Old soldier recalls epic Battle of the Bulge
December 6, 2004
Vincent Vicari knows about the Battle of the Bulge – not from books, movies or a TV mini-series, but because he was there.
He remembers Dec. 16, 1944, when the field phone rang in the command post of the 101st Airborne Division’s artillery regiment near Reims, in eastern France, and a voice told him to wake his boss, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, and have him report immediately to HQ.
He recalls that as McAuliffe went out the door, he turned and said, “Lieutenant, stay by that phone. Don’t move.” And he remembers the call an hour or so later, instructing him to alert all units to “get ready to move out, immediately.”
Those units couldn’t know it then, but they would soon be spending Christmas fending off Hitler’s last desperate attempt to turn the Allied tide that had been advancing since D-Day, six months earlier. The six-week battle to come would be the largest of the war in western Europe.
Whatever was brewing, 1st Lt. Vicari and the rest of his unit didn’t welcome it. They were still recovering from three months of combat in Operation Market Garden, the failed British-led invasion of Germany via Holland.
“We were exhausted and we’d had no time to refurbish,” says Vicari. “We had no winter equipment. We were still in the same torn uniforms, short of food, ammo and everything else.”
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But orders were orders. By midnight, the troops had gathered their gear and boarded hastily organized convoys of trucks, jeeps and other vehicles for a bone-numbing dash to the front.
“Nobody knew where we were going,” recalls Vicari, now 84 and retired in Easton, Pa. “We had never heard of a place called Bastogne.”
Bastogne, a market town where several roads converged, was critical to blocking the German advance.
The troops also didn’t know Allied intelligence had been fooled into thinking a German code-name, “Wacht am Rhein” -Watch on the Rhine – referred to a defensive buildup, not a surprise counteroffensive into Belgium.
Aided by heavy overcast that grounded Allied aircraft, 200,000 German troops and 600 tanks were surging westward through the rugged Ardennes, driving a wedge into American lines that on battle maps would become famous as “the Bulge.”
“We gamble everything,” Gen. Gerd von Runstedt, Germany’s commander in the west, had told his forces in Daily Order No. 54 on Dec. 16, according to Alex Kershaw’s “The Longest Winter,” a new book on the battle.
Stretched thinly across the forested terrain were five U.S. Army divisions – outmanned, outgunned and mostly untested in battle.
By contrast, The 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles” had jumped into the dark behind enemy lines on D-Day and fought across France and Holland. They were seasoned veterans, but even their biggest weapons were no match for the Wehrmacht’s fearsome 70-ton Tiger tanks.
As the Americans rumbled through a bitterly cold pre-dawn, they met their defeated comrades stumbling to the rear. “We could see our people going in the opposite direction, walking back,” Vicari says. “Whenever the convoy slowed, we jumped off the trucks to get their ammo, hand grenades and guns.”
By getting to Bastogne first, the Americans were able to block German movements in southern Belgium. But after a week of fighting, the paratroopers and their supporting forces found themselves surrounded.
German artillery shelled the town. Snow and fog allowed only a few supply drops, and many parachutes drifted into German lines, delivering much-needed ammunition, food and medical supplies to the wrong side.
“Some of the townspeople gave us white sheets to cover our uniforms in the snow,” remembers Vicari. “It was so cold that GIs had to keep their rifles under their coats to keep them from freezing.”
Elsewhere, other American units fought stubbornly to stop the German advance and prevent capture of fuel supplies, a prime German objective. Thousands of GIs were taken prisoner, however, and at Malmedy, Belgium, more than 80 were machine-gunned by Waffen SS soldiers in one of World War II’s most notorious battlefield atrocities.
Meanwhile, English-speaking Germans in American uniforms had slipped through U.S. lines, hoping to create chaos. Some were caught and at least 18 executed as spies. “The night before their execution, their captors allowed some German nurses who were also prisoners to sing carols to them in their cells,” British author Max Hastings writes in a new book, “Armageddon.”
At Bastogne, the 101st’s paratroopers repulsed repeated attacks and were desperately low on ammunition. In the wintry darkness, American soldiers sang “Silent Night” and heard Germans singing “Stille Nacht,” the same carol.
On Dec. 22, four German couriers approached American lines under a flag of truce, carrying a message “from the German commander to the American commander.”
Asserting that Bastogne was “encircled,” the note gave McAuliffe, who was acting commander of the 101st in the absence of Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, two hours to surrender or face “total annihilation.” It offered “the privileges of the Geneva Convention” to the would-be POWs.
What came next would be one of World War II’s seminal moments.
As Vincent Vicari, McAuliffe’s personal aide, recalls it 60 years later, “General Mac read the note and said, ‘Aw, nuts.’ Then he asked, ‘What should I tell them?”‘
Lt. Col. Harry W.O. Kinnard, the division operations officer, said, “Why not tell them what you just said?”
“What did I just say?”
“You said, ‘nuts,”‘ Kinnard replied.
McAuliffe scribbled a reply: “To the German commander. Nuts! From the American commander.” He handed the message to Lt. Col. Joseph Harper, who had escorted the couriers.
To the Germans who didn’t understand the Yankee colloquialism, Harper explained: “It means the same thing as ‘go to hell.”‘
While WWII historian Barry Turner says McAuliffe’s one-word riposte “lost something in translation,” others have speculated that “nuts” might be a sanitized version of what the tough paratroop general actually said. Not so, Vicari says.
“General Mac was the only general I ever knew who did not use profane language,” he said in a telephone interview. “‘Nuts’ was part of his normal vocabulary.”
Next day, the weather cleared, enabling American P-47 Thunderbolts to attack enemy positions while cargo planes dropped supplies to Bastogne’s defenders, who by then knew that Lt. Gen. George Patton’s 4th Armored Division was fighting through German-held territory to relieve them.
Asked how quickly he could get to Bastogne, Patton had assured skeptical superiors he could turn his tanks north toward Bastogne in 48 hours. He didn’t tell them they were already on the way.
On the day after Christmas, Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, commanding the 37th Tank Battalion and under orders to attack German positions in a nearby village, realized that the road to Bastogne was open. His first four Shermans roared into the battered town about 4 p.m.
“How are you, general?” asked a tank officer, Capt. William Dwight. “Gee, I’m mighty glad to see you,” replied McAuliffe.
Vicari recalls Patton himself arriving soon after, with war correspondents in tow. He pinned a Distinguished Service Cross on “General Mac.”
Bitter fighting continued across the front, but the Bulge was shrinking and on Jan. 8, even Hitler conceded failure. Abandoning hundreds of their fuel-starved panzer tanks, the Germans began retreating toward the Rhine; by Jan. 28, the battle was over.
The Allied casualty toll included 8,600 Americans and 200 British killed, 21,000 captured or missing and 47,000 wounded. The Germans suffered nearly 68,000 total casualties, including 17,000 dead.
War historians offer a mixed verdict: the Battle of the Bulge delayed the Allied timetable for victory in Europe by at least six weeks, but by depleting the best of Hitler’s forces, made the final push to Berlin less costly in the long run.
Bastogne is today a tourist favorite that annually celebrates its famous survival. It has a Place McAuliffe, and a Rue Nuts.
Vicari returned to civilian life as an official of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
From his perspective, the Bulge was Bastogne:
“Hitler wanted it, and they used up a lot of fuel, a lot of ammo and a lot of men trying to take it. I don’t think there was anybody who had guts like our people.” Only he didn’t say “guts.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – Richard Pyle is an AP correspondent in New York who has covered several wars and often writes on military matters.