WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 17, 2013) – For the last 20 years, World War II veterans and the ambassadors of Belgium and Luxembourg have gathered annually in mid-December at Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to the 19,000 American Soldiers who gave their lives in the Battle of the Bulge, which raged in Europe between Dec. 16, 1944, and Jan. 25, 1945.
Ambassadors each rested a wreath at the battle’s memorial, which honors the 120,000 Americans who fought in the Army’s largest land battle in history. Following the ceremony, a wreath was also laid at the Tomb of the Unknowns by the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association.
“The service this morning is to honor those of our veterans who have passed away as well as those who are still present and can render honors and carry on this tradition each year,” said Doug C. Dillard, who serves as president of the association. “Today, we have thousands of our Soldiers in harm’s way, and we wish them the best, and that they will come home soon.”
Dillard fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and served then as a sergeant with the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.
Following the presentation of the wreaths, Dillard spoke briefly about his time in the Ardenne Forrest.
“I remember we came in on the eighth of January. After a week of slugging it out with artillery, mortars and small-arms fire, we only had 98 people left in our battalion,” Dillard said. They had started with 600 men. “The 551st was deactivated in the field and those of us remaining were reassigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.”
Following the war, the Army was awarding direct commissions to senior non-commissioned officers. Dillard became the first direct-commission second lieutenant in 3rd Army. He retired as a colonel in 1977, with 37-years of service.
Aside from being the most territorially expansive battle of World War II, stretching along the Siegfried Line from the Netherlands border to Belgium and Luxembourg, the conflict was essentially the Third Reich’s final offensive effort to stop the Allied push into Germany.
With 500,000 German soldiers moving at breakneck pace against 60,000 American and 55,000 British troops, the Axis forces laid ambush in an attempt to encircle the Allies and force a negotiated peace in the heavily forested Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. Canteen water froze solid as did the warriors from both sides, who died from wounds or exposure and morphed into gruesome and frozen statues.
“Cold, freezing cold, snow every day and up to your butt and hail … that’s what you had to remember; you had to function no matter what,” recalled George L. Watson, who was 20 when he enlisted as a survey and instrument man in a heavy weapons company with the 87th Inf. Div. “We weren’t adequately clothed when the battle broke out and there was a lot of trench foot until the Army gave us rubbers for our feet.
“We lived in foxholes and would put tree boughs over to avoid the airburst and other trees falling around us from blasts,” the New Yorker said. “You fought every day to survive and hoped to just keep moving to stay warm. If you stopped you frequently fell asleep on your feet with your rifle supporting you. No Christmas meal, just K-rations and more K-rations … I hate Spam to this day.”
Another heavy weapons Soldier, John McAulliffe, came in with the 347th Regt. He was a replacement specialist in 81mm mortars, and would move through three more campaigns, which ended with V-E Day.
“That was a great day when the 11th Panzer Division surrendered to us,” said McAulliffe.
“We stopped pushing about four miles from the Czech border and stayed for maybe a month doing occupation work and then we were scheduled to go home, which we did in July,” he said. “We had a month’s furlough and then were scheduled to do the invasion of Japan, but the bomb was dropped.”
Brig. Gen. Mike Paul Delobel, Belgium Defense Attaché attended the event. He said the commemoration was important to himself and staff but also to the youth of today.
“It’s important to remember these veterans and what they did for us nearly 70 years ago,” he said. “It’s also important that our young people remember so they can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
By the end of the battle, Germany had suffered 85,000 casualties with more than 17,000 killed. The battle so depleted the Reich’s war-making resources, that it would unconditionally surrender, May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day.