A lifetime ago, American fighting men experienced one of the most humiliating defeats an army can endure.
A lifetime ago, American fighting men gained one of the greatest victories in the history of arms.
What is the proper view of the Battle of the Bulge – military disaster, or glorious triumph? Both are correct in some fashion, but each by itself is incomplete. By the time the great battle drew to a close, the heroic defense of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne Division had already become the stuff of legend. Second only to that was the astounding winter counteroffensive by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. The exploits of men and women who were just doing their duty dealt a crushing blow to Germany’s warmaking ability.
Yet the heights of these great deeds cannot be appreciated apart from the depths of defeat suffered by the United States Army in the early days of the battle. When the German attack began on December 16, 1944, the troops thinly spread across Belgium and Luxembourg had little warning, and little chance of standing firm against Hitler’s last great offensive in the West.
I first learned of the Battle of the Bulge as a child, when it was still a vivid memory to veterans who fought through it. Yet it was not until I had been a soldier for many years that I finally read Charles MacDonald’s A Time for Trumpets, a comprehensive account of the Bulge. That was where I learned how serious the situation had been.
Nothing conveyed that lesson more vividly than the story of the 106th Infantry Division. Newly assigned to the sector, the men had hardly become familiar with the terrain of the Schnee Eifel in Belgium when they were pressed to defend it. The task proved beyond them; after two days the 106th was encircled and quite literally cut to pieces. Most of those who had survived the initial onslaught surrendered on December 19, including the bulk of the 442nd and 443rd Infantry Regiments. From that point on, the 106th ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.
Such clinical descriptions say nothing of the horrendous human cost. One statistic helps put it in perspective. The 442nd Infantry Regiment began the battle on December 16 with nearly 1,000 men. Less than a week later, only 79 of them had eluded death or capture.
Since learning the battlefield story of the 106th Division, I have given the unit little thought. They were, after all, the losers; the unfortunate sacrifices to the gods of war. It is not that they were poor soldiers or cowards, but that they just happened to be in the way when forces beyond their ability fell upon them. As I studied the battle, the soldier in me took note of the loss, but quickly went on to assess the mission still at hand, the resources left to accomplish it, and the best way to apply those resources to achieve success. The men of the 106th Division became for me just another footnote in history.
Was Sam Houston a Cherokee? It is a fair question. The man who won independence for the Republic of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto had spent many years with the Cherokee nation. His first contact with the tribe occurred in his youth, when his family moved from their home in Virginia to Tennessee. He learned their ways and their language, was adopted by a chief of the tribe, and in time represented the Cherokee people to the United States government. Houston even took a Cherokee wife: Tiana Rodgers, daughter of a Scottish trader who had married into a prominent Cherokee family. Houston’s marriage with Tiana was never recognized in white society, but they were legally married under Cherokee law. Even after he had returned to white society, Houston never remarried until after Tiana’s death.
But the fact is that Sam Houston did return to white society. In 1832 he moved to the Mexican territory of Texas, and within four years had secured independence for Texas, forever linking his name with that great state. Today, over 150 years since his death, Houston is remembered as a military hero and statesman, serving the Republic of Texas as its general and elected president, and the State of Texas as its senator and governor. Houston is also the only man ever to have served as governor of both Tennessee and Texas. These are the things that might come to mind when one thinks of Sam Houston, but what does not come to mind is his identity as a Cherokee.
Houston’s identity in history is the result of his own choice. Had he remained with his adopted people, he would have been remembered as one of many non-Indian white and black people who became members of various Native American tribes. Yet he chose otherwise, and therefore his Cherokee identity is merely a footnote of history.
It was the other way with our ancient Israelite ancestors. Once they chose to become united with the tribes of Jacob’s sons, their previous identities became footnotes, lost forever in the sands of time.
In recent days I had the great honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote address to my nephew Daniel on the occasion of his attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. Those familiar with the Boy Scouts of America and with Scouting around the world understand that earning the highest rank in that organization is no small accomplishment. In pursuing this goal to the end, Daniel, like his older brother Austin and his father, proved at an early age that he is worthy of honor and of great responsibility. That is a large part of the message I gave to Daniel and to those gathered for the occasion. I publish it here in hope that this message may be an encouragement and exhortation to others.
For Daniel Victor McCarn at His Eagle Court of Honor
February 27, 2015
Daniel, this day of recognition has been long in coming. All of us rejoice with you that it has come at last. We recognize you for your considerable accomplishments in attaining the rank of Eagle. Those accomplishments are worthy of celebration and remembrance, but I will let others speak of them. What I want to address with you is something greater than what you do. I would like to consider who you are.
By way of introducing this subject I invite you to consider three men who have become legendary in the annals of Texas history. Today the names of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis exist in a space far removed from the reality these men occupied in their lifetimes. We know them as the great heroes of the Alamo, men who stood bravely against overwhelming odds in the noble cause of freedom. It is fitting to remember them at this time, the anniversary of the Siege of the Alamo which began on February 23, 1836, and ended thirteen days later on March 6 in the great battle that claimed the lives of these heroes.
Like barnacles on a ship, legends have encrusted the names of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. After 179 years it is hard to distinguish myth from truth. Those who remember them at all remember them either as heroes or as villains, depending on the point of view. There is enough of both in each man to justify each perception. But who were they in reality? When we strip away the layers of time and legend, what do we find? We find flawed men like all of us whose ordinary lives played out in the crucible of extraordinary times.