WASHINGTON – Allied forces were closing in on Berlin, and village by village, forces were rolling across formerly German-held territories.
Many Americans thought that World War II, at least in Europe, was nearly at its end. Some troops had spent the previous years fighting across North Africa and into southern Europe while their fellow soldiers later stormed the beaches at Normandy.
On Dec. 16, 1944, two squads of soldiers with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Division spotted a large German advance one town over. Their communications had been cut off from the higher headquarters and they had no fires support.
An artillery barrage that lasted nearly two hours pounded their position, along a ridge and tree line near the village of Lanzerath, Belgium.
Side by side, the Allies and former enemy Germany together marked the 75th anniversary of one of the most important battles in World War II — the Battle of the Bulge, which stopped Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch offensive to turn the tide of the war.
But the 18 soldiers, being led by 20-year-old Lt. Lyle J. Bouck Jr., had their orders, “hold at all costs.”
Being outmatched, alone and without support is not a common position for U.S. troops, nor has it been for more than half a century. But it is a scenario that some fear could become a real feature of future combat.
In recent years, Army leadership has hammered away at the need for their forces to prepare for large-scale combat operations against a peer adversary. Those peers likely being either Russian or Chinese military units.
From Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on down, commanders envision distributed units fighting alone, sometimes with degraded communications and even without support. The Marines are making the same case for how they will transform the heavy force that’s grown used to fighting drawn out counterinsurgency wars against guerrilla-style tactical foes.
The Battle of the Bulge, in which a surprise attack by German forces put the Allies on their heels following a year’s worth of advances, was one of the largest battles in the largest-scale war that the United States has ever faced.
The men of I&R Platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division were the most decorated platoon of that battle and the entire war.
Wave after wave of German paratroopers charged the ridge line and the 18 soldiers of Bouck’s platoon mowed them down with brutal efficiency. They planned to fight to the last bullet, buying their brothers time. That’s because, though they were outnumbered 15-to-1 by the elite German paratroopers, an even more menacing force was pulling up behind them – the 1st SS Panzer Division, which was the leading edge of the northern attack of the German 6th Panzer Army.
Nearly four decades later, Bouck would tell The New York Times about the fight.
“We were frightened and we were tired and it was like a hellish nightmare,” Bouck told the Times in 1981. “It seemed it would never end. We couldn’t get any help. It seemed like it was all hopeless.’”
Though they wouldn’t realize the significance of their stalling fight for decades, the two squads delayed that force for more than a day, inflicting more than 200 casualties, said Alex Kershaw, author of “The Longest Winter,” a book about the Bulge that chronicles the platoon’s heroic stand.
Kershaw spoke Monday at the Army and Navy Club here as part of a series of events to mark the rolling 75th anniversaries of key battles and events of the war, held by the nonprofit Friends of the National World War II Memorial.
Over the course of the six-week battle, 10,733 Allied troops were dead, 42,316 wounded and 22,636 missing in action, according to an Army statement.
Retired Army Col. Frank Cohn, 94, was a private during the battle and serving as a German translator with a small team when fighting broke out.
Speaking at the Monday event, Cohn explained how he and his family had fled Germany in 1938 when he was only 13. He was later drafted into the Army.
He recalled the confusion of the fight, the lack of communications and how he with three other soldiers got lost and turned around while searching towns for German POWs to interrogate. The foursome was mistaken for a group of Germans who’d infiltrated Allied lines in U.S. uniforms and held at gunpoint for hours.
“The big deal was nobody knew what was going on,” Cohn said.
But what prevailed, he said, was the small unit leaders.
“It all goes back to the basics of the squad leader. The squad leader is key in any of these actions. Then it goes up to the platoon if they can find it. That’s why we did better than the Germans. Because our squad leaders were better.”
On that first night, Bouck’s plan was to fight to the last bullet and then withdraw his men into the forest. But late in the fighting, exhausted and outnumbered, the paratroopers managed to flank their foxholes, firing into the pit, wounding Bouck in the leg and striking his fellow soldier in the face, nearly killing him.
He and his men were taken to a small café in Lanzerath that had become the de facto headquarters for the Germans as they rolled through the town.
Kershaw said German Col. Joachim Peiper, came to the café, shouting at his immediate subordinate wanting to know what had delayed his advance for more than 12 hours. The subordinate told his commander that an entire American regiment had pinned down his advance.
But, once Bouck and his men were taken prisoner and the German paratroopers searched the woods, they learned that less than a platoon had stopped them.
One of the 18 died in the fighting, the remaining 17 were taken prisoner but freed months later.
John S.D. Eisenhower, son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and commander of Allied forces in Europe during the war, credited the Lanzerath battle with blocking an assault that could have meant an early collapse of the U.S. position along the lines, transforming the Bulge into a breakthrough, according to the Times article and Kershaw’s research.
The unit would receive no real recognition of what the Army later called, a “courageous and almost last-ditch stand” that held up German forces in decisive hours as the Battle of the Bulge commenced.
But, after petitioning Congress, the platoon was awarded four Distinguished Service Crosses, five Silver Star Medals and the remaining soldiers received Bronze Star Medals for their actions that day.