On 16 December, 1944, after two prior delays, Adolf Hitler launched his last supreme gamble, Operation Autumn Mist, throwing 200,000 Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS soldiers and 600 tanks into the American front line at the Ardennes, catching the Allies completely by surprise. The 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was surrounded at Bastogne. This led to the legendary exchange between McAuliffe and the local German commander, General of Panzers, Heinrich von Luttwitz:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
To which McAuliffe responded:
To the German Commander.
The American Commander
Thus carving a place into history for himself and the now storied 101st Division.
When I was at Arlington National Cemetery this fall, I watched a bus of honor flight veterans from WWII disembark at the Tomb. Many of the veterans were frail, even fragile and took the tour in wheelchairs; but others were surprisingly spry and were pushing their comrades along, cheerfully greeting children and shaking hands with other visitors and veterans of other wars much younger than themselves. Most were clad in caps or colorful jackets emblazoned with details of their service and a few wore their medals. For many of these veterans, the trip was undoubtedly a final pilgrimage.
It is common to refer to the men who fought in WWII as “the Greatest Generation”. It is an almost universal expression, but because we forget the sheer enormity of the stakes involved, the sacrifices in blood like a river and the privation and hardship faced by ordinary GI’s, we seldom pause to recall how true that phrase really is.
The 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge is an appropriate time to remember.