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.