The Story Behind One of the Most Famous Battle of the Bulge Photographs
US Army Signal Corps Photographer Emil Edgren was sent together with movie man Herb Shannon to the 82nd Airborne Division as the Battle of the Bulge started in December 1944. ‘We were to report with the 82nd Airborne as the Battle of the Bulge had started. We were pretty much on our own. We latched up with a regimental headquarters. Everyone had left so we had our picked of houses. It was December and very cold. we picked a house and put our sleeping bag upstairs for the night. In the morning we grabbed our mess kits and headed for the kitchen. Help! The whole regiment moved out during the night and here we are with the Germans on the march in this direction. We finally followed the track in the mud and caught up with the regiment.’
‘While covering the front, I was able to get a good photo of one of the 82nd guys running to help his buddy as the Germans were firing at us’, Edgren wrote in his unpublished memoirs. It turned out that Emil Edgren’s photograph became one of the most famous photographs taken during the Battle of the Bulge. The photograph appeared in the January 8, 1945 – Europe edition of the Stars & Stripes. Since then, it appeared on the cover of several books including an edition of the well-known memoirs of Donald R. Burgett, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. The iconic picture even became an inspiration for a 1946 Belgian commemoration stamp.
Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about the location of the photograph and identity of the paratrooper running across the field. A look at the caption of the photograph will tell you that on December 25, 1944, an ‘Infantryman of the 82nd Airborne Division, armed with a submachine gun, leaves his foxholes to intercept a German patrol near Bra, Belgium. Companion at right covers him with machine gun. Several Nazi SS troopers were killed, and one taken prisoner in the resulting clash.’ Yet, stories circulating on social media shared a different location.
Walter E. Hughes was a veteran of I Company of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and took part in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. He was always convinced that he was the paratrooper in the photograph. In an interview of this humble looking and sounding man, he talks about the photograph. ‘We were under fire from a machine gun nest and Sgt. Ed Emmons said “Do you think we can get around them?” I said, “I’ll give it a shot.” I picked up two full clips of Tommy gun. By that time had picked up a Tommy gun. I picked up two clips and made a dash for it. On the other side of the fence was a ditch. I figured that if I’d get over the fence and into the ditch, I can get around these guys and that’s exactly what I did. … I almost had a heart attack. In the ditch was a bunch of Teller mines that somebody had dug up and put in the ditch. But they had put the pin back in them so they couldn’t go off and I damn near landed on them.’ It was this account of Walter Hughes that became the main narrative for various posts on social media.
As fellow Battle of the Bulge researcher Bob Konings had pointed out in a previous research article about this photograph, this started to change during the annual 82nd Airborne Division march in Belgium of February 2019. Reenactors and researchers Glen Mallen, Laurent Olivier and Horst Klemm participated in WWII image visualization with photographer Marcel Bahnen. By the research of Glen Mallen they had found the approximate location of the photograph south of Bra, Belgium. Furthermore, they had found two other photographs that portrayed the same running soldier and formed a series of photographs. These photographs were less known but were most likely taken during the same event in the same area south of Bra. All three photographs show the same paratrooper with a Thompson sub-machinegun, two clips of ammunition and a wool cap. We found the caption of the two other photographs: ‘While digging in on front-line positions just outside of Bra, Belgium, soldiers of Co. H, 3rd Bn, 504th Parachute Inf. Regt., 82nd Airborne Division, met a patrol of Nazi SS troopers who were on reconnaissance. In the resulting clash, several of the Germans were killed. Photos show the capture of one.’ Like the famous photograph, these two were taken by US Signal Corps photographer T/5 Emil Edgren and Photo 2 was even published in the Stars & Stripes on January 6, 1945, two days before the more famous photograph. Unfortunately, Edgren never officially identified the running paratrooper or anyone else in the photograph. But, as you can understand, this is where we started having doubts whether the running paratrooper was indeed Walter Hughes. I don’t have anything against Hughes nor am I saying that he is liar. I see Hughes as a fine soldier who fought for the liberation of Europe during World War II. For that we are forever in his debt. However, there are some loose ends. If there was a chance that the running paratrooper had been misidentified, I could only think about the recognition that the actual soldier in the photograph deserved.
The 504th at Bra, Belgium
In continuing our research, we stopped looking at Cheneux and turned our eyes to the area of Bra, Belgium. The Third Battalion of the 504th PIR, attacked and captured Cheneux on the 21st of December 1944. According to the 504th Unit History, ‘the period 21-24 December was occasioned by a reshuffling of our forces in and out of Cheneux with the 2nd Battalion finally moving south of Lierneux to reinforce the 325th GIR and the 1st Battalion to the 505th PIR to take up positions at Trois Ponts. … On the 24th, the 3rd Battalion, less Company G, went into position southwest of Viesalm to act as a screening force for the 325th GIR. … The next day, Christmas, brought the 1st Battalion back under regimental control and into break-through positions at Bra as regimental reserve. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions, in the meantime, executed a difficult but completely successful withdrawal maneuver, in accordance with division order, to Bra where they established a five-mile defensive line anchored in the west at Vaux-Chavanne and in the east at Floret.’ .
Emil Edgren’s account falls in line with the history of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. According to his memoirs , he woke up on the morning of the 25th of December after the regiment had left during the night. The only time the 82nd Airborne Division was ordered to withdrawal was on December 24, 1944. The photograph was taken on the 25th, which corresponds with Edgren’s account and the caption of the photograph. Therefore, it is unlikely that the photograph was taken in Cheneux, Belgium. An overlay attached to the S-3 periodical report from December 24, 2200 to December 25, 2200 showed the positions of the 504th in and around Bra. We put the overlay on the corresponding 1:25.000 sheet 92 NE (Durbuy) and it became clear how the 504th was positioned.
Both G and I Company were in position east of Vaux-Chavanne, about two kilometers west of Bra. H Company and the 3rd Battalion HQ were located south of Bra. The overlay doesn’t show the exact positions of H Company. According to James Megellas, his platoon dug in on the evening of the 24th on the high ground with a field of fire to the south. His foxhole was just behind his three squads. ‘The H Company CP was about two hundred yards to the rear in a house occupied by a Belgian family.’ Megellas had also seen a downed but intact B-17 bomber that he wanted to booby trap or blow up. Earlier on the 25th, a German patrol used it as cover when the Americans opened up on them.
Even though Megellas book shares fragmentary anecdotes of events that took place on different dates, the book contains an interview with Lt Edward J. Simms, another platoon leader in H Company. Surprisingly, he talked about a photographer at their lines. ‘There was a photographer from the US Army Newspaper, Stars & Stripes, at the H Company CP. His purpose was to take pictures of the men on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge. Instead of providing him an escort, I invited him to accompany me on an inspection of our company lines. On our way to Rivers’ CP (Lt. LaRiviere), I talked to Lt. Megellas, whose platoon was dug in on the left and tied in with Rivers’ platoon. After I explained that I was concerned about the company’s right flank, Megellas decided to accompany us.’ Simms was concerned about a hidden ‘Sunken Road’ that the Germans might be able to use in an attack on H Company.
We assume that the photographer that accompanied Simms and Megellas, was T/4 Emil Edgren, who also took a photograph of a downed B-17 bomber. Was it the bomber that Megellas mentioned earlier? Researcher Bob Konings went on a reconnaissance trip himself and found the exact spot where the photograph was taken south of Bra.
In an interview for the Veterans History Project, Simms explains how he was trooping the line when he found a sunken road on his right flank. So, he went back and got his platoon leader Lt. Rivers to explain that there was a sunken road which the Germans could use to flank the Company. Megellas joined both to the Sunken Road when a German patrol came in the back of the sunken road. According to Simmons, Rivers yelled to one of the Machine Gunners to come down and help. One man came down. Interestingly, in Simms’ interview in Megellas’ he talks about a photographer that accompanied them. In the Veterans History Project Interview, of which the metadata says it was created in 2008, Simms does not mention the photographer. Nevertheless, in the VHP interview, Simms holds the photograph and identified Lt. Rivers as the man in the front. This photograph was the first one to be published in the Stars & Stripes on January 6, 1945. The photograph of the running paratrooper was published in the same paper on January 8, 1945.
Fellow researcher Bob Konings was able to find the approximate locations of the three photographs. With almost zero landmarks it was the only sunken road in the area and within one minute walking distance of where the B-17 photograph was taken. Besides, Bob was able to pinpoint more photographs taken by Emil Edgren in this vicinity.
The Unknown Paratrooper
Could Walter Hughes still be the man with the Tommy gun after finding all this information? Again, our goal is not to dishonor Walter Hughes and we believe that Hughes believes that he is the running paratrooper. However, there are some inconsistencies in his story. At this point it was clear that action took place in the H Company sector. With Hughes serving in I Company, which was about two kilometers away, it is less likely that he was there. But never say never.
The next question that arises is: were there any other identity claims over the past years? Historian, Thulaï van Maanen, shared several great findings with us, including S-3 periodic report and map overlay that we showed earlier. Above all, Van Maanen has extended collection of 82nd Airborne Division archive material. This article would not be possible without her. Van Maanen shared several identity claims of the running paratrooper with us.
One of the first persons to claim identify the running paratrooper was the mother of Pvt. Ralph P. Bellesfield. A paratrooper of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment who was killed in action on September 17, 1944, during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. His mother had recognized him in the famous photograph that was first published in the Stars & Stripes in January 8, 1945. By now we know that it wouldn’t be until five months after the death of Bellesfield that the photograph was taken.
The photograph made such an impact that after the war even General James Gavin, CG of the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII had the photograph in his office. The identity of the paratrooper was still unknown so Gavin started a quest to identify the running paratrooper. He sent the word and received an unknown amount of mail. Then in 1958 he concluded that it was Pvt. Earl E. Potter, to which he wrote: ‘You would be interested to know that at least two other people have written claiming with certainty to know the soldier in the picture; none of them identified it with you. It was taken about Christmas Day between Bra and Fraiture and with your identification of the locality and time you must be the man.’ According to Gavin the photograph ‘epitomized something fundamental; the spirit the individual has that motivates him in the middle of danger to take very risk and do the right thing is far more important to us than all the equipment that we can buy.’ A copy of the letter by Gavin to Potter is currently in possession of the 82nd Airborne Museum. The original reply from Gavin is currently with the family of Earl E. Potter. Mike Verier, author of 82nd Airborne Division – All American (2001), had also seen the letter in the collection of the 82nd Airborne Division Museum and used Potter as the identity of the running paratrooper. So far, he is the only author that made a reference to the letter and Potter’s identity. We received a digital copy Gavin’s letter from Thulaï van Maanen.
Interestingly, Earl Eugene Potter served in the 3rd Battalion HQ Company, 504th PIR and not H Company. He served with this Company during the invasion at Anzio where he was hit by shrapnel in his foot in February of 1944. For this he received the Purple Heart. Potter was discharged from the hospital March 1944 and returned to the unit with which he jumped into The Netherlands for Operation Market Garden on September 17, 1944. He was hit again by shrapnel in his hip and buttocks in September. It wouldn’t be until November 17, 1944, for Pvt. Potter to return to the company. We found a portrait photograph of Pvt. Potter and spoke with his grandson who was aware of the photographs taken by T/4 Emil Edgren. Looking at the signal corps photographs and the portrait shot of Potter it is clear that these men look alike. Unfortunately, Pvt. Potter passed away on November 27, 1970 at the age of 47. According to his grandson, the war troubled him in his life and resulted in his early death.
Then there was Sgt. Walter E. Hughes, whose story we covered earlier in this article. The paratrooper of I/504 took part in the Waal Crossings during Operation Market Garden and the battle of Cheneux early in the Battle of the Bulge. The earliest story of Hughes’ perspective that we could find dates back to 2010. Please note that Walt wrote a memoir about his life as a sailor pre and postwar in 2008. In this memoir the war is only highlighted in a couple of sentences, but the photograph was not mentioned. In the 2010 article the author writes about the 2010 NRA show in which Walter Hughes visited their Auto-Ordnance booth. He saw his photograph on their table and pointed out to them that it was him in the photograph. The article makes it sound like Walt told the story in the context of Operation Market Garden as there was no mention of the Battle of the Bulge. Subsequently, in a 2011 Veteran’s Day special video Hughes tells the story in the context of the Battle of the Bulge. Here, Hughes was ordered by Lt. Blankenship to take out a German machine gun nest when he encountered the photographer in a ditch between American and German positions. However, no geographical location of this event was given. Finally, there is the interview of the Veterans History Project. The exact date of the interview is unknown, but according to the metadata the file was created in 2014. In this interview, Hughes places the photograph in the context of the attack on Cheneux in which his company took part in on December 21, 1944. It is this story that became and still is the main narrative of the photograph for later interviews and stories on the internet.
Perhaps it is safe to say that we will never know the truth. With all information combined it is hard to connect Hughes’ appearance to the area south of Bra where Emil Edgren took the photographs. After all Hughes’ I company was in position together with G Company, two miles to the west. It wouldn’t make sense for a photographer to go all that way when the main body was in Bra.
On the other hand, we have Earl E. Potter who served with 3rd Battalion HQ Company. It makes sense that he was in the area. According to the situation overlay, the 3rd Battalions HQ was very close to the H Company’s position. Potter’s Military Occupation Special (MOS) was 504 which meant he was an ammo bearer. Even a Battalion’s HQ had to make sure of their own protection and it’s plausible that Potter was part of this. Like the periodical report said, the 3rd Battalion ‘consolidated their position, set out outposts and maintained contact with adjacent units. What we don’t know is whether Potter was already there when the German patrol was spotted or whether he ran to the H Company lines to take the prisoner back to the rear for interrogation. Furthermore, his service in HQ Company could even be the reason why the veterans of H Company never mentioned or recognized Pvt. Potter. Going back to Gavin’s letter to Potter, Potter was the only soldier to tell Gavin the exact position and time of when the photograph was taken.
Then again, in that letter Gavin wrote that two other people were certain to know the identity of the running paratrooper and they didn’t mention Potter. Who were these people and who did they think they saw in the photograph? Bellesfield’s mother believed it was her son, Earl E. Potter believed it as him, and Walter E. Hughes believed it was him. One thing for sure is that Edgren never wrote down the identity of the running paratrooper.
This article would’ve not been possible without WWII researcher Bob Konings and military historian Thulaï van Maanen. Bob triggered me to help him gather as many sources as possible so that we could write an article about our findings. As we I tried to find as many different sources as possible, Bob was the man on the ground researching in Bra, Belgium.
Earlier this year I had a discussion with Thulaï van Maanen. She had stumbled upon ‘the identity claims of Bellesfield and Potter. Above all she shared with me a great deal of archive materials. Without her, this article would’ve not been possible.
Thank you Myra Miller, PhD, for a final spelling check!
 NARA through Emil Edgren Collection, https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.65358/
 Walter E. Hughes Collection, https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.38545/
 Bob Konings, Emil Edgren – Combat Photographer in the Ardennes – https://www.grandmenil.com/emil-edgren-combat-photographer-in-the-ardennes/
 NARA through Emil Edgren Collection.
 History 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment: 18 December, 1944 – 11 January, 1945, NARA through Thulaï van Maanen
 504th PIR S-3 Periodical Report, NARA through Thulaï van Maanen.
 James Megellas, All the way to Berlin – A Paratrooper at war in Europe (2003) eBook.
 We got in touch with Hughes’ family to get the story from their perspective. Even though contact was established, we were not able to have a conversation.
 Walter E. Hughes, I wasn’t born on the canal – “It just seemed like it” (2008)
 As told to Art Moroe by Walter Hughesm WWII veteran at the NRA Show https://www.auto-ordnance.com/as-told-to-art-moore-by-walter-hughes-wwii-veteran-at-the-nra-show/
 NRA Life of Duty Patriot Profiles | Veterans Day 2011 “Walter Hughes”: Bonus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYq_4akj3M4