CLEMSON — When George Mitchell accepts the Purple Heart medal Sunday at the main dining room at Clemson Downs retirement community, he'll likely be wearing his trademark white cotton socks, the knee-length variety that was popular in the 1950s.
His penchant has nothing to do with fashion. Mitchell simply loves socks that are warm and dry.
That has been a priority for Mitchell since the winter of 1944, when he lived outdoors on frozen battlefields of western Germany. Among the 78th Infantry Division that fought the Battle of the Bulge, dry socks were a precious commodity.
For some soldiers, dry socks were the difference between an amputation and going home after the war with feet intact. Mitchell, 93, enjoyed the latter, which makes him reluctant to complain that his toes have been numb for 72 years.
"We dug fox holes as deep as we could to avoid getting hit," Mitchell explained from his Clemson home, "but in the daytime, it warmed up enough for water to collect in the hole. Once those leather boots got wet, it was impossible to get your feet warm."
"We were living outdoors, in the snow and wind. We were living like animals, really," Mitchell said. "There aren't many options in a war zone, where the fighting was day and night."
Mitchell, a country boy who grew up in Minnesota winters, adapted. He kept a pair socks pinned inside his trench coat, kept others under his arm, where body heat would dry them a little. He would rotate the socks each night, wearing two pairs on his feet.
As he also fought an imposing enemy, Mitchell learned to use any technique available to fight frostbite. He tried to sleep with toes out of the water. He remembers stepping into barns to briefly escape the elements.
"It was dangerous, because the Germans would shell it," he said of the barn visits, "but it was a way to get out of the wind and cold for a few minutes. That was the worst winter I've ever been in."
The weather was the secondary concern that winter. In the six weeks that Mitchell's 309th infantry fought in the Ardennes Forest, its part in the Battle of the Bulge, 10,276 U.S. troops were killed. Another 47,493 were wounded, and 23,218 were never found.
Mitchell, a 20-year-old machine-gun operator, was among the wounded. On Dec. 14, 1944, during the battle of Kesternich, a mortar explosion directly over his machine gun knocked Mitchell to the ground with a severe concussion and lacerations. He was treated for his wounds at a makeshift aid station and returned to battle.
Had Mitchell completed paperwork at the time, he would have received a purple heart for the injuries. But that action would have notified his mother of the injury — something Mitchell wanted to avoid at a time when she was experiencing serious heart issues. She died a few months later.
As a result, the injury was never reported during the war. Mitchell earned a Bronze Star and three Battle Stars (the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe) for his part in the Allied conquest, then returned home in 1946 and got busy with the task of civilian life. He earned degrees in business and law at the University of Minnesota, and later served 20 years in the Air Force Reserves, attaining the rank of major. In 1955, he joined the Jostens Company, which manufactures and markets school-related class rings, emblems and awards.
He climbed the corporate ladder quickly in that organization, which in 1960 assigned him to the role of manager of a new manufacturing facility in Shelbyville, Tennessee. One of the men he hired as sales manager was a sharp young engineer named Don Sundquist.
After 33 years with Jostens, Mitchell retired with wife Sally to North Georgia in 1990, and relocated to Clemson Downs in 2000.
In 1997, Mitchell's former commanding officer, Capt. Allyn Van Dyke , filed a report shortly before his death which detailed Mitchell's injury. It eventually came to the attention of Nathan Weinbaum, a Veterans Service Officer in Bount County, Tennessee, who shared the information with then-former Tennessee Governor and Congressman Sundquist — who had worked with Mitchell 50 years earlier at Shelbyville.
On Sunday, Mitchell will receive his Purple Heart, 72 years and five months after the injury. By coincidence, the celebration comes on the eve of the 72nd anniversary of V-E Day, when Germany's 1945 surrender signaled an end to the war in Europe.
Sundquist will get the honor of pinning it on his former boss. Retired Lt. General Robert Tiebout of the U.S. Marine Corps will also make the trip from Tennessee to be part of the award ceremony.
"What makes it special is knowing George all these years. I've always considered him a real hero," Sundquist said from his Townsend home Thursday. "I couldn't be happier if I was getting the award myself."
Mitchell's caretaker, Gloria Reeder of Walhalla, is also thrilled about the award.
"He doesn't complain, but I know he suffers a lot with the numbness in his feet," she said. "Sometimes he's up all night, because of problems with his feet, and flashbacks."
For Mitchell, the award will stir a mix of emotions — some related to the guilt that follows men who survived combat while others around them did not, and some connected to wife Sally, who suffers from dementia.
"I've had a wonderful life and I have a wonderful wife," Mitchell said last week, with voice cracking and eyes lowered. "She'll be there, sticking with me Sunday."
In keeping with a pledge he made in a journal entry made in 1944, he offers no complaints.
"Living in a fox hole, in three feet of snow, with temperatures around zero, out in the open, I developed this creed," Mitchell wrote. "If ever again I have a dry place to sleep, with a warm meal in my stomach, and no one shooting at me, I will not complain."
Mitchell is scheduled to receive his Purple Heart at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The ceremony is open to the public