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A Soldier's Christmas, 1944 -- 1998 Edition
Europe. December 24, 1944. I think of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs throughout the ETO, many waiting for midnight to come and bring with it a hoped-for gift of respite, many more fighting and dying in the Ardennes where the Germans had counterattacked eight days earlier. (On December 16, 1944, the Germans had launched their largest offensive of the war on the Western Front. The primary goals of the offensive were to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp and to drive a wedge between the British and American armies. This offensive is often referred to as the "Battle of the Bulge." Its failure was due largely to American resistance around St. Vith, on the northern shoulder of the Bulge, and by American forces holding Bastogne on the southern shoulder of the Bulge.)
I think that many veterans, when they remember Christmas '44, must think of Bastogne. The town is strategically located at the center of the road network of the Ardennes. The Germans referred to it as a "road octopus" since the majority of roads in that region of the Ardennes pass through the town. The town's strategic location made it vitally important to the outcome of the offensive. The Allies realized its importance and General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to hold the town at all costs. And many veterans surely remember the story of its being surrounded by the advancing Germans. Harry O. Kinnard, who was there, tells the rest of the story:
We got into Bastogne late on the night of 18 December, 1944. We were not well equipped, having just gotten out of combat in Holland. We were particularly short of winter clothing and footwear. On the 21st of December we became completely surrounded by Germans and our field hospital was overrun by a German attack. We had put the hospital in what would normally have been a safe place, but no place is safe when you are completely surrounded. At this time, we were not able to receive air resupply because the weather was absolutely frightful. It was very, very cold and snowy. Visibility was often measured in yards. Our lack of winter gear was partially offset by the citizens of Bastogne who gave us blankets and white linens that we used for camouflage.
GENERAL McAULIFFE’S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 1944
Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division
Office of the Division Commander
24 December 1944
What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting it’s cold we aren’t home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South, and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions, and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading, the last disparate German image, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stop the advance. How effectively this was done will be in history’s not alone in the Division’s glorious history but in the World history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Their commander demanded our surrender in the following arrogance:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The Night Before Christmas
in a one bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give,
and to see just who in this home did live.
I looked all about, a strange sight did I see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by mantel, just boots filled with sand,
on the wall hung pictures of some distant land.
With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sober thought came through my mind.
For this house was different, it was dark and dreary,
I found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.
The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one-bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States soldier.
Was this the hero of whom I'd just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?
I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were
willing to fight.
Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas day.
They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like this one here.
I couldn't help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.
The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.
The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
"Santa don't cry, this life is my choice;
I fight for freedom, I don't ask for more,
My life is my God, my country and my corps."
The soldier rolled over and drifted off to sleep,
I couldn't control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still,
and we both shivered from the cold's night chill.
I didn't want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, "Carry on Santa, it's Christmas Day, all is secure."
One look at my watch, and I knew he was right,
Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night.