Ken Beaton: 70th anniversary of first day of Battle of Bulge
Can you name any of the U.S. Army divisions that valiantly fought in the Battle of the Bulge 70 years ago? Did you mention the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne Division? You earned partial credit for your answer. If you answered 22 Infantry, 11 armored and 3 airborne divisions, you win!
The “Battling Bastards of Bastogne” were the 101st Airborne Division with the 10th Combat Brigade (3,000 men with 60 of the newest Sherman tanks, and 36 tank destroyers) with a few GIs stragglers. They defended the seven crossroads in Bastogne, Belgium.
What most people do not know is on Dec. 16, 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to send his two best divisions to stop the advancing German armies. The 82nd Airborne Division was assigned the northern sector of the bulge, the Vielsalm-St. Vith region with the 101st assigned to Bastogne, south of the 82nd. This was a strategic move similar to a championship chess tournament.
In less than 40 hours, the entire 82nd division traveled 150 miles by truck from Reims in France to its combat assignment arriving late on Dec. 17 to dig in and stop the Germans.
Every GI who supported our fighting troops, cooks, supply clerks, headquarters personnel, truck drivers including African-American GIs, was given a weapon and rushed to the front. The GIs of the 82nd fought bravely with rifles, grenades and bayonets.
Our GIs were outnumbered by Germany’s General Von Runstedt’s best troops and the new Tiger II tank with up to eight inches of armor. Our bazooka teams had to hit the Tiger on the side near the front track wheels to disable it. As soon as the top hatch opened, a GI would pull the pin on a phosphorus grenade and toss it inside the tank setting off their 88 shells destroying the Tiger.
How do you dig a foxhole in frozen ground during the coldest European winter in over 20 years with blizzard conditions? Answer — a couple of hand grenades were effective. A foxhole was barracks and mess hall for our GIs. Since nobody wanted to be shot in the butt, it was their pit toilet. There were two GIs in a fox hole. GIs changed their socks four times a day to prevent trench foot, took turns sleeping at night and kept each other warm. Our “troopers” were continuously in blizzard conditions and waist-deep snow for days. A favorite expression of our troopers was, “They have us surrounded, poor bastards.”
African American GIs fought bravely and impressed the “Brass,” the American generals. Their efforts were rewarded on July 26, 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in our military.
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle during the war from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 31, 1945, and 610,000 American GIs fought. We had 89,000 causalities which included 19,000 telegrams sent to parents/spouses, “The Secretary of the War regrets the loss of your son/husband.” Thousands of families and tens of thousands of friends grieved. Nineteen thousand new gold stars replaced the blue stars that were proudly displayed in a front window in the US. A gold star was the symbol for the loss of a son, daughter or spouse in the war.
Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, is the 70th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. Visit with a World War II veteran, firmly shake their hand and tell them in a firm voice while maintaining eye contact, “I want to thank you for your service. I speak English today because of you and 16 million GIs who served. Thank you, sir /madame.”
Most of the men buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery were killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge.
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.