Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 16, 2019
I am often intrigued how some stories endure, while others enjoy a period of prominence and then disappear. This was underscored by a message I received from friend Jay after we two and several others shared time together in Europe this past June. When family or friends gather, someone will often prompt another with, “Tell the one about .....” Jay’s message was in that vein.
I am amazed at how few people over here [in the States] know anything about the “nuts” story at Bastogne. Might be an educational story for your column.
Jay was referring to a headline-making story that has now pretty much faded away.
A starting point for the tale might be the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. The United States had experienced one piece of bad news after another in regard to the war until the previous year when things began to turn in the Allies' favor. Germany had proven to be a resilient foe. So Allied commander and future president Dwight Eisenhower had prepared two statements before the landing - one to be read if all went well, and another to be published if the effort failed.
It succeeded well beyond expectations. Instead of a Christmas battle to retake Paris as had been thought, the Allies had crossed all of France and were regrouping at the border of Germany as Christmas neared.
But the sprint across France had left the troops tired and supply lines stretched thin. Then winter arrived. With troops spread from the Mediterranean Sea in the south to the Netherlands in the north, there were not enough rested men to cover the entire front. The area west of Luxembourg was only lightly defended, having been designated an area of rest and relaxation. The heavily-forested rolling lands to the east would be a nightmare to move a substantial force through and it was assumed Germany would not be so foolish as to try.
But Germany was desperate. With the bad winter weather hiding its efforts, a huge force was accumulated on the eastern edge of the Ardennes forest. German leader Adolph Hitler knew he had insufficient resources to defeat the Allies. But if he could break through to the port of Antwerp and divide the American forces from the British ones, festering political divisions in the Allied ranks might explode and the Allies would sue for peace.
The plan was doomed from the start. The German chancellor did not know that whatever divisions existed between the Allies were small and they had also agreed to not stop at anything short of total victory.
The Allies were caught completely by surprise on Dec. 16 when German forces began advancing from the woods. Within a few days, they had secured a huge westward bulge in the Allied lines. But while German forces were in control of almost all areas east of the front, the Belgian town of Bastogne was a small pocket of Allied resistance. The village of 4,000 inhabitants had also become the home to the 101st Airborne. Its commander Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor was away from the unit and so command had passed on to Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe.
Bad weather meant there would be no help from the Air Force for the “Battling Bastards of Bastogne,” as they came to be called. Gen. Heinrich von Lüttwitz, the German commander, sent a message to McAuliffe on Dec. 22 that read, in part:
The U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. ... There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender ... a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note. If ... rejected, one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops.
From a military perspective, the loss of Bastogne was somewhat important. Good roads were in short supply as was fuel for the German
advance. The junction of several roads at Bastogne was important. Its control by the Americans meant alternate heavy fuel-consuming
routes over rugged ground would have to be found for German vehicles to keep the advance on schedule.
McAuliffe was unusual in that his soldiers said he never swore. His answer to the German ultimatum was just one word: “Nuts!”
Two days later, Christmas Eve, he issued a note to the men in his command which began with a large “Merry Christmas.” He then continued, “What’s merry about all this you ask? We’re fighting - it’s cold - we aren’t home. All true ...”
He included the full content of the messages exchanged between the commanders and then concluded with:
By holding Bastogne, we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say,
We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in the gallant feat of arms are truly making ourselves a Merry Christmas.
The Germans hadn’t been sure what to make of the one-word response from McAuliffe, and so Col. Joseph Harper, who had
delivered the note, was asked what it meant. His response was, “In plain English? Go to hell!”
The Americans were able to hold until the day after Christmas when a break in the weather allowed C-47 cargo planes to drop much-needed supplies and Gen. George Patton’s Third Army arrived from the south after liberating Metz. The Allied forces began systematically pushing German forces eastward. Americans at home saw what happened at Bastogne as both a turning point and as a sign that ultimate victory was not far off.
McAuliffe later became a four-star general and commander of all forces in post-war Europe. After retiring, he had a successful career at American Cyanamid Corporation.
But while the story and his part in it is now largely forgotten, the meaning endures. As Jay said, “The message? No matter how dire the situation, never, never give up.”
Top-left: Our June 2019 European travelers in front of the Le Nut's restaurant in Bastogne just after eating there. Jay is third from the left. The restaurant has World War II and 101st Airborne memorabilia. Thirsty visitors can drink special Belgian beer out of an “Airborne helmet” mug; bottom-left: Wikipedia photo of McAuliffe as a brigadier general; bottom-middle: a photo from a 2012 issue of "Stars and Stripes" newspaper of the McAuliffe statue in front of the Le Nut's restaurant; right: copy of the update message McAuliffe sent to those defending Bastogne. The N U T S ! is in the center near the bottom.