During a visit to Normandy two years ago, I learned of the great loss of French civilian lives during those early invasion hours -- far in excess of the American casualties. The experience made me realize that what I know of history is often just a scratch in the surface. With that in mind, I recently embarked on the next leg of my World War II journey, this time to a small town nestled amid the dense woods of southern Belgium.
Belgium is a captivating country of some ten million people that may be best known for its fantastic beer, frites, waffles and chocolate. There is also an abundance of military history here, from Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo to the horrors of World War I at Ypres and Flanders Fields.
Further south from these hallowed sites is the picturesque Ardennes region. It was from precisely here that Hitler launched his successful invasion of France in 1940, and, four years later, where German forces smashed into the American lines, this time with far less favorable results. That ill-fated campaign became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Almost every high school student in America is familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg and the three days of unrelenting fighting in the hills of Pennsylvania that turned the tide of the Civil War. Just a few short miles from my house in Arlington, Virginia sits the imposing Iwo Jima Memorial, where busloads of tourists line up to commemorate the fallen Marines who sacrificed and gave their lives on tiny atolls across the Pacific.
Yet if asked about the bloodiest fighting in American history, few would likely point to a tiny Belgian hamlet called Bastogne, just across the border from Luxembourg. It was here among the rolling pastures and rich forests of the Ardennes region that more than 600,000 American soldiers spent a horrific month fighting the last great battle against Germany in World War II.
Professional historians and World War II aficionados know the story of Bastogne. I am a bit of the latter, not the former, and I hope I can do this story justice in limited space.
By December of 1944, more than six months had passed since the Normandy landings. The Germans were reeling, having been pushed back across most of France, Belgium, Italy, and Russia. As the December snow began to fall, the Allies believed the Germans to be thoroughly whipped. They took steps to rest their battle-weary units for the final push to Berlin, shifting many of their veteran divisions to the rear for rest and re-equipping, and leaving a handful of newly-arrived units to guard an enormous swath of Belgian landscape.
But the Germans were not finished. For months, Hitler had been secretly massing his forces for one last offensive against the Allies. On December 16, he threw nearly thirty Panzer (tank) and infantry divisions against an 80-mile wide front in Belgium. Opposing these thirty divisions were just three U.S. infantry divisions, two of which had never experienced combat before.
The Americans were caught completely by surprise, and the Germans quickly overran most of their positions in their dash across Belgium. Their advance, however, became slowed by pockets of dogged American defenders as well as combat engineers who began demolishing bridges over the Meuse and other rivers.
The key to the German battle plan was speed. The armored units needed to reach their objectives before the Allies could send mass reinforcements to the area. The town of Bastogne, sitting at the crossroads of seven major highways, became the early prize in the fight. Hold Bastogne, and the Americans could bring the German advance in the south to a standstill.
It wasn't that easy. The only fighting unit within any proximity to Bastogne was the 101st Airborne Division. Since D-Day, the elite "Screaming Eagles" had fought their way through France and Holland, twice parachuting behind enemy lines.
It performed with distinction, but at great cost physically and emotionally. Down to some 8,000 effective fighting men, the exhausted division was resting in Mourmelon, France, some 100 miles from the mayhem in the Ardennes when the call came. In the middle of the night, the paratroopers were hastily loaded into trucks with only the clothes on their backs, and the weapons, ammunition and rations they carried.
The 101st arrived in Bastogne on December 19. The division lacked winter gear, and the nighttime temperatures were dipping into the teens. They marched out of town, formed a perimeter and dug in to the frozen earth. In short order, they were surrounded by two Panzer and two infantry divisions.
Thankfully, the 101st was not alone.
They were joined in Bastogne by other units, including elements of the 10th Armored Division. Badly outgunned and outnumbered by the heavy German tanks amassed around Bastogne, small units from the 10th Armored took to the roads leading out of town to meet the German armor head on. The handful of American tanks were badly mauled in the subsequent fighting, but their ability to slow and sometimes bottle up the German Panzers gave the lightly-armed paratroopers precious hours to fortify their defenses in and around Bastogne.
The conditions were unimaginable. In addition to the freezing temperatures and falling snow, the paratroopers had little food and never enough ammunition. Medical supplies such as morphine, plasma and even bandages were scarce. They slept on the frozen ground, shivering under thin blankets, constantly awakened by nighttime artillery barrages that jarred their bones, the tree bursts sending deadly splinters and tree limbs into the men on the ground.
Over seven bitterly cold days, the scrappy and defiant Americans stood their ground. When presented with a German demand for surrender, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st, famously sent a one word note in response -- "Nuts!".
On December 26, lead elements of General Patton's Third Army finally broke through the German lines, lifting the siege of Bastogne. Fresh American reinforcements poured into the area, yet the fighting would continue for another month as the Germans were slowly pushed back across their original positions behind the Siegfried Line.
Less than four months after the fighting ended in the Ardennes, Hitler took his own life and the war in Europe would soon come to an end.
The enormity of human loss around Bastogne and the larger Battle of the Bulge was staggering. Some 80,000 Americans and 100,000 Germans were killed and wounded. There are today nearly 80,000 American soldiers and Marines serving in Afghanistan. Imagine if every one of those men and women were killed or wounded in the next few weeks.
From Bunker Hill to Kandahar, America proudly owns more than two centuries of military history replete with stories of courage and resiliency by those in uniform. Yet there is something that continues to draw me to these World War II guys, to learn their stories, visit the battlefields where they fought, and the cemeteries where so many now lay.
Maybe it is because they are a reminder of a different era, when an entire nation came together in the most perilous of times, and so many Americans stepped forward to contribute to, and sacrifice for, a noble and righteous common cause.
Maybe it is because we are losing so many of these World War II veterans, some 1,000 each and every day and my opportunities to walk among them, write a few words, and convey my gratitude are slipping away.
Or maybe I just have endless respect and admiration for the simple humility with which these men viewed their service and personal sacrifice. They were patriots, to be sure, fighting fascism and oppression. But mostly, they were just very young men, and places like Bastogne were a simple matter of perseverance and survival against great odds. Survival against the Germans, and survival against the elements. And in Bastogne, they refused to budge.
Now that is a story.