Surprise attacks in supposedly secure areas. A spike in casualties. A few baffled American commanders. Suspicions of degrading morale within some units. Outright refusal to carry out lawful orders in others. Troops stretched too thin. Blame heaped on planners and those said to be responsible for unreliable intelligence.
It all began 60 years ago–this very Christmas season–when the German army, in a last-ditch effort, smashed through the Ardennes and struck the primary Allied lines in Belgium. The attack created an enormous salient or “bulge” in the lines–thus it was known as the Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 28, 1945)–and threatened to cut American and British forces in half.
As the Germans continued deepening, the salient, fresh American units were hurriedly trucked forward from France, including the U.S. Army’s crack 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions.
The 82nd, the lead division on the road north, was tasked with blunting the enemy’s advance along the Salm River. The 101st followed.
En route, the advancing Germans passed between the 82nd and the 101st, separating the two.
The allies believed that by holding Bastogne they could regroup their forces and launch a counterattack. The Germans also realized the value of the town: It served as a major highway junction and a potentially important hub for mechanized forces. Control of the roads was critical: The surrounding terrain was rugged and not particularly vehicle-friendly. Consequently, both the Germans and the 101st raced to the city.
In their haste, the American paratroopers had been unable to properly equip themselves. They were desperately short of ammunition, food, water, medical supplies, and winter clothing, much less vehicle armor and personal body armor, which was virtually nonexistent in those days.
On the road, the men of the 101st were shocked to see frightened, fleeing American soldiers (non-Airborne), most of whom were green 18-year-old draftees who had seen little if any combat. The paratroops demanded much-needed ammo from their retreating “leg” brethren. The latter happily complied.
The paratroops arrived first on the 18th and quickly set up defensive positions. The Germans arrived the following day, surrounded the 101st, and laid siege to Bastogne. At that point, some 18,000 Americans in the town were facing 45,000 Germans. Worse, the weather was so poor that Allied aircraft were not able to provide close air support or make resupply drops. But despite the weather, sub-zero temperatures, dwindling supplies, and numerous enemy attacks, the 101st was committed to holding at all costs.
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton agreed, adding, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ‘em off and chew ‘em up.” Of course, Patton’s brassy suggestion was not an option.
Eisenhower’s immediate concern was Bastogne. He asked Patton when he and his Third Army would be able to mount a rescue operation. Patton responded, “on the morning of December 21st.”
An impossible boast in Ike’s mind, he gave Patton an additional two days.
Having no intention of surrendering, McAuliffe was initially at a loss for words. One of his aides remarked that the general’s first comment upon receiving the surrender demand might be wholly appropriate. McAuliffe agreed and penned his now-famous response to the Germans. It simply read, “NUTS.”
The message was then delivered by American Col. Joseph Harper to a group of German officers waiting in nearby woods. Harper handed the note to one of the Germans who read it and then looked at Harper in confusion.
“What does that mean?” the German asked. “Is this affirmative or negative?”
Harper responded, “It means you can all go to hell.”
Meanwhile, Patton ordered his chief chaplain to compose a prayer asking God for good weather in which to fight. The resulting prayer reads:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.
The following day, the skies were clear and aircraft were up, but the situation was becoming increasingly desperate at Bastogne.
What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting. It’s cold. We aren’t home. All true. But what has the proud [Screaming] Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades…? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west. We have identifications from four German panzer divisions, two German infantry divisions and one German parachute division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were heading straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in world history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Allied troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied armies.
Out on the perimeter, cold, hungry soldiers shook hands with one another and said goodbyes. Despite McAuliffe’s words, the situation was bleak, and the paratroopers knew it. They were running perilously short of food and ammunition. Frostbite and pneumonia casualties were thinning their ranks almost hourly. And there was a numerically superior enemy force surrounding them in the darkness.
On the 26th, Patton punched through to Bastogne, and within hours the Germans began falling back.
Did the men of the 101st ever complain about their situation or question their superiors? No more than any soldiers have done throughout history, and probably less than some, because the amazing consensus among the paratroopers who fought at Bastogne was that they did not need to be relieved by Patton’s forces.
In fact, following the relief at Bastogne, the airborne soldiers were tasked with seizing a
number of Belgian towns and hamlets, which they did with the same dash and aplomb they would have had after a period of rest and recuperation. Why? Because the men of Bastogne–like their descendents today serving in Iraq–understood the rewards reaped from hardship.
Staff Sgt. William R. Bilenski, a ten-year veteran of the Marine Corps and a transportation chief currently serving his third tour in Iraq, agrees. “Regardless of the situation, if it’s a legitimate order, you shut your mouth and do it, no questions asked,” he told NRO.
And the morale here is high. My Marines go on the road every single day, and they look forward to going out every single day. They drive for countless hours, man the crew-served weapons, and provide their own security teams. That is all they live for out here–accomplishing the mission–that is what takes them to the next day.
Despite the media-coached National Guardsman (certainly not a frontline combatant like those slugging it out in Fallujah and elsewhere) who publicly questioned the U.S. defense secretary, comments like McCluskey’s and Bilenski’s are the heartfelt sentiments of the vast majority of combat Marines and soldiers who know–like their great-grandfathers at Bastogne–America will prevail.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.