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Rodney Cress column: The siege of Bastogne

The Siege of Bastogne lasted from Dec. 20 to 27, 1944, between the forces of the American and German armies as part of the Battle of the Bulge.

Generals Anthony McAuliffe and Troy Middleton both felt Bastogne was necessary because the seven roads leading into the city in southeast Belgium would also lead west where Allied troops could regroup. American units involved were the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry, parts of the 9th and 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, with support from the 35th and 158th Combat Engineers, the 58th and 420th Armored Field Artillery and the 755th and 969th Field Artillery. The Germans had all or part of seven divisions that included the 26th Volksgrenadier, 5th Parachute, Panzer Lehr and 2nd Panzer.

Shortly before Dec. 20, the Germans saw the Americans moving into position and started an artillery attack to stop the movement with backing from their armor battalions, three infantry divisions and one parachute division. The attack was brief but had heavy American losses caused by the German Panzer Lehr.

It quickly ended as the American forces strengthened. The Germans then started similar attacks on each compass point of the city. Smaller American units suffered losses without inflicting much enemy damage and caused the 501st to fall back to a new defensive line. A depleted platoon of engineers was ordered south of a chateau, but after they topped a hill they were never seen again.

Noville was a small village on low ground with lots of fog that the Germans used to their advantage. Heavy battles took place here, and once the fog lifted, the Americans spotted 15 Germans tanks 1,000 yards out. General McAuliffe then decided Noville wasn’t that important to fight for and ordered a move but not without the loss of 11 tanks, 13 officers and 199 enlisted men, but the U.S. forces also eliminated nearly 25 enemy tanks.

German tanks opened up on the Americans at a small village called Marvie. Close-quarters fighting resulted, and many Americans were killed in foxholes as the enemy advanced toward the village. After several hours of door-to-door fighting, 20 Germans were taken prisoners and 30 were killed. On Dec. 22, two German officers and two enlisted men walked toward Bastogne carrying a white flag. The officers were picked up and taken to American commanders where the Germans told the Americans they had two hours to leave Bastogne and save many lives. McAuliffe said, “Aw, nuts! We will kill every German that tries to break into the city.” The German officers were returned to the waiting two enlisted men and said, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.”

“On your way, bud,” said Col. Joseph Harper, “and good luck to you.”

On Dec. 23 the Americans were heavily shelled, with supporting attacks from tanks and infantry, and the village of Marvie was once again under attack. German P-47 aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs on American positions and opened up with .50-caliber guns on the village. American supplies were running low by this time, and orders were given for the Americans to pic their shots carefully and do not waste artillery or tank rounds. Snow began falling and the troops were soon suffering from cold-related injuries.

At one point, American troops were told “This is our last withdrawal. Live or die, this is it.”

On Christmas Eve, American troops were thinking of home as they lay freezing in their foxholes. Battles were light that day, but when Christmas arrived it would be a different story.

The German attacks were relentless, and the Americans were in fear of losing the battle as two battalions of German 77th Panzergrenadier and the 26th Volksgrenadier Divisions led the assault on the western side of Bastogne. Colonel Abrams ordered a team of tanks and infantry northeast to the village of Assenois and told them to keep moving until they reached Bastogne. This move weakened the German circle around Bastogne and was the beginning of the German defeat but at the cost of 1,000 American soldiers.

Casualties at Bastogne totaled more than 3,000 Americans and an unknown number of German soldiers and civilians. It was through the sheer courage of the American soldiers, fighting in the harshest of weather conditions, sleeping in rain-filled foxholes and with few supplies, that the Battle of Bastogne was won.

On a personal note, Colonel Creighton Abrams, Jr., who led the tank battalion, was my commanding general in Vietnam and went on to become a four-star general and U.S. Army Chief of Staff. The M1 Abrams tank was named in his honor. He served 38 years before his death in 1974.

This concludes my second series of Forgotten Battles of WWII. To be able to write about the fighting men of WWII is clearly an honor as it reminds me of the sacrifices made by the American soldier, past, present and future. Thank you, America, for producing such heroes in battle.

Rodney Cress is a Vietnam veteran and longtime advocate on veterans issues. This is the final installment of his series of articles on forgotten battles of World War II.

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