- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

On Christmas Eve 1944, a German U-boat torpedoed a transport ship carrying more than 2,000 American GIs from the 66th Infantry Division. Having arrived in England only a few weeks before, the 66th was in a rush to get to France, then on to Belgium. The ship sunk in just two hours, taking with her 763 men from the 66th.

One week prior to the sinking, on Dec. 16, Hitler had launched Germany’s final offensive against the Allied line, known today as the Battle of the Bulge. The thrust of Hitler’s surprise assault penetrated a thinly defended 50-mile stretch of the Ardennes forest in Belgium. The battle, which lasted from Dec. 16 to Jan. 28, 1945, was the largest land battle the United States fought in World War II, involving some 500,000 Americans, 55,000 British and 600,000 Germans. While reinforcements like the 66th rushed in from England, it was up to the remaining GIs to hold what was left of the Western front before a counterattack could commence. Victory in Europe depended on them.

The German hammer fell hardest on those American divisions that had been cut off from the main line. Divisions like the 101st Airborne holding the critical city of Bastogne and the 7th Armored at the crossroads of St. Vith, both low on supplies and ammunition, endured days of unending artillery barrages and multiple frontal assaults, not to mention some of the coldest days on record. Sixty years ago today, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st was given two hours to surrender by the German commander. His one word response: “Nuts.” Over the next three days, the 101st successfully held off the German siege, experiencing some of the worst fighting of the war on Christmas Day itself. It was finally relieved on Dec. 26 by elements of the 4th Armored Division, part of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.

In an interview with reporter Amy Doolittle, author Alex Kershaw, whose new book, “The Longest Winter,” documents the events surrounding December 1944, said this about the battle: “It shows you [that] if you strip away everything that supported the American GI and put these guys in positions where they were 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.” He added: “I think that spirit is shown in troops in Fallujah today. If you strip away politics in Fallujah, just like 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.”

With that in mind, we send a Merry Christmas to our soldiers holding the line.

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