The Greatest Generation
The last thing his commanders said before he dropped from a plane somewhere near Bastogne was "good luck."
It was the Battle of the Bulge, and Allied troops were running out of ammunition, food and medicine; they desperately needed radar capabilities because supplies being dropped sporadically were falling into German hands due to thick fog and high winds.
Mike Segal was 21, a self-described Jewish Kentucky boy born with a rifle in his hand. A "Pathfinder" for the 101st Airborne Division, he was the slim hope of surrounded American soldiers.
Segal, dressed in his Army uniform, recalled that desperate time while sitting with a handful of other old soldiers in the Ohio Theatre, across from Ohio’s state capitol, for the dedication of the Holocaust and Liberators Memorial.
"There were four of us who were dropped in with radar equipment. Only two of us made it, and I was one of them," Segal said of that moment in 1944.
When he landed, men on the frigid ground had dug a foxhole for him; he got the radar working.
"It was two days before Patton broke through and we were pushing hard to get in," he said. He and other troops burrowed into the deep snow and frozen ground, "picking off Nazi after Nazi."
"As luck would have it, both armies ran out of ammunition at about the same time, so from there on in it was hand-to-hand," he recalled.
He had one knife strapped to a boot, one to his helmet, another across his back — "and that wasn’t even an issue knife, it was a knife my brother sent me."
He took on three German soldiers, one at a time, killing all three: "The last knife only had a 5-inch blade, I had to put it in three times to kill him. I was covered in German blood."
As a Jew, he knew what would happen if the Germans captured him.
He earned a Silver Star in that battle. He’d earned another "when we took the bridge to Nijmegen," a follow-up to the British-led attack popularly known as "A Bridge Too Far."
"I had never heard of a ‘glorious retreat’ before in my life," he said of that Allied loss. At Nijmegen, Germans held the high ground, Allies held the low ground, "and it was bad," Segal said, pausing as memories flickered across his face.
He had to get 25 men across the bridge as heavy German fire rained down: "All of my men were in shouting distance so I said, ‘You and you, take the two radar units, you go first and you run like hell.’"
He warned them not to stop: "If you do, you will get shot or captured. Blow it up if you get captured, it’s got a detonator inside," he said of the radar units.
He sent his men off, two by two, as he laid down covering fire. "I told them to run like hell and to not stop for anything" while he picked off the enemy, one by one. "I was a dead-eye, I never missed. ‘One-shot Segal,’ that is what they called me."
He remembers the awful battle in brutally personal terms: One shot, a dead German soldier; another shot, another dead German. "I was just picking off the enemy like pigeons on a fence."
Finally, when his men were 50 yards from their objective and the Germans, "I said, ‘It’s time for you to go, Segal,’ and I just dropped everything, kept my rifle and kept on running. And I made it across the bridge."
He saved the lives of every man in his unit.
Segal doesn’t consider himself extraordinary. He came from a loving, close-knit family with a strong work ethic, he said, and lived an unremarkable life. He is from a generation that gave its all during World War II, but he believes subsequent generations would have done the same.
Bright, charming, looking 20 years younger than his actual 91, he reminds you of the importance of living in the moment. His actions in battle make today’s world seem small — and sitting beside him makes you wonder:
If you were called, could you do the same thing?
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).