Seventy years ago this week, Hitler launched his last great offensive of World War II. The only thing standing in his way was a group of men like Private First Class Earnest Williams, a paratrooper from the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
In a largely forgotten chapter of American history, the 509th and two other independent, “bastard” units — the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion and the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team — were hastily attached to the legendary 82nd Airborne Division and trucked in to plug the holes in the northern shoulder of the Bulge.
It was six months after the Allies’ triumphant D-Day landing. The war in Europe seemed to be slowly grinding to an end.
But Hitler wasn’t ready to surrender.
On December 16, 1944, he made his last big gamble, sending tens of thousands of his best troops toward the Meuse River to retake the Belgian port city of Antwerp and drive a wedge between the British and American armies. It was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, a month-long brutal conflict that involved more than a million men from each side. Before it was all over, the United States had lost more than 80,000 killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing.
The attack largely caught the Allies unaware. With few reserves available to stem the massive onslaught, they rushed U.S. paratroopers into the gaps in the line in a desperate attempt to hold back the German tide.
THE 509TH HOLDS THE LINE
In a small Belgian crossroads town called Sadzot, German troops had found and were exploiting a hole in the Allied lines. In a daring nighttime raid, the 509th attacked and drove elite Waffen-SS troops from the town, killing 30 and taking another 33 prisoner.
The next day, the 509th pushed forward, but the German forces had sent in a fresh battalion to meet them. “The firefight was the fiercest some of the men claim they’ve seen,” recalled Captain Robert C. Healey. “There was violent small-arms resistance, and the enemy had managed to move through the gap two antitank guns, which knocked out one light and one medium tank.”
The troopers’ stand at Sadzot was a face-off between two elite units. The 509th checked the Waffen-SS’s advance, but at a terrible price. It had entered Belgium with about 750 troopers; only about 50 men were still standing and combat-ready by the final days of the Battle of the Bulge.
BIDDLE UP FRONT!
The 517th joined the 509th and the rest of the 82nd Airborne to the northern part of the Bulge. The 517th’s 1st Battalion acted as fire brigade to plug a hole between the Belgian towns of Soy and Hotton, which German units were attempting to exploit in order to envelop the 82nd, which was dug in along the Salm River. The 517th, meanwhile, was also trying to open an escape route for 400 GIs trapped behind German lines.
Private First Class Melvin Biddle found himself in the vortex of the battle. “Everything broke loose — machine-gun fire and mortar fire,” recalled Biddle. “The lieutenant was lying next to me, and he started to light a cigarette. There was a branch right next to his nose, and a bullet clipped it off, and he about fainted! He put his cigarette away.”
Biddle advanced toward the enemy. According to his Medal of Honor citation, “he aggressively penetrated a densely wooded area, advanced 400 yards until he came within range of intense enemy rifle fire, and within 20 yards of enemy positions killed 3 snipers with unerring marksmanship.”
But the scout didn’t stop there. “Courageously continuing his advance an additional 200 yards, he discovered a hostile machinegun position and dispatched its 2 occupants. He then located the approximate position of a well-concealed enemy machinegun nest, and crawling forward threw hand grenades which killed two Germans and fatally wounded a third. After signaling his company to advance, he entered a determined line of enemy defense, coolly and deliberately shifted his position, and shot 3 more enemy soldiers. Undaunted by enemy fire, he crawled within 20 yards of a machinegun nest, tossed his last hand grenade into the position, and after the explosion charged the emplacement firing his rifle.”
As night fell, he went alone to reconnoiter the enemy positions and returned with vital information about the location of enemy tanks. But there was to be no rest for Biddle or the 517th. The shout went up and down the line, “Biddle up front again!”
THE 551ST LAUNCHES A BAYONET CHARGE
A couple of weeks after the initial offensive, the independents were part of the Allied counterattack to push back the Bulge. Colonel Doug Dillard, who was a corporal at the time, remembers Lieutenant Dick Durkee ordering the attack: “Fix bayonets and charge!”
The men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion charged across the snowy field and into the nearby woods yelling and screaming. Two MG 42 machine guns, known as “Hitler’s Bone Saws,” attempted to fire more than 1,200 rounds a minute at the charging Americans. “We could see the Germans’ breath in the cold air and flashes from their two machine guns,” recalled Dillard.
The 551st charged at the enemy soldiers in their foxholes and swarmed on top of them. “It was kind of like a scene from a movie,” said Dillard. “As Durkee moved from one position to another, it was like he was going down a row of corn, eliminating it. There were six or eight Germans in those foxholes that he alone killed.”
A few days after that charge, the GOYAs (the unit’s nickname: Great Outstanding Young American; or the more colloquial version: Get Off Your Ass) took the Belgian town of Rochelinval, at great cost, and helped lead the Allied counteroffensive.
Each of these independent airborne units received the highest decoration that could be given to a combat unit: the Presidential Unit Citation, the equivalent of each man in the unit receiving a Distinguished Service Cross. On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the veterans who fought there are slowly fading away, but it is fitting that we remember and honor their sacrifices and courage.
— Patrick K. O’Donnell is the best-selling author of nine books, including, most recently, First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit. The stories in this article about the Battle of the Bulge are from his first book, Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat. He provided historical consultation for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers; he served as a combat historian with a Marine rifle platoon during the battle of Fallujah; and he is an expert on special operations, Iraq, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield. More information is available at PatrickKODonnell.com and FirstSealsBook.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @CombatHistorian.