home first to Fort Douglas to finalize some things, and then reunited with his wife at the Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

“I walked around the Hotel Utah and I wondered if I’d know her and she looked at me and we immediately knew each other,” Ursenbach said. “I was gone about two years.”

Ursenbach earned his bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry at Brigham Young University and worked conducting research with a team from the University of Utah, later leading innovations in the open-pit copper mining industry.

Ursenbach is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served as Temple President for the Temple of The Church in Laie, Hawaii.

When asked how his faith helped him through the war he responded, “Well, here I am!”

His wife, Bernice, died in 2021 and Ursenbach still smiles when he talks about her and their marriage.

“We had a great love story,” Ursenbach said. “Nothing I’d like better than to see her again.”

He explained the cemetery where she’s buried and said, “that’s where she’s resting now, waiting for me.”

Ursenbach and his wife had seven children, and now many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Sagewood will be hosting a party for Ursenbach’s 100th birthday in a few weeks. When asked the secret to living to 100, “just keep breathing,” Ursenbach said.

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Utah veteran, survivor of Battle of the Bulge, reflects on incredible 100 years