World War II Veteran shares story, highlights need for blood donations Print E-mail
Thursday, 07 November 2013
Story and photo by  Carl Norman
Special to GUIDON

It’s December 1944, near the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Snow is falling and the cold cuts to the bone, but American service members stand ready because there’s work to be done.

Just nine days before Christmas that year, Adolph Hitler’s army launched a surprise attack on the Allied armies, trying to split them in two and gain the advantage in World War II. The attack happened in the heavily forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945.
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William Gilliam and Capt. Paul Ambrose, Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center officer-in-charge, enjoy a laugh at the donor center’s open house reception Oct. 9.

The Germans, French and Allies all called the battle by different names. Contemporary press reporters coined the phrase “Battle of the Bulge” to describe the way the Allied front line bulged inward on wartime news maps.

According to historical accounts, the surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard and became the costliest battle in terms of casualties for the United States. An estimated 19,000 souls perished in that battle — 19-year-old William Gilliam was one of 89,000 Americans injured there. He was the gunner on the lead American tank heading toward history.

“Our mission was to cut off the German’s lead convoy coming across Belguim,” Gilliam said in an interview held after the Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center’s Open House Oct. 9. “We were headed to meet Gen. Patton coming from the south.”

Gilliam recalled that on Jan. 2, 1945, he and his five-man tank crew, assigned to the 2nd Armor Division, bedded down in a trench a fellow tank with a blade on it dug for them. Their lieutenant put out a row of mines to keep the Germans away during the night.

As Gilliam and crew moved out the next morning, they saw enemy movement in the brush; that’s when his life was forever changed. The Germans attacked Gilliam’s convoy and a bazooka round hit his tank, tearing the turret off and seriously injuring him.

“That was the first time I ever fired a 75 mm gun,” Gilliam said. “The driver pulled me out of danger; he died a couple of days later from his injuries,” Gilliam said, sadly recalling that he was the only one of his tank crew to survive the war.

When the battle dust settled, the very much battle fatigued and injured Americans were victorious.

“If we hadn’t successfully cut off that convoy, the German army would have cut the Allied armies in two and the result of the war could have come out very differently,” Gilliam said. “They were only three miles from their final destination when we engaged them.”

The attack left Gilliam with shrapnel in his right knee, left shoulder and back, plus he had a severe cut on his left arm. He said he had trouble moving his left arm and that it was in a cast for two years after he returned stateside for care. He still today carries shrapnel in his left arm, shoulder and back and has difficulty moving his left arm.

“I was injured pretty bad and required a lot of blood at the hospital,” said Gilliam, who today is nearing his ninth decade of life. “We didn’t have medics back in those days, so they had to carry me off the battlefield on the back of a tank. When I reached the field hospital, they took me to further care on the back of a jeep.

“When I finally made it to the regional hospital, I had so many holes in my left shoulder that the doctors kept a pad soaked with penicillin on it rather than wrapping it up.”

Before the Armed Services Blood Program was born, some 60 years ago, the military did not have a unified transfusion program for Soldiers like Gilliam. Military personnel, exclusively, donated the needed blood and blood products during wartime. In peacetime, and when wartime needs could not be met, the military purchased blood from civilian agencies, and it was airlifted to service members fighting far away from established supply lines.

Since that time, the ASBP came alive and has made blood available to millions of service members and their families facing injury or illness.

“Although we’re no longer transporting injured service members to hospitals on the back of a tank or jeep, one thing remains the same,” said Capt. Paul Ambrose, Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center officer-in-charge. “Wounded soldiers who lose blood must have it replaced or bad things happen.

“Mr. Gilliam was fortunate that he survived his injuries and today is a true hero in all our hearts. But if volunteer donors hadn’t donated for him then he might not be here to enjoy his life with his children and grandchildren,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose said the need for blood remains as constant today as it did in Gilliam’s day. Statistics show that one-in-four service members injured in Iraq or Afghanistan requires a blood transfusion, and the military health care system requires 400 units of blood every day to meet routine operations for Soldiers and their Families around the globe.  

“Every hour of every day someone, somewhere needs blood,” Ambrose said. “It’s the ASBP’s job to get them that blood, but we cannot do that without generous people willing to donate.  

“I ask everyone to think of the brave service members like Mr. Gilliam, and all who have served since, and the freedoms we enjoy because of them. To keep our freedoms means  we must have people willing to fight for them when the need arises. When they do that, it’s inevitable that some will get injured or become ill and need blood. That is where the ASBP needs everyone’s help.”

“I think the ASBP is a great program that will save a lot of lives,” Gilliam, a Purple Heart recipient, said. “I wish they would have had it when I was injured. It’s better than when I was in the military. People everywhere ought to donate blood to help save lives.”

For more information about the Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center or to make an appointment, call 596.5385 or  email This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

To find out more about the Armed Services Blood Program or to schedule an appointment, visit online: www.militaryblood.dod.mil.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 November 2013 )