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. Hubert road…"

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.

Site design & initiative: Hans Houterman
Page text by: Mr. Mitchell Kaidy (Cpl. D Company, 345th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division)
Page created by: Jeroen Koppes
Last update: 28.01.2003-CSS