An American soldier rubs his hands together trying to keep them warm. It is not even noon on this cold winter day. He snugs the scavenged civilian blanket around his shoulders, they were in too much haste to reach this town before the enemy to worry about proper clothing, to help fend off the cold and the snow. He picks up his rifle again and peers down the road his position overlooks, looking for any enemy movement. His body suddenly moves from worn down to tensely alert as he does see movement, he readies to call it in as his rifle is suddenly on his shoulder and aimed at the movement.
Someone else beats him to the punch and calls back that he sees movement from Remoifosse. Four men are walking towards them under a white flag on the road. Snow lies thick on the ground while the sky is overcast in gray as the men in field gray approach. Three Americans go out to meet them to find out why they are approaching under a large white flag.
The German major informs the American sergeant that his group is parliamentaries. Quickly they are taken to the platoon command post and word is sent up about the German guests. The two officers are soon blind folded and taken to the company command post.
Our American soldier has gone back to warily watching the road again, wondering what is going on. He also nervously checks to see how many eight round clips he has for his M-1. The day is December 22, 1944 and the men of the 101st Airborne Division have been in Bastogne for four days now with elements of other units. They are cut off and the Germans have been sporadically attacking them all this time. Each attack has been repulsed by the defenders with relatively light casualties suffered.
We now come to one of those moments in time where a single battle could tip things either way. Thermopylae was one such battle, Salamis was the closing act. Just two and a half years prior to Bastogne was another crucial battle when the US Navy soundly defeated a larger Japanese fleet at Midway. American forces have already been routed in the Ardennes at the beginning of this attack. While on the 17th, Kampfgruppe Peiper had captured American soldiers and then in the confusion, these 113 prisoners were shot at by their German captors and this became known as the Malmedy Massacre. Bastogne is another tipping point, one of Hitler’s major attack forces has become diverted from attacking and splitting the Allied forces to trying to subjugate one town, Bastogne, that is a hub for roads the Germans need. And commanding the forces stopping the Germans is General McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division.
Gen. McAuliffe and his subordinate commanders have so far successfully defended the Bastogne pocket from anything the Germans have thrown their way. But it has involved prolific use ammo. Now the artillery is down to twenty rounds per gun and there are orders to not use artillery until the whites of their eyes are seen. Small arms ammo is also short. Division medical has vanished, captured early in the battle by the Germans and what is left is not enough to tend to all the wounded. Food is also running short, since the first day the defenders have been scrounging through the town for any edibles. Besides still holding out, all the defenders on the line have is hope that 4th Armored will arrive in time.
Now the German demands for the Americans to surrender are relayed to Gen. McAuliffe’s headquarters. From SLA Marshall’s account of these eight days, even on the 22d when supplies were at such a low ebb, Gen. McAuliffe could not conceive surrendering to the Germans. Of the cuff and completely impromptu Gen. McAuliffe’s reaction to these demands were “Aw nuts!” and laughed. And he was not the only one to think he was winning, it seemed the rumor mill stated the Germans had come in to surrender to the Americans. But Gen. McAuliffe had to give an answer to the German demands. He asked his staff because he was stumped; his G-3 Col. Kinnard suggested he use what he had just said. Gen. McAuliffe asked what did he say? Col. Kinnard told him he had said “Nuts!” The staff loved it and so Gen. McAuliffe decided to use that as his reply.
Soon the messenger, Colonel Harper, was back at the company command post. The two German officers are still guarded and blindfolded. Col. Harper tells them he has an answer. Our American soldier has taken the truce time to do some shaving and eating before going back to his position. He now sees the four Germans leave under their giant white truce flag. Then he hears what Gen. McAuliffe’s reply to the surrender demands were and can’t help but laugh. He maybe cold and still a bit hungry, but he is confident they can hold Bastogne.
The fighting to take Bastonge would continue for four more days. But the situation would never be as dire as it was on the 22d with short rations and being short on ammo. On the 23rd the first air resupply would be carried out by C-47s, lifting troop morale while bolstering the anemic supply situation. The Germans kept trying to take the town and finally the thing the Germans had dreaded most happened, the skies truly cleared and 9th Air Force fighter-bombers started to be called in to break up attacks.
Finally in late afternoon of December 26th, elements of 4th Armored Division under LtCol Creighton Abrams broke the German encirclement and reached Bastogne. There would still be many more days of fighting ahead. But with access to Bastogne secured and the forces defending it reinforced by elements of the 4th Armored Division, the end of the German Ardennes offensive was in sight.
If Gen. McAuliffe had not had such confidence in his men and his situation, then it could have transpired the American forces in Bastogne might have surrendered and our American soldier and his comrades marched towards the Fatherland while the German forces pushed towards Antwerp. The British forces north would have been split off from the American forces while the only American armored division capable of foiling this thrust, the 4th, would have been bled white from its furious attack to relieve Bastogne. Imagine the consternation in Eisenhower's headquarters if the 101st had surrendered, it would be akin to one of Rome's legions losing its standard.
When callow people call for American disengagement in Iraq, remember that cold bleak day called December 22d, 1944 when Gen. McAuliffe colorfully told the Germans no to their surrender demands. The Iraqis are now voting on their first popularly elected government, this is a turning point in their history. Contrary to Rep. Murtha, over 70% of the Iraqis want Americans to stay and help them defend their country. The Western world has a moral obligation to stay there and help Iraqis realize all of their potential, to do otherwise is to betray the trust the United States has earned there in Iraq in the blood of brave Americans. The trust that the Americans, the Australians, the Poles, the British, and other allies are there to help them; the trust that these countries are not there in their country to hold sovereignty.