“Welcome to the ‘Alamo!’” With this greeting from a seasoned warrior of the 1st Infantry Division who had been in the city for six months, several of my fellow soldiers and I settled down to our first meal in the chow hall at the Civil-Military Operations Center, a one-acre installation in the center of Baquba, in Diyala Province, Iraq. It was September, 2004.
I gulped as I heard the salutation. Having the utmost respect for the absolute courage of the men who valiantly defended that Texas redoubt in 1836 (and about which more below), I was, nevertheless, somewhat uneasy given the outcome of that famous battle in San Antonio. I was in no hurry for history to repeat itself in Baquba.
Still, the same theme cropped up a few days later as several of us tucked into another meal. “So, what do you think of the ‘Alamo?’” one of the 1st Infantry Division soldiers asked me.
“It’s a decent place,” I replied. “Glad to be with serving with you guys. But is there any chance we can change the name of this post?”
“Got any suggestions?”
Situated on the Eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle, located near the Iranian border, subjected to frequent attacks from insurgents, determined to hold our ground at all costs, I offered an alternative historical parallel. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s call this place ‘Bastogne!’”
I received a few puzzled looks from some of the younger troops, but the older ones at the table smiled upon hearing the name of that famed Belgian town. They were well schooled in the feats of the American soldiers who put up a ferocious fight there during the Christmas season of 1944. Perhaps the grim determination of those GIs is worth reflecting upon as we prepare to celebrate another Christmas in 2006.
THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
In mid-December, 1944, after several months of heavy fighting since D-Day, Allied armies were poised along the German border, preparing to strike into the heart of the Fatherland. At 5:30 A.M. on December 16 Adolf Hitler caught those forces off-guard when he launched an armored blitzkrieg through the Ardennes forest into Belgium, seeking to replicate the success of his surprise attack through the very same woods in May, 1940, which had knocked France out of World War II. Hitler’s war aims four years later were to capture the port city of Antwerp, split the Allies by forcing the United States and Britain to sue for peace and thus abandon the Soviet Union, and wheel his army to the Eastern front, where it would halt the advancing Russians. In a fit of delusion several weeks earlier he had told his generals that he envisioned a repeat of the victories of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years’ War, especially against France and the Holy Roman Empire at Rossbach and the Austrians at Leuthen in late 1757, which subsequently broke up the alliance arrayed against Prussia.
Speed was essential to Hitler’s divisions, and as the Panzers advanced over the first three days the shape of the German salient gave rise to the popular name for the campaign, the Battle of the Bulge. In the Southern sector of the offensive the Nazis set their sights on Bastogne, a town on the edge of the Ardennes in Eastern Belgium, near the border with Luxembourg. It was the central node of a network of roads leading to Marche, St. Hubert, Rochefort and Dinant, a town on the Meuse River, which was the Wermacht’s first strategic objective. If they crossed the Meuse they could encircle several American divisions on the other side of the river, make a dash for the coast and quickly undermine Allied confidence.
The Germans were about to run into as roadblock, however. Holding Bastogne was the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had personally ordered the division to the town on December 17, and it arrived from Camp Mourmelon, near the French city of Rheims, two days later. Hitler’s troops would have to dislodge the 101st or face a counterattack and a likely defeat. Still, the early prospects were daunting for the Americans. Bearing down on Bastogne were General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, General Heinrich von Luttwitz’s 47th Panzerkorps, General Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, and Major Rolf Kunkel’s Kampfgruppe. Complicating matters were some of the worst winter conditions in recent memory. The roads were clogged with ice, snow drifts were several feet deep in places, rifles jammed in the frozen air, a biting wind sliced through the soldiers’ wet uniforms while many of them suffered from frostbite, a heavy fog hung over much of the region, and elsewhere tanks moved at a crawl and half-tracks ground to a halt in the thick mud. In 1944 American soldiers did not have to dream of a white Christmas; they got the real thing without wishing for it.
On December 20 American prospects worsened when the Nazis closed a ring of steel around Bastogne, completely cutting off the town. Over the next several days they threw everything they could at the American pocket, hoping to puncture it. On December 21 Kampfgruppe Kunkel launched a fierce assault against a U.S. outpost in the hamlet of Senonchamps, on the Western edge of Bastogne, but was repulsed. It tried again four times on the following day, to no avail. Withstanding similar attacks from the South and West, the 101st Division, under the leadership of its acting commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, held its position. Supporting it inside Bastogne were tanks from the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, guns from the 73rd, 109th, and 969th Field Artillery Battalions, soldiers from the 105th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and troops from the 110th Infantry Regiment. Even so, conditions inside the town slowly deteriorated, as ammunition dwindled, gasoline ran low and medical supplies ran out. But morale was high, and the perimeter did not crack.
The enemy underestimated American resolve. On December 22 two German officers and two enlisted men walked up a snow-covered road under a white flag of truce to an Army check point. The subsequent story is retold in many fine histories of the Battle of the Bulge, including those by Charles MacDonald, George Koskimaki, Stephen Ambrose, and Donald Goldstein, Katherine Dillon and Michael Wenger. The Germans carried an ultimatum from their commander in the sector, General von Luttwitz. It insisted that there “was only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is, the honorable surrender of the encircled town.” It gave the American commander two hours to consent or German guns would “annihilate” the U.S. forces and level Bastogne.
An American officer delivered the note to General McAuliffe and his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Ned Moore, who read it out loud. McAuliffe’s first reaction was to utter, in sheer disgust, “Aw, nuts.” After discussing the situation with his staff, everyone agreed that McAuliffe’s initial outburst was the ideal response to the German demand, and the general wrote out a formal reply. In words that have since become legendary, it exclaimed: “To the German Commander: NUTS! From the American Commander.” Colonel Joe Harper, the officer in charge of the 327TH Glider Infantry Regiment, trenchantly translated the colloquialism for the Germans: in plain English McAuliffe’s words meant, “Go to Hell!” He added that if they continued their attack, the Americans would “kill every goddamned German” in the vicinity. He meant it, too.
Over the next several days the Americans held on in the face of unrelenting German assaults, often by their frostbitten finger tips. Air drops of ammunition, food and medical equipment provided a lifeline. Christmas arrived a day early on December 24 when more than 150 American cargo planes flew drop missions over Bastogne, dipping and diving to evade anti-aircraft fire from the German batteries, with several crash-landing inside the American zone. General McAuliffe’s message to his troops on Christmas Eve is recorded in many accounts of the battle: “What’s merry about all this, you ask? 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 and one German parachute division. The Germans surround us, their radios blare our doom. Their commander demanded our surrender, and received the following reply…‘NUTS!’ We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present, and, being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms, are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.”
In his own narrative Stephen Ambrose adds: “The men at the front were not as upbeat as General McAuliffe. They had cold white beans for their Christmas Eve dinner.” For Captain Richard Winters, who is well known from the “Band of Brothers” television series, “dinner that night consisted of five white beans and a cup of cold broth.” Out on icy line, Sergeant Robert Rader and Private Don Hoobler, both from the same town in the Midwest, sat in their frigid foxholes. Rader said, “As the night wore on we talked of our homes, our families, and how they were spending their Christmas Eve. Don felt sure all of them were in church praying for us.” They probably were, and that was a good thing: the Luftwaffe bombed Bastogne that night, causing extensive damage and killing numerous civilians and American soldiers.
There was no let up on Christmas Day. Hitler had demanded that the town be taken immediately. The Germans let loose several armored attacks against the Bastogne pocket. Once again they were driven back, with heavy losses. Inside the town some soldiers attended religious services. Others tended to the wounded, or buried the dead. Most were outside, holding the perimeter. Meanwhile, at home the American people were learning about Bastogne. In their book Rendezvous with Destiny, Leonard Rapport and Arthur Norwood record how during the battle men and women would look at maps printed in newspapers that showed “one spot holding out…for days it was the one encouraging sight that met their eyes each morning. And the War Department, earlier than was its practice, identified the division inside the town, so even before their bloody month in the town was up, to the world the 101st became the Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne.”
Christmas did arrive one day later, on December 26, when an armored column from General George Patton’s Third Army, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, pierced the German cordon. The next day it rolled up into the center of Bastogne. It had traversed over 150 miles in six days, fighting pitched battles and tank engagements along the way. The siege was over. On December 29 troops of the 101st Airborne Division unleashed a counterattack against the Germans on the edge of town. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, according to Ambrose, “to celebrate the coming of the year of victory and to demonstrate how much things had changed in Bastogne in the past few days, every gun in Bastogne and every mortar piece joined in a serenade of high explosives hurled at the Germans.”
On January 18, as the 101st Airborne Division prepared to move out of Bastogne and chase the Nazis back to Germany, its commander, General Maxwell Taylor, officially handed over control of the town to Major General Troy Midddleton of VIII Corps. Bastogne had transformed Hitler’s delirious dream of a quick victory into a nightmare. As the weather cleared, the Americans launched a major counteroffensive against the Wermacht and the S.S. divisions that had led the assault into Belgium. By the end of January, 1945 the “bulge” ceased to exist. Hitler had lost his last throw of the dice
HOLD YOUR GROUND
What had happened? Quite simply, at Bastogne the Americans had held their ground. This effort was repeated throughout the Ardennes at towns and villages named Lanzerath, Noville, St. Vith and La Glieze, if sometimes only just long enough to slow the German advance and gain time for nearby units to consolidate their positions. On the first day of the fighting Major General Walter Lauer, the commander of the 99th Infantry Division, which was positioned North of Bastogne and absorbed successive body blows from the advancing Panzers, had issued a “hold at all costs” order, which delayed the German spearhead. After the war, according to the author Alex Kershaw, General Lauer said that without that command “there would have been no Bastogne.” He may be correct. Holding one’s ground is among the first principles of combat. Sometimes in the fog of war a unit in action — whether it be a platoon, company, battalion, brigade or division — may not be able to discern the larger picture of what is taking place around it, yet by maintaining its position it is, in all likelihood, contributing to tactical and strategic advantage.
History reveals endless examples of American soldiers holding the line under intense fire: Little Round Top, Mount Surabachi, Khe Sanh, and today in Ramadi, Tal Afar, Bagram, and Kandahar. The same thing, in essence, transpired at the Alamo. The men who stood their ground there in 1836 were part of an American military tradition that was reinforced just over 100 years later by those who stood and fought in Bastogne. After World War II the people of Belgium erected a memorial near the town in memory of all of the American soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in action during the Battle of the Bulge. The Texans in San Antonio would have appreciated its design: It is a 40-foot-high lonestar made of granite and marble. Inscribed on it are the words “The Belgian people remember their American liberators.”
Many of the fallen from the Battle of the Bulge are interred in the American Military Cemetery in the city of Neuville-en-Condroz, in the Ardennes forest. In dignified silence they will forever hold that sacred ground. Their last stand offers eloquent testimony to how their sacrifice, and the valor of their brothers who survived that day, helped to save Western civilization one Christmas in 1944.
– Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York, is a soldier in the United States Army Reserve. He served a tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004 to 2005.