Care must be taken in telling our proud tale not to claim for the British Army an undue share what is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.” – Sir Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons on January 18, 1945
Commemorating a triumph of courage that took place 74 years ago, 55 Battle of the Bulge veterans, friends, and family members gathered in Washington, D.C. this week to see old friends, swap stories, and remember their fallen comrades. Special guests included soldiers from the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, who honored their forbearers with a wreath laying ceremony, as well as foreign dignitaries. Demonstrating their immense gratitude, the Ambassador of Luxembourg and Ambassador of Belgium celebrated the group by sharing personal stories of the valiant American soldiers who helped their families and liberated their countries. As is true with many of the members of the Greatest Generation, these men and women shrugged off the appreciation with the simple following statement: “I was just doing my job.”
Looking back on their youth, these veterans never could have predicted their role in one of the most significant battles fought by the U.S. Army during World War II. In the wake of the D-Day Normandy invasion, GIs believed the war would be over by Christmas. Adolf Hitler, however, had other plans. Rolling the dice one last time, the Germans launched a last ditch counteroffensive intended to exploit the weakly-defended Ardennes forest of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, surprising and ultimately cutting through the Allied forces.
The harrowing winter weather aided the German advance. For ground troops, freezing rain and subzero temperatures caused frostbite; for pilots, dense fog held off any hope of Allied air support. It was the worst winter in decades and as James Langford stated in an oral history recording, the first thing any Bulge Veteran will tell you about was:
…the cold. It was unbelievable. The weather was the coldest it had been in 50 years in that area.
In addition to the cold, the Germans had the element of surprise. On December 16, 1944, they strategically attacked a portion of the American lines guarded by recently arrived troops of the 106th Infantry Division. Thrust into battle, many U.S. units stationed in St. Vith, Belgium were overrun or forced to surrender.
One of the “Golden Lions,” twenty-one-year-old father and Wisconsin native Henry “Red” Wittenberg, was captured and imprisoned at prisoner of war (POW) camp Stalag IVB near Leipzig, Germany. After 40 years of bearing his story, he shared his extraordinary experiences in an oral history recording conducted by his son, James. His collection also includes a thoughtful letter he wrote as a POW to his wife, whom he addressed as “Darling Shirley,” and daughter Judy requesting a few necessities.
Wittenberg’s letters and photos were on display during a recent event for Battle of the Bulge veterans, friends, and family members alike to view firsthand the story of the American soldiers who were often isolated and unaware of what was to come.
Accompanying the Veterans History Project displays were materials from the Library’s Geography and Maps division as well as the Prints and Photographs division. Battle of the Bulge veteran Joe Landry recalled his role as a personnel and equipment transport specialist during the battle. While reviewing maps with Ed Redmond and Kathy Hart from the Library’s Geography and Maps division, he pointed out the routes he ventured through, discussed the aftermath of the Malmedy Massacre, and described bullets roaring through his windshield during a close call.
Moving to the Library’s Prints and Photographs division display, Landry’s story continued as he shared with Jonathan Eaker about a chance occurrence during the battle that allowed him to see his brother – an opportunity that hadn’t been afforded to him for more than two years.
As St. Vith fell, the Germans advanced on the crossroads town of Bastogne–the final obstacle in their way. By December 22nd, the German army had surrounded Bastogne. Lightly defended by the 101st Airborne Division, as well as elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, the Germans sent a delegation demanding the Americans surrender. General Anthony McAuliffe’s of the 101st Airborne issued a simple, but effective, four-letter response: “Nuts!”
The morale boost from General McAuliffe, paired with the clearing of the skies, turned the tide of battle. Bastogne held until December 26th, when General Patton’s 3rd Army relieved the embattled Screaming Eagles. The U.S. counteroffensive regained a significant amount of lost land and pushed through January, when the front was restored and the stage was set for their push into Germany. By January 25th, Allied forces had prevailed and Germany suffered a strategic defeat. The cost, however, was great. The United States suffered more than 75,000 casualties, the greatest American losses of any battle on the Western Front. By March, the war was being fought on German soil and on May 8, 1945, Germany capitulated and the war in Europe was over.
For those Bulge veterans who’ve gone before and for those still with us, we thank you and honor your tremendous service.
The Veterans History Project extends warm wishes for the holiday season and the coming year—particularly to servicemen and women who are serving away from their friends, family, and usual holiday traditions -just as these soldiers did in 1944.
Want to learn more about Military service during the holidays?
On December 20th at 2 p.m., the Veterans History Project Information Center (room LJ-G51) will host a pop-up exhibition featuring holiday-themed items from VHP’s collections, ranging from 100-year-old greeting cards to contemporary photographs. Come learn more about the collections featured here and many more from the author herself. RSVP and get more details on Facebook.