Battle of the Bulge to be remembered
75 years after turning point in WWII, locals will honor sacrifice of tough men
BASTOGNE, Belgium – Pvt. Arthur Jacobson was seeking cover in the snow behind a tank moving slowly through the wooded hills of Belgium’s Ardennes, German bullets whizzing by. That was when he lost his best friend and bazooka team partner to sniper fire.
“They couldn’t hit him, he shouted,” Jacobson said wistfully. “Those were his last words.”
The recollection of his worst day in the Battle of the Bulge still haunts him, three quarters of a century later during the first return of the 95-year-old to the battlefield.
The pristine rows of thousands of white grave markers over the remains of U.S. soldiers in cemeteries on the former front line hark back to the days when Americans made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause across the ocean.
What Jacobson didn’t know then was that he was part of the battle to contain Nazi Germany’s desperate last offensive that Adolf Hitler hoped would become his version of the Allies’ D-Day: A momentous thrust that would change the course of World War II by forcing U.S. and British troops to sue for peace, thus freeing Germany to focus on rapidly advancing Soviet armies in the east.
The battle “is arguably the greatest battle in American military history,” according to the U.S. army historical center. Such perspective came only later to Jacobson, who was barely 20 at the time. “They really didn’t tell us anything,” he said. “The Germans had attacked through Belgium, and we were there to do something about it.”
Out of the blue at dawn on Dec. 16, 1944, over 200,000 German troops counter-attacked across the front line in Belgium and Luxembourg, smashing into U.S. soldiers in what was thought to be a quiet zone.
This battle gained fame not so much for the commanders’ tactics as for the resilience of small units hampered by poor communications that denied Adolf Hitler the quick break- through he desperately needed. Even though the Americans were often pushed back, they denied use of a vital road junc- tion to the German advance, slowing the advance in its crucial initial stages. The tipping point was to come later.
All weekend, a handful of returning veterans like Jacobson will be feted by an ever-grateful local population for their bravery. Royalty, dignitaries and some government leaders will gather in Bastogne, Belgium and Hamm, Luxembourg, on Monday to remember the battle itself. “It will be a great day,” said Belgian Vice Premier Koen Geens. Remembering both the German forces, driven on by Hitler’s hated SS troops, and the allied soldiers, he said: “We are capable of the worst and of the best.”
The Americans suffered at least 80,000 casualties including more than 10,000 dead, while up to 12,000 were listed killed among some 100,000 German casualties.
Among the fallen was Albert W. Duffer, Jacobson’s bazooka team partner, shot in the neck by a German sniper on Jan. 6, 1945. Last Tuesday, Jacobson went to greet Duffer for the first time in 75 years – at the Henri Chapelle U.S. cemetery in the northern part of the battle zone, where 7,987 U.S. soldiers are buried. At dusk, Jacobson watched the U.S. flag being lowered and was presented with it in recognition of his valor.
After D-Day and the draining Normandy drive, allied troops sweeping across the continent believed the worst was behind them.
Paris had been liberated, Gen. George Patton was at the edge of Germany, and Hitler had to keep an increasingly bleary eye on Stalin’s Soviet armies advancing on the Eastern Front. “The thought was that Germany was on its knees and could no longer raise a big army,” said Mathieu Billa, director of the Bastogne War Museum.
In the first days of the battle, the reports would be only bad for U.S. troops retreating amid word that SS troops were executing prisoners – as at Malmedy, where 80 surrendered soldiers were murdered in a frozen field.
Soon though, the German effort stalled short of Antwerp, its troops running out of ammunition, low on morale and, crucially, lacking fuel. Then the weather turned against the Germans, the skies clearing to allow the all-powerful allied air forces a clear view of the battleground.
The southern Ardennes town of Bastogne, was the site of a vital road junction, held by U.S. troops cut off for days with little ammunition or food. When Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne received a Dec. 22 ultimatum to sur- render or face total destruction, he offered one of the most famous – and brief – replies in military history: “Nuts.”
Four days later, Patton’s troops broke the encirclement, al- lowing a counter-attack that threatened the German forces. The battle was declared ended on Jan. 28 as Allied forces moved into Germany.
U.S. 82nd Airborne Division troops advance in Belgium on Jan. 28, 1945, at the close of the Battle of the Bulge.
ARMY SIGNAL CORP VIA AP FILE
Copyright (c)2019 Detroit Free Press, Edition 12/14/2019
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