People tend to forget what Memorial Day truly stands for in America. Most Americans are just glad to not have to go to work that day so they can go the movies and see the latest Jerry Bruckheimer/Will Smith blockbuster, or visit the beach and get a tan. But Memorial Day should always be respected and honored with a remembrance of the true American heroes who died defending democracy and the freedom that America has always stood for. This is a story about the longest and most brutal battle in World War II history that takes you into the blood, sweat and tears on the battlefield of “The Battle of the Bulge”.
By December 16th of 1944, World War II had reached a breaking point for the Allies of America and Europe. The Germans were trying to strengthen their morale after losing a series of battles to the Allies in Eastern Europe, and Hitler was using every available soldier, tank, rocket launcher and weapon he could locate, and sending it all to a region by the German/Belgium border called the Ardennes Forest. This German military action was called the Ardennes Offensive. It would be the start of Hitler’s final military
push to fend the Allies off of Germany’s border line so he could protect the last remnants of the decimated German Air Force and his own military bunkers from the inevitable Allied attacks that would come in 1945 to end Hitler’s insane reign of terror.
The Ardennes Forest was a 3 mile area heavily populated by 20-foot tall trees covered with snow, towering over the heads of the American soldiers in the 106th, 422nd and 423rd Infantry divisions on that historic day of the first attack. The Americans were over 300,000 strong on that first day before more reinforcements were called in, and they had no idea that more than half a million Germans were coming their way, equipped with 1000 German aircraft, 900 tanks and 500,000 bazookas, machine guns and German flame throwers. While the American soldiers were digging trenches out of the frozen Belgium tundra during the early morning hours of December 19th, the German generals were giving the final orders to attack any infantry division the Germans could find while they blasted their way out of the Ardennes Forest area.
“It had all been so peaceful as it can only be in the hills where the fir woods quietly whisper, here and there dropping some of their mantle of snow,” remembered a German artillery officer during those first few minutes of the German attack. “A few stars shone out of a black sky; a low cloud layer hovered in the west. And then . . . the mortars sang their eerie song and sent their cones of fire into the heavens.” The US Infantry divisions were under an attack of mortar fire and tank fire that rained down on them like Hell’s gate had just flung open it’s door. It was a devastating attack that lasted more than two hours, shredding the tall trees overhead and taking the lives of hundreds of men who were not able to dig their fox holes deep enough and were taken out by shrapnel and the non-stop pummeling of the German artillery fire.”We thought it would never end,” recalled one of the many brave men of the 106th infantry of that first military strike. “There wasn’t much of a lull. It totally annihilated the trees in the area.”
The Germans were attacking on foot now, opaque figures in snowsuits streaming through the frozen woods to take the isolated outposts and line companies of the US Infantry division by surprise. The mortar shelling was also still going on, which turned the area into a living nightmare for the US soldiers under constant attack. A German officer, watching all of this from the back of the German front line recalls, “The earth seemed to break open. A hurricane of iron and fire went down into the enemy positions with a deafening noise. We old soldiers had seen many a heavy barrage, but never before anything like this.” The German forces were hoping on causing so much death and carnage to the Americans, that the US soldiers would throw their hands up and surrender, rather than facing hell on earth. That would not be the case.
By 7:00 AM the barrage of mortar fire lasting for over 2 hours was finally over. The Germans had retreated to about 2 miles behind the American front line, and the infantry soldiers started to crawl out of their foxholes, dazed from the constant shelling and horrified at the hundreds of dead American soldiers strewn throughout the snow, many of them having lost their arms and legs in the German onslaught. At the closest American Army Headquarters, a quarter mile down the road, the officers were sending reinforcements to the badly battered infantry divisions still holding their ground at the forest area of Ardennes.
On December 17th the reinforcements had all arrived, making the battle against the German military a bit easier on the American G.I.’s, but still the German fighting machine killed thousands more of the brave US soldiers through more mortar attacks, tank attacks and hand-to-hand combat. During the fateful day of December 17th, an order was given to the German officers in charge of holding dozens of American prisoners of war to murder every American prisoner they had captured during the Battle of the Bulge. This would commonly be known as The Malmedy Massacre. More than 50 prisoners would be murdered in cold blood after that horrible order was given. Other murders of American POW’s would also occur on that day at various locations near the battlefield, but the Germans would not escape justice for these horrific war crimes. The Dachau Military Tribunal of 1946, which was a trial set up to prosecute all German military personnel involved in the killings, would send 58 German officers to their deaths by execution, and more than 300 other Germans were sentenced to harsh German prisons for life.
Back on the battlefield, the German attacks were taking it’s toll on the American troops, but the success of the German army only lasted until December 18th, when the lack of fuel needed to run the Panzer tanks and other German armored military divisions caused the Germans to resort to other tactics to get the Allies to surrender. In the days leading up to December 22nd, the Allies had gotten their strength back again, and started to fight the Germans using machine guns, rifles, mortar fire, and anything else the American officers at Army Headquarters had to send to the battlefield. By the 22nd, the weather started to clear, which allowed the Allies to bring their air power into force and on the following day, the Americans started a major counter-attack against the Germans.
On the morning of Christmas Eve the Americans got a rude awakening from the first air attack by the Germans. Sixteen ME-262’s attacked the rail yards that sent supplies to the Allied forces, trying to destroy the ability of the US to supply the soldiers with food and weapons. The success by air attack was fruitless, because the German ground attack could not continue without the necessary fuel for their armored vehicles to blow up the entire rail yard. The Americans repaired the damage caused by the air attacks, and soldiered on attacking any Germans they could find in the area on foot and by air with the help of the Air Force and the PF-51 Mustang fighter planes. The US tank attacks, led by the deadly MA1 Stuart class of the armored division, took out many German strongholds still left in the forest area, helping to eradicate the constant mortar shelling raining down on the US soldiers hunkered down in their foxholes.
Throughout the remainder of December and up until mid-January of 1944, the battles that ensued between the Allies and Germany were ferocious and bloody. The Panzer division and the rest of the German military had killed 19,000 Americans, the most casualties sustained by the Allies in any WWII battle in the history of the war. 23,554 Americans were captured, and more than 30,000 American soldiers were badly wounded during that time frame.
Ironically, one of the biggest blows to the German army came at their own hands. The fuel supply that was needed to continue more attacks by the German’s armored tanks and their aircraft was drastically low. On January 14th, the German Panzer division, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Joachim Peiper, started abandoning their tanks and leaving the Ardennes Forest on foot. By the time American general George S. Patton arrived, the German army was just a pale imitation of what they were at the beginning of the failed Hitler military campaign. The US troops had killed, wounded or captured 100,000 German soldiers, and the rest of Hitler’s army retreated back to Germany to heal their wounds and their pride.
The Battle of the Bulge should be remembered on Memorial Day as one of the finest hours of American history. Never before and never since has an American Army fought against such a difficult enemy that had every available advantage on their side like the Germans did during the month of December 1944. Just out of sheer will and guts were the US infantry divisions of the 106th, 422nd and 423rd able to hold their ground and beat back the German killing machine. Yes, we sustained the worst casualties of World War II during this battle, but because of these great American heroes that fought to their death, we were able to take down Hitler’s bunker in 1945 and eradicate the worst dictator this world has ever seen. General
Douglas Macarthur said it best, when asked what he thought would happen after the US military prevailed in overcoming the odds against Hitler and the German army, “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world, and that God will preserve it always.”
May all of the fallen soldiers and officers of the Battle of the Bulge rest in peace.
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