In the early morning hours of December 16, 1944, under snow heavy skies and zero temperatures, 30 German Divisions attacked Allied armies in the Ardennes Forrest area of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The Allies, caught by surprise, the weather having limited the ability of arial surveillance, and overconfidence, fell back under the onslaught, creating a "bulge" in the Western Front.
The German plan was the smash the Allied armies, re-seize the port of Antwerp, which would have delayed the end of the war by years. Banking on the war weary British and Americans having little appetite for another three or four years of war, Hitler thought he could sue for peace, and then turn his attention and new war machines, like the jet fighter plane, against the Russians on the eastern front.
A lot hung in the balance as allied troops fell back across a wide swarth of land. But in a few places, the allies refused to yield. In Belgium, the battle hardened 28 infantry division held the crossings at the River Our and despite being spread perilously thin, held on. This allowed the 101st Airborne Division, which Eisenhower immediately summoned, to be trucked into Bastogne, before it was surrounded. As the 101st marched in, wearing summer pants and shoes- their winter clothes were being sent in other convoys, they met green allied troops fleeing in a panic, many of them screaming that the Germans had them surrounded. More than one grizzled paratrooper chuckled that meant the 101st had the Germans just where they wanted them.
What followed in the following days was some of the most miserable, bloody, freezing, fighting of WWII. The 101st dug into the freezing ground on the outskirts of Bastogne. They were shelled unmercifully. Fighting subzero temperatures at night, German Panzers by day, the 101st held Bastogne. These men, who grew up in the depression; who volunteered for the airborne and survived the toughest training the army could devise; who jumped at night into Normandy and made their division famous, and who jumped into a disaster in Holland during operation Market Garden and again distinguished themselves- these men- simple American boys- cold- far from home- did what made them the greatest generation. They fought for each other. It was unthinkable to run. They all had trench foot- which entitled them to be relieved and removed to a warm tent at the rear- but that meant leaving a buddy behind, so they stayed, and endured the terror of the shelling, and the freezing nights, and fought and held on and won.
You can find many battles where Americans distinguished themselves. But you would be hard pressed to find another battle, in such horrific conditions, against all odds and superior forces, where a group of men showed just what American Exceptionalism- whatever that may really be- is.
We really can't do justice to the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge. Read Stephen Ambrose's excellent Band Of Brothers for the best account of the 101st at Bastogne.
But when you are warm and safe in your bed tonight, remember that almost seventy years ago- the best of the best our nation ever produced, hung on, fought bravely against all odds, and made being and American something to be damned proud of.
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