- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

On Dec. 16, 1944, 18 men of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry, 99th Infantry Division, held off the main thrust of Adolf Hitler’s last major offensive, known to history as the Battle of the Bulge.

Despite the odds against them, the GIs of this platoon held their position until they were out of ammunition and only then surrendered at gunpoint.

Their story is the subject of the new book “The Longest Winter” by Alex Kershaw, a native of England who now lives in Vermont. The following are excerpts of an interview with Mr. Kershaw:

Question: What did the Battle of the Bulge show us about the character of American soldiers?

Answer: It shows you if you strip away everything that supported the American GI and put these guys in positions where they are outnumbered, take them completely by surprise up to 7,000 miles away from home in bitterly cold weather — the coldest Europe had experienced — and then say “hold your positions at all costs,” they are still defiant.

Had it not been for that spirit of defiance and resistance, the Battle of the Bulge could’ve been the great American defeat rather than the great American victory. It was the spirit of defiance … with the GI with his back to the wall, holding his position at all costs, that resonates in the popular memory.

Q: Did the average German soldier’s opinion of the American soldier change with this battle?

A: In Europe, the GI gained an enormous amount of respect, certainly, from the average German soldier. What’s interesting is that it was much more than a physical victory [over the Germans]. It was a psychological victory. The German soldier knew after that battle that the Americans weren’t just bubble gum-chewing brats that they had been shown in the propaganda videos. They were truly a cross section of American society that didn’t give in, and said “no way; we are going to do our duty and carry out orders.”

Q: How is this American spirit shown in today’s soldiers?

A: It’s that spirit of defiance [in the Battle of the Bulge] that people look back on and feel good about … and I think that spirit is shown in troops in Fallujah today. If you strip away politics in Fallujah, just like in the Battle of the Bulge, you as a soldier are fighting for your buddies. The appreciation of ordinary Americans for these guys and their courage is just as strong today as it was during World War II.

Q: What can the Battle of the Bulge teach Europeans today?

A: In a broader political and historical sense, there are a lot of young Europeans right now that need to read about the Battle of the Bulge and remember that this was an American victory where a lot of Americans died to liberate them.

In World War II, by the time we get to the Battle of the Bulge, it’s the American GI that’s doing most of the dying and most of the fighting. That needs to be remembered in Europe when they start knocking America. That knocking is well-founded from certain political perspectives, but when you start to denigrate American history, that’s something else.

You hear the argument all over the place [in Europe] that America didn’t liberate Europe, but it was the Soviets, rather, that did most of the fighting. But if you go to Belgium on the 16th of December, you will find people that remember what America did and they don’t think the Soviets liberated Europe. I’m a European and I think it’s very sad that people are revising history to fit their political agendas. I find it very annoying.

Q: Much of [“The Longest Winter”] is written in dialogue format instead of a straight description of the battle and of the people involved. Why did you choose this style?

A: Image if I came to you and said, “I’ve got this incredibly decorated platoon that were involved in this key moment when the battle was decided and eight of them are still alive.” For me, as a journalist, that was a wonderful opportunity to sit down with these guys and reconstruct what it was like to be a GI during the Battle of the Bulge. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

These guys … spent a long time in the 1960s and 1970s creating a very, very detailed record of what had happened to them in combat. They remembered it and the way they related it to me was in dialogue. It was, “and then I said this and he said that.” They told me the story like that and I thought, “this is really compelling. I’m going to stick this in [the book].”

Q: What impressed you about the Battle of the Bulge veterans you interviewed for this book?

A: What I was struck by was their dignity and their modesty — their quiet patriotism. They didn’t fly the flag with me; their patriotism was just completely obvious. They didn’t have to talk patriotism because they walked it. It was their utter pride in America that they fought for.

There was a sense with them of carrying out an order, doing their duty and then not coming home and bragging or moaning or crying about it, just getting on with life. They had great honor but it was not something they had to put on their sleeve or wear as a medal.

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