|Letter to Unidentified Recipient [Dec. 29, 1944]
Late in the afternoon of the day before --- December 28th --- we had received the happy news that Bastogne, in military parlance, "had been relieved". Behind that drab message was one of the great stories of the war; behind that statement was the possibility that the heroism of a few thousand American youngsters had perhaps turned the whole tide of the great German offensive or even ushered in the turning point of the war. The U.S 101st Airborne Division, hurried up from a rest position after participating in the abortive British offensive in Holland, had been committed to meet the enemy within a few hours of its arrival in Bastogne and very shortly the overwhelming flood of the German offensive had swirled about them and Bastogne was completely cut off. For day[s] and days the enemy attacked from all sides; the enemy got into the Division Hospital and took all the doctors which caused needless suffering and loss of life through lack of adequate medical care. On and on the fight went until finally the German commander sent a long and almost impassioned demand for surrender coupled with dire threats to which the American commander sent the now famous reply of the single work "Nuts". One has to study the road net of the Ardennes to understand the importance of Bastogne. Suffice it to say that it is the key to communications in the whole area; without it the enemy would hardly dare to push further west. It had to be held until new forces could be brought up. The 101st did it with the help of some other units also encircled and excellent dropping of supplies by the Air Forces.
We started out this morning in bitter cold. An open jeep is the coldest thing ever invented at any time of the year but it was only nine above this morning with a heavy fog that built a layer of ice over everything. That is the kind of weather our boys are staying out in night and day for weeks at a time. This is not an easy war. We are wearing everything we can get on. I have heavy underwear, GI pants and a flannel shirt, a sleeveless sweater. Over all of this is a complete combat suit that is wool lined, an overcoat, a wool cap under my tin hat and fur lined gloves that Elizabeth gave me a year or more ago. Add to this a pistol belt draped with extra ammo., canteen and first aid kit, plus a gas mask (for we don't trust the Hun any more) and one feels completely immobile. And at that we were frozen in a few minutes. An open jeep is cold!
But we start out --- my General, an interpreter (for we must talk with some freshly caught prisoners), the driver and I. Behind us is a second jeep with two burly soldiers holding mean looking tommy-guns. Lone jeeps full of officers are not too safe around this country that has been well infiltrated with parachutists, many of them in American uniforms and a little protection is very comforting. It will discourage snipers at least.
For obvious reasons I cannot describe my route but after a couple of hours we start up the neck of the salient towards Bastogne. The further we go the grimmer the scene becomes. A new light snow makes everything appear clean from a distance and the freezing fog has encased every twig in glistening ice. But a closer look destroys the beauty. There has been hard and violent fighting. Every building has gaping holes or, at least, its windows are gone. Shattered trees are everywhere. The gaunt, twisted remains of jeeps, German cars, trucks, half-tracks and tanks are scattered about. Dead cattle are strewn across the fields, --- hundreds of them. Yes, there is little beauty; there are plenty of the horrid sights of war.
We now begin to thread our way carefully and follow our maps with excessive care stopping frequently to inquire. There is only one secondary road winding up through the middle of the salient that is free of the enemy. It is rough country and no one is quite certain where the enemy is. There is no "front" in the sense of the trenches of World War I; the front here is just a group of machine guns or tanks behind a building that dominates a particular stretch of field or road. It is not well to get lost and wander for at the best the Germans are not over a mile or two away on either side of the route. An artillery gun nearby occasionally comes to life and lobs a few shells at some unknown objective; once [in] a while there is a sharp report of a bursting shell coming our way. None land very close, however, and we speculate on why the Germans are not shelling this route which they must know is the only way into Bastogne. No one has a good explanation but we are all glad that the Hun is not doing it. Once a machine gun chatters unpleasantly close by and we look again at the map to be sure that we are heading correctly as instructed.
We are getting close to Bastogne and I am startled to see a dozen or more American infantry men deployed prone on a little ridge. But there is a little snow on them and one has lost his hat. The war is over for them. A machine gun probably caught them all as they came to the top of the ridge. The sight of German dead no longer worries me for it is quite common, but the less frequent sight of American dead is always shocking. These were fun-loving American boys a few hours ago.
And now we come into Bastogne itself. As a city it is a dreadful place. A week of fighting has raged around it; German artillery has pounded it day and night and the German air force has bombed it every night. Not a house is undamaged. Civilians are boarding up windows against the cold and all seem to have a shocked, dazed expression on their faces. They seem to ask why should this happen to our Bastogne? Simply because their little town happens to have seven good roads leading in and out of it! For that it had to die.
But one senses something else in this war torn town and soon he realizes that it is the troops in it. They have been through a living Hell but they are proud of themselves, their heads are high and there is a smile close to the surface of their tired faces. They have taken the best the enemy could offer and they have won. They are, or course, an exceptional outfit. No one is drafted into an air borne division; they are all volunteers. The man who volunteers for air borne work knows very well what he is doing. He cannot hope for much except for a chance to contribute more than his normal share in the hottest part of the fight wherever that may be. Without exception they are clear-eyed, hard, physically perfect lads. They are hard to beat.
I talked with many of them. Their stories were all the same, told in a quite diffident way. Yes, it had been a little tough but really not so bad. Only thing was it was tough to have our wounded die because the bastards had stolen our doctors. But we killed a lot of the bastards; didn't take many prisoners. The damned bombing was bad. A man can fight and protect himself from an enemy he can see but you feel awfully helpless at night when you just have to wait for the bombs to fall. But the boys who flew the supplies into us through the flack were the real guys. Christ, they were swell. But dammit, the brass would not let us attack; they made us stay on the defensive. We could have broken out ourselves if they had let us attack. Then a lot of guys wouldn't have been killed coming into us. (Yes, son, but how many of you tired boys would have died on the way out?)
I left for the long bitter cold ride back to my warm and comfortable bed marveling again at American youth. All the Nazi fanaticism in the world can't produce better fighters. The little battle of encircled Bastogne is not over as I write this. Both sides have poured forces into the area and the struggle there has grown to titanic size. The fate of the whole German offensive in the Ardennes hangs on it. But the Germans will always hate the name of the 101st; it held at the crucial time, it upset the entire German campaign, it shortened the war by months and months or perhaps even averted a shocking defeat by sticking, fighting and saying "Nuts".