Bastogne, Belgium – Nearly a million people converged on the city of Bastogne to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge victory, fought and won during World War II, with a parade, December 14th, 2019. The Bastogne parade was the physical embodiment of joy as visitors and locals commemorated the defeat of Nazi forces in the small town.
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) sent more than 90 Soldiers to Belgium to march in the parade and participate in other ceremonies, as well as learn about the unit’s history.
The Battle of the Bulge took place six months after D-day.
Nazi-leader, Adolf Hitler, overplayed his hand by trying to invade Russia, while still raging war against Allied Forces. The Ardennes Offensive’s (German name for Battle of Bulge) main objective was to push Allied Forces farther west.
Ardennes is a mountainous region between France and Belgium where Hitler hid 25 army divisions. He hoped the element of surprise would be in his favor as he unleashed his vast armies on the region.
Allied Forces won the battle, but not without cost. Approximately 75-thousand American Soldiers died and 80 to 100-thousand German soldiers died.
Col. Rob Born, 1st Brigade Combat Team commander, stood in the Bois Jacques foxholes in the Ardennes forest, where tens of thousands of young men fought until victory was had. The 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment Soldiers, Currahees, occupied their fighting positions in frigid wintery conditions against impossible odds. Born recounts his feelings on visiting the site.
“The warrior spirit of the Currahee Soldiers is palpable,” he said “You can feel it in these woods.”
During this time in the war, Hitler was making his last stand. The 5th Panzer Army was the 101st main adversary during the fight, compiled of three divisions of German Soldiers. The Currahee Soldiers, maintaining their fighting positions in this forest, led to the liberation of the city of Foy. Now, it is a popular tourist location made famous by the HBO docuseries Band of Brothers.
It was clear this was not a simple tourist attraction for the visiting 101st Soldiers.
During the Battle of the Bulge, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, received a message from a German commander asking him to surrender. In his letter, he stated the 101st was surrounded by enemy artillery units and other American forces cannot reach McAuliffe’s men. The German commander gave him two hours to respond.
Gen. McAuliffe gave a one word answer, “Nuts.”
Seventy-five years later, Col. Bryan Babich, now commands Gen. McAuliffe’s 101st Division Artillery and reflects upon the impactful leadership of his predecessor.
“McAuliffe will always be the true DIVARTY commander,” said Babich “Everyone else who gets the privilege to serve in the position is striving to be second best.”
Senior leadership attended a staff ride and Babich had an opportunity to contemplate what type of fight McAuliffe found himself in during the Ardennes Offensive.
“The Warfighter exercise (WFX 20-1) we did in October presents a lot of challenges I feel like McAuliffe may have encountered,” said Babich “He had to work with other units who didn’t train with him, so he would have had standardization issues. We really train as we fight. It was a powerful connection.”
He continued to say how much the people of Bastogne still honor McAuliffe, today..
“McAuliffe is everywhere in Bastogne,” said Babich. “There are pictures and statues everywhere. I was surprised to see a Le Nuts café, in honor of his response to the Germans asking for his surrender.”
Of course, the 101st still honors McAuliffe by naming the division headquarters after him. The Soldiers who traveled across the world to be a part of the ceremony felt a different type of connection to the veterans who fought in World War II.
Sgt. Timothy Sharp, also with 1st BCT’s Honor Guard, shared similar sentiments.
“Being here with the veterans that fought in this terrain 75 years ago, that alone is humbling in itself,” he said. “To see the look on their face when they see a fox hole they dug 75 years ago. Now they are in peaceful Europe and it’s like that because of what they did.”
For most, history is something in a book, or someone in photo or painting. It is rare to meet people who were a part of making history of this magnitude.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” said Babich. “This maybe the last time we have living veterans from World War II for the commemoration of The Battle of the Bulge.”.