Recalling America's sacrifices in WWII


THE WEATHER was atrocious. The terrain inhospitable. The enemy tenacious. The toll horrific. The bravery undisputed.

Sixty years ago, American troops were involved in the biggest battle in the history of this country - the Battle of the Bulge. Over 1 million men armed with a fearsome array of weapons spent more than a month trying to kill each other in the midst of a terrible Northern European winter. They succeeded at an astonishing rate.

Viewed from six decades later, it looks like the last gasp of a dying monster. But at the time, Adolf Hitler's high-stakes gamble to drive to the Atlantic coast was a fearsome move that punctured the growing optimism in the United States.

"There was a feeling, especially among the public, that the war was going to be over by Christmas," says Clayton Laurie, adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, of America in the fall of 1944.

The Nazi attack on Dec. 16, 1944 - also known as the Ardennes Offensive - changed that.

"Nobody imagined this would happen," says World War II historian Joseph Balkowski. "It came out of nowhere, a hugely effective punch that caught us by surprise. It left us on the ropes, so to speak."

George Quester, a professor of government who specializes in security matters at the University of Maryland, College Park, was 8 years old at the time and remembers the fear.

"That first week was awfully bad," he says. "The Germans were coming exactly where they had come in 1940 when they first invaded France. What if they got all the way to the English Channel? What if there was another Dunkirk?"

The numbers so dwarf the ones involved in the war in Iraq that they make a mockery of claims that this country is now on a war footing. There are 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; there were more than 1 million in Europe at the end of 1944. Over 500,000 of them eventually became involved in the Battle of the Bulge.

The Iraq war has led to over 1,200 deaths among U.S. troops in 21 months. In the five weeks of the Battle of the Bulge, 19,000 Americans died.

"The casualties during the Battle of the Bulge were suffered at a rate that exceeded that of the Normandy invasion, or even the worst of World War I," Balkowski says. "It affected a lot of American homes."

That, too, contrasts with the current war in which the burden - and the tragedy - is borne by a thin sliver of the population. During World War II, the entire country paid the cost, through the draft, through the casualties, through the hardships of shortages and rationing and controls on wages and jobs, and also through taxes.

According to John Jeffries, a historian at the UMBC, the tax burden increased from 3 percent of personal income in 1941 to 12 percent in 1945.

"Close to half the war was financed by taxes," Jeffries says. "And the income tax was hugely extended, from some 4 million taxable returns in 1939 to almost 43 million by 1945."

An income above $200,000 per year was taxed at a rate of above 90 percent. "[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt would have liked even higher taxes on the wealthy and on high corporate profits, but Congress would not agree," Jeffries says.

Consumers, who these days are urged to spend to shore up the economy, were not allowed such indulgences.

"Factories were not making washing machines, they were making jeeps," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Some 16 million people served in the armed forces at one point or another during the war. "It seemed like virtually every family had someone in uniform," says David Hogan, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Everyone knew someone who was fighting. And many knew one of the nearly half-million soldiers who died during those four years.

There was no controversy among the troops over stop-loss orders to keep people from leaving the military or extending the length of rotations that soldiers served overseas.

"Their tour was 'for the duration,' until we achieve victory," says Segal.

Though now those months in late 1944 and early 1945 are seen as the waning days of the war, U.S. mobilization was at its highest after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. Troops were being inducted and trained and sent to Europe at the rate of 250,000 per month to man and supply the lengthening front.

"Normally when a country raises a military force, not every single unit gets into action," Balkowski says. "But in this case, virtually every single unit went into battle. They were being shipped out of training camps in the United States, sent to continental Europe and hitting the fronts in big numbers by October and November of 1944."

That fall, though the burden had never been heavier, optimism was in the air. Once they had broken out of Normandy and liberated Paris, the Allied troops seemed to be racing toward Berlin.

"There was a sense by late 1944 that the end of the war in Europe was clearly in sight," says Jeffries, author of the book Wartime America: The World War II Homefront. "The war itself, for example, hadn't really been an issue in the year's presidential election, and postwar issues were far more important."

There were other signs. According to Hogan, in the fall of 1944 Congress rejected a bill to put tighter controls on labor, a good harvest reduced the need for victory gardens, bright lights replaced the dimmed ones on Broadway, consumer spending surged and there was talk of converting more war plants to the manufacture of consumer goods.

In Europe, though, Hogan says, "[Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower was trying to dampen down euphoria all that fall. ... He insisted that the war was far from over and emphasized that German morale showed no signs of cracking."

That became clear on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944. The scene of the attack was the Ardennes, a heavily wooded, hilly area with poor roads and a thin rail system. Allied commanders thought it was the wrong place for either side to launch an attack so they left it thinly manned in a line that now stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Many of the units in this, the American portion of the line, were new to Europe, deployed to the Ardennes where no action was expected. Others were experienced units sent to this peaceful area to rest.

There is controversy to this day over whether U.S. intelligence should have realized that Hitler was massing a huge army opposite this weak spot. But the typically lousy Northern European winter weather kept Allied planes out of the skies. And a strictly enforced German radio silence - all communication on the offensive was via courier, not even telephone - meant that the Allies' vaunted codebreakers uncovered no clues.

"The 106th Infantry had arrived in Ardennes four days before the attack," says Laurie. "These troops were from the class of '44, just drafted. They had graduated high school right before Normandy was invaded. They were put in that area to get acclimatized in anticipation of a spring offensive into Germany. Their last unit arrived on the 14th of December. Two days later the Battle of the Bulge starts."

Some 200,000 of Germany's best troops - including heavily armored Panzer divisions - slammed into about 80,000 Americans in that first day. "In three regiments of the 106th, about 12,000 men, almost 8,000 were killed or captured in the first four days of this offensive," Laurie says. "Same with the 28th division. It was completely annihilated."

Despite the rawness of many of the divisions, their defeat was not due to a lack of fighting prowess. The remains of the 106th that retreated from the devastation of the front lines are credited with one of the most important actions of the battle, holding onto the town of St. Vith for five days. Though they ultimately surrendered, the delay they caused to the German plan helped doom it to failure.

The few roads and railroads in the Ardennes came together in towns such as St. Vith and Bastonge. Without control of those crossroads, the Germans were unable to move their Panzer tanks and other armor and artillery.

The fight for Bastogne became legendary. The 101st Airborne, which was nearby in reserve, was rushed there in the wake of the initial assault, arriving on Dec. 19. When the Germans surrounded the town and demanded that its defenders surrender, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st, famously replied, "Nuts."

Add to that the fact that press-friendly Gen. George Patton was credited with leading his 3rd Army to the rescue of the besieged troops - though he was actually only part of the effort - and Bastogne secured its place in popular history. The 101st bravely held that town for over a week with dwindling supplies. But the delaying action in St. Vith is considered at least as important to the demise of the German offensive.

Also given credit for turning the tide was a cold front that arrived on Dec. 23, clearing the skies for Allied planes, which mercilessly attacked the massed German troops and armor.

Within a few days, it was clear that the Germans would not fulfill their goal of reaching the Belgian port of Antwerp, splitting the American and British forces and causing the two countries - so Hitler thought - to independently abandon their hopes of conquering Germany. The Americans were regrouping and fighting back. And the Panzer tanks were running out of fuel, unable to use American supplies as planned because the retreating troops had time to destroy them.

But the fighting was far from over. In those first days, the Germans came within three miles of the Meuse River, pushing the Allied line back 50 miles over a 80-mile stretch of the front, causing the bulge that gave the battle its name.

American troops poured in from the north and south to begin the slog that would force the Germans back. It was a tough fight. "The second half of the Battle of the Bulge is a forgotten campaign," says Hogan. "People get to Christmas, the German main thrust spends itself, and the rest of the battle becomes a footnote.

"But the counter-offensive in January was extremely hard fighting in ghastly conditions," he says. "American soldiers would wade through waist-deep snowdrifts to drive the Germans out of a small town just so they could have a place to sleep that night."

Fueling the Americans was anger over news that on Dec. 17, Germans had shot 81 prisoners of war in the town of Malmedy. Those who escaped told the tale. The site was recaptured on Jan. 13 and the bodies were recovered.

Almost as debilitating as the Germans was the weather. Many Americans succumbed to frostbite and the crippling infection trench foot caused by spending days in cold, wet boots.

By Jan. 28, the Germans had been pushed back to their original positions, the bulge eliminated. Still, the fighting continued. "It was not until the last week in February that we were really able to resume unhindered the offensive we thought we had begun earlier," Balkowski says. At that point, the German army was missing the 100,000 casualties it suffered during the Battle of the Bulge, hastening the end of the war.

Balkowski says that once the Germans were stopped, the American commanders saw the battle as a chance to inflict that kind of damage.

"They stepped back and looked at the situation and viewed it as an opportunity," he says. "The Germans had put all their cards on one table and now we knew where they were going and what they were doing. So we counterattacked with everything we had to try to annihilate them."

This follows advice that Marshall gave Roosevelt which, Balkowski says, could be germane in today's war.

"When Roosevelt hemmed and hawed over how to win the war, [Gen. George] Marshall, a wise man, made an incredibly perceptive statement. He said always take the decisive and violent stroke and make it quick, because democracies do not fight seven-year wars," Balkowski says. "It was a cogent statement when you think about Iraq and how long people are willing to go along with what's going on."

Segal sees a more ominous parallel to today. He notes that Hitler ordered the attack though all his top generals opposed it and predicted that it would fail.

"Hitler was isolated from reality, and people around him didn't dare disagree with him even if they thought he was wrong because they would be killed," Segal says. "Now, we don't kill the people around [President] Bush and [Secretary of Defense Donald H.] Rumsfeld who disagree, but I think there is the same detachment from the reality of the situation.

"There really is a denial that things have gone much worse than they anticipated and continued attempts to find good news on the flimsiest straw," he says.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad