On December 16, 1944, the men of Lieutenant Lyle Bouck’s platoon had their all-night vigil interrupted by a pre-dawn fusillade of artillery rounds from a hundred German guns, their muzzle flashes punctuating the darkness like a volley of fireballs hurled from the pit of hell. Instead of telling his intelligence and reconnaissance platoon to withdraw against the German onslaught and return to their company, he ordered them to stay and fight. And fight they did. After allowing some 300 German troops to pass close by their foxholes on the road to Lanzerath, Bouck saw his ambush plans foiled by a last-second warning to the German commanders behind them, and the firefight commenced.
The men under Bouck’s command had a pair of .30 caliber machine guns, a .50 caliber mounted on a jeep, a bevy of Browning Automatic Rifles, as well as standard issue M1 Garands. Stephen Ambrose, who recounts this episode in his excellent “Citizen Soldiers,” reports that 400 to 500 enemy troops were slain by Bouck’s skeleton platoon of eighteen GIs. Finally overrun with half his men wounded or dead, Bouck surrendered his unit and was marched east to a first-aid station behind German lines. After a fruitless attempt to interrogate one of Bouck’s surviving soldiers, a German officer whispered to his charge, in English, “You and your comrades are brave men.”
Very brave, indeed. And typical, as well: “There were any number of … men who, although new to combat and inadequately trained, stood to their guns, to the dismay of the Germans,” Stephen Ambrose points out. But such countless episodes of raw courage under fire have been often overshadowed by one of the most dramatic and memorable incidents of Hitler’s last military expedition in Bastogne. This city in Belgium was surrounded by formidable German armored units, which included the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger, better known as the Tiger tank, a 50-ton (or 70-ton Tiger II) behemoth that mounted one of the most feared weapons of the war, the 88-millimeter gun. Arm-chair analysts are fond of pointing out that machine’s shortcomings—too heavy, too slow, too mechanically complex and hard to maintain—but to American soldiers shivering in foxholes and facing this monstrous mountain of metal clanking in their direction, its only weakness seemed to be a shortage of gas.
This is what the Germans desperately needed, of course, because their last-ditch offensive on the western front could not succeed without being replenished by fresh stores of captured Allied fuel. Which they had to get to in the process of taking Bastogne. Which meant Bastogne had to surrender to aid the offensive, because the town occupied an important network of roads that armored units needed on their dash to Antwerp. Except the commander of American forces refused to surrender, replying instead to a German offer with one word, “Nuts!” This response drew a smile on the face of George S. Patton, at least according to a film account of the battle. “A man that eloquent has to be saved,” Patton is reported to have quipped.
And saved he was, when elements of Patton’s Third Army penetrated German defenses the day after Christmas, with more units arriving the following day, thus relieving Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe’s battered troops who fought to the end of the campaign, pushing the Germans back to their original front lines of December 16. The Battle of the Bulge consumed about six weeks and perhaps a quarter of a million casualties on both sides, including civilian deaths. After its conclusion near the end of January 1945 lay the final assaults on the Third Reich itself, further weakened, of course, but still powerful enough to drag the war on for another four months. VE Day, Victory in Europe, a date we all used to commemorate with somber reflection, took place on May 8, 1945.
At the height of the war in the fall of 1943, Bing Crosby recorded a song that since has become a Christmas standard, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The GI magazine “Yank” said that Crosby “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.” A few verses of this classic tune reveal why:
“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have some snow and mistletoe and presents by the tree. Christmas Eve will find me. Where the love light gleams. Oh, I’ll be home for Christmas. If only in my dreams.”
The battlers of the Bulge didn’t make it home for Christmas that year, and many never made it back at all. Because of their sacrifices during those harrowing days of December 1944 through January of the following year, the rest of us were indeed free to be home for Christmas, with the liberty to pursue a happy New Year.