87th Infantry Division
Record Battle Opened 56 Years Ago
Dec. 16, 1944
By Mitchell Kaidy
first published: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
on December 15th, 2000
Fifty six years ago today, at a time when the European continent
was gripped by record cold and snow, the largest, longest and bloodiest battle
in American history broke out.
It started stealthily. American guards at forward outposts reported that jeeploads
of soldiers in American uniforms with American weapons were attempting to gain
clearance through our lines in the Ardennes Forest. Those jeeploads of soldiers
spoke English, but they didn't know the password.
On the frontlines, anyone who didn't know the daily password was liable to be
shot. Those jeeploads, it turned out, were Germans dressed in the uniforms of
captured Americans or uniforms stripped from battlefield casualties. Initially
allowed to pass through the outposts, those Germans were pursued and ultimately
shot as spies.
That should have been a tipoff, but it only created a limited alert. Nor did it
become immediately clear that thousands of German paratroopers were being dropped
into the woods behind our lines; while four German armies, including hundreds
of panzers, had started bearing down on the Belgian supply port of Antwerp, aiming
to capture the port as well as divide the Allies, hoping that one of them might
sue for peace.
In his book, "Eisenhower's Lieutenants," the military historian Russell Weigley
outlined the gravity of the American plight on the opening day of the Battle of
the Bulge, Dec. 16th, 1944: "When the battle opened, some 200,000 Germans took
the counteroffensive against 83,000 Americans. The German concentration in the
zone of attack had given them a three-to-one advantage in infantrymen along the
Ardennes Forest front, and a six-to-one advantage where the spearheads struck.
"In armor, the German concentration had afforded the Wehrmacht quantity as well
as quality, amounting to a two-to-one advantage in medium tanks, and, if their
assault guns were counted as tanks, a four-to-one margin."
In alternating sub-freezing/sub-zero cold and waist-deep snow, during overcast
days when the Air Force couldn't fly, the battle raged from foxhole to foxhole
and sprawled over two countries-Belgium and Luxembourg. Both sides were faced
with defeating two enemies: the opponents' weapons, plus the grueling weather
which caused pneumonia, chilblains, frozen feet, and other ailments.
The early attack proving startlingly successful, the German spearheads struck
almost to France, inflicting so much damage that some Allied generals considered
retreating along the entire front. (Not Gen. George S. Patton, our commanding
officer. He longed to encircle and trap the spearheads from the rear.)
But the enemy's rapid progress ultimately became its Achilles heel. The Germans
far overstretched themselves. Their heavy tanks and supply trucks could hardly
keep from sliding off the icy, narrow roads in the Ardennes Forest. And once truck
traffic thinned the road ice, vehicle and personnel mines began exploding, exacting
a heavy toll. But above all, the Germans miscalculated the fighting qualities
of the American soldier.
Because the City of Bastogne was both a road and rail hub, it was a critical supply
center; and was besieged and surrounded by the Germans. That's when the Nazis
presented a written demand in English threatening the Americans with "annihilation"
unless they surrendered in the city. That note evoked a famous reply from the
American commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony MacAuliffe. His return note read: "To the
German Commander: Nuts. The American commander."
When the Germans appeared stumped by the word "Nuts", a 101st
Airborne Division colonel proferred a definition: " It
means you can go to hell, and if you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn
German that tries to break into this city."
My outfit, the 87th Infantry Division,
comprising many 18-19 year olds and recent college students, had seen limited
action in France and Germany when it was summoned to counterattack with other
units to help lift the siege of Bastogne.
Attacking while the enemy was also in full attack, we clashed in a bloody and
classic battle known as "a meeting engagement". But arduous as our counterattack
was, it eventually succeeded. The historian Weigley noted in his history: "Thereupon
the Germans evacuated St. Hubert and commenced a general withdrawal from the Bastogne-St.
Curiously, the U.S. Army for 56 years has claimed that it took American forces
six weeks to win the Battle of the Bulge; but those who fought it know better.
It took over seven weeks to drive the enemy back to their starting point in Germany,
at a cost of at least 81,000 Americans killed, wounded or captured, most of them
in their teens, and many of them recently plucked out of Army colleges and the
Air Cadet program.
Immediately after the massive battle inspired by Adolph Hitler turned in the Allies'
favor, historians began assigning responsibility among the Allied generals for
the surprise operation that lasted so long and exacted such a heavy toll. In his
history Russell Weigley concluded that the Allied generals were to blame for thinning
the defense line and failing to foresee one of the most nearly-successful major
counteroffensives in history.
"The victory in the Ardennes Forest" Weigley concluded in his 1981 history, "belonged
preeminently to the American soldier."
Despite the larger-than-life hoopla created by the recent book "The Greatest Generation,"
the young men who fought that classic battle, whether city or country boys, should
be remembered not merely as heroes, but they should be remembered for understanding
a noble goal-the defeat of tyranny-- and their willingness to give their lives
to achieve that goal.