- Christmas 1944 – 66 years ago -- was a difficult time for U.S. troops holding Bastogne, Belgium.
It came in the midst of the famous Battle of the Bulge, the last-ditch major German offensive in which the German High Command threw thousands of tanks and troops into what was perceived to be the weak point in the Allied lines, deep in the Ardennes region of northeastern France.
It turned out to be one of our finest moments.
Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an attempt to hold the critical road intersection at Bastogne, Belgium, had rushed in the famous "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division to reinforce previously ploaced armored units.
The tanks and soldiers of the German Army, however, completely surrounded the U.S. forces in Bastogne and laid siege to the town. It was one of the coldest winters on record.
On Dec. 22, three days before Christmas, the Germans sent a party of four -- a major, a captain and two enlisted men -- up the road to Bastogne carrying a large white flag, bringing a demand from the Nazi commander for the Allied troops to surrender. They were met on the road by U.S. troops, were blindfolded, and taken to one of the U.S. command posts.
The acting U.S. commander, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, replied to the demand with just one word: “Nuts.”
Two days later, on Christmas Eve, McAuliffe issued this message to his men:
“Headquarters 101st Airborne Division
“Office of the Division Commander
“24 December 1944
“What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting, it’s cold, we aren’t home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us. Their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance:
‘December 22nd 1944
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 Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hombres 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.
(signed) ‘The German Commander’
“The German Commander received the following reply:
‘22 December 1944
’To the German Commander:
(signed) ‘The American Commander’
“Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: Well Done!
“We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas. A.C. McAuliffe”
* * *
“The United States Army in World War II,” the official history published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History on the U.S. Army Heritage Web site, reports what happened at Bastogne on Dec. 22 this way:
“Major Alvin Jones took the terms to General McAuliffe and Lieutenant Colonel Ned D. Moore, who was acting Chief of Staff. The paper called for the surrender of the Bastogne garrison and threatened its complete destruction otherwise.
“It appealed to the ‘Well known American humanity’ to save the people of Bastogne from further suffering. The Americans were to have two hours in which to consider. The two enemy officers would have to be released by 1400 but another hour would pass before the Germans would resume their attack.
“Colonel Harper, commanding the 327th, went with Jones to Division Headquarters. The two German officers were left with Captain Adams. Members of the staff were grouped around General McAuliffe when Harper and Jones arrived. McAuliffe asked someone what the paper contained and was told that it requested a surrender.
“He laughed and said, ‘Aw, nuts!’ It really seemed funny to him at the time. He figured he was giving the Germans ‘one hell of a beating’ and that all of his men knew it. The demand was all out of line with the existing situation.
“But McAuliffe realized that some kind of reply had to be made and he sat down to think it over. Pencil in hand, he sat there pondering for a few minutes and then he remarked, ‘Well, I don't know what to tell them.’ He asked the staff what they thought and Colonel Kinnard, his G-3 [third in command] replied, "That first remark of yours would be hard to beat."
“General McAuliffe didn't understand immediately what Kinnard was referring to. Kinnard reminded him, ‘You said 'Nuts!’ That drew applause all around. All members of the staff agreed with much enthusiasm and because of their approval McAuliffe decided to send that message back to the Germans.
“Then he called Colonel Harper in and asked him how he would reply to the message. Harper thought for a minute but before he could compose anything General McAuliffe gave him the paper on which he had written his one-word reply and asked, ‘Will you see that it's delivered?’ ‘I will deliver it myself,’ answered Harper. ‘It will be a lot of fun.’ McAuliffe told him not to go into the German lines.
“Colonel Harper returned to the command post of Company F. The two Germans were standing in the wood blindfolded and under guard. Harper said, ‘I have the American commander's reply.’
“The German captain asked, ‘Is it written or verbal?’
“‘It is written,’ said Harper. And then he said to the German major, ‘I will stick it in your hand.’
“The German captain translated the message. The major then asked, ‘Is the reply negative or affirmative? If it is the latter I will negotiate further.’
“All of this time the Germans were acting in an upstage and patronizing manner. Colonel Harper was beginning to lose his temper. He said, ‘The reply is decidedly not affirmative.’ Then he added, "If you continue this foolish attack your losses will be tremendous." The major nodded his head.
“Harper put the two officers in the jeep and took them back to the main road where the German privates were waiting with the white flag.
“He then removed the blindfold and said to them, speaking through the German captain, ‘If you don't understand what “Nuts” means, in plain English it is the same as “Go to hell.” And I will tell you something else -- if you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city.’
“The German major and captain saluted very stiffly. The captain said, ‘We will kill many Americans. This is war.’ It was then 1350.10
“‘On your way, Bud,’ said Colonel Harper, ‘and good luck to you.’
“The four Germans walked on down the road. Harper returned to the house, regretting that his tongue had slipped and that he had wished them good luck.”