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'Yesterday's heroes' commended by retired general at VBOB meeting

'Yesterday's heroes' commended

by retired general at VBOB meeting

     The following article was excerpted from remarks made by Brig. Gen. William E. Carlson (USA/ret.) who was keynote speaker at the Battle of the Bulge convention held Oct. 2, 2001 at Orlando, Fla. His remarks have been described by VBOB past president John Dunleavy as "the most informative tribute to the courageous Bulge GI ever written."


     Wars are planned by old men in the comfort of council rooms, far from the field of battle.

     It was the 16th of September 1944. Adolf Hitler had summoned a group of his senior officers to his study in the huge, underground bunker called the Wolf's Lair. Hitler's secret headquarters, hidden deep underground in a pine forest in East Prussia. Those summoned were his closest and most trusted military advisers.

     Among them, there was only one who wore the red stripes of the German General Staff on his uniform. He was the head of Operations Staff of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, General Alfred Jodl. The officers were waiting when Hitler entered. Looking considerably older than his 54 years, he was recovering from the injuries he had received in the assassination attempt on his life two months earlier. His shoulders were sagging, his face was drawn and drained of color, and his skin had turned yellow, as if he had jaundice. He had a ruptured eardrum and at times he had an uncontrollable twitching of his right arm. Slowly taking his seat, Hitler instructed Jodl to sum up the situation on the Western Front.

     Jodl noted that the strength of the opposing forces heavily favored the Western Allies. Over the past three months, the Germans had suffered more than a million casualties — half of them had been in the West. Jodl noted that there was one area of particular concern where the Germans had almost no troops. That area was the region of Belgium and Luxembourg called the Ardennes. At the word "Ardennes," Hitler suddenly said, "Stop the briefing!" There was a long pause. Strained silence permeated the room. The silence was finally broken when Hitler, reminiscent of his once moving and powerful rhetoric said, "I have made a momentous decision!" His voice belied the weakened condition of his body, his blue eyes sparkled and were alight with a fervor that no one had seen since the attempt on his life. He pointed to the map unrolled on the desk before him and he boldly announced, "I shall go on the offensive here!" And he slapped his hand down on the map. "Here, out of the Ardennes! The objective is Antwerp!" Those assembled sat in stunned silence.

     With those words Hitler set in motion preparations for a battle that was to assume epic proportions — the greatest German attack in the West since the campaign of 1940. While charging Jodl and his staff with preparing a detailed plan of operations, Hitler emphasized secrecy. Everyone who knew of the plan, from field marshals to clerks and typists, had to sign a pledge of secrecy. The penalty for a loose tongue was death. But Hitler himself was less than discreet. When the Japanese Ambassador, Baron Oshima, called on him at the Wolf's Lair, Hitler was very candid with him. A day later, Ambassador Oshima reported the conversation to his government in Tokyo.

     Since mid-1941, the United States had been intercepting and decrypting Japanese diplomatic traffic. Oshima's report that Hitler was planning a large-scale offensive operation in the West to start sometime after the first of November, was on the desks of intelligence officers in the Pentagon almost as soon as it reached the Foreign Office in Tokyo.

     Gradually, very gradually, the German Commanders who would direct the battle were told of the plan, a few at a time. The operation would be launched along a 60-mile front from Monschau in the north to the medieval town of Echternach in the south.

     On the eve of the battle, in the medieval town of Echternach, a glamorous German-born film star, Marlene Dietrich, the star of the USO troupe, was entertaining the American troops. In a deep, sultry voice she sang "Lili Marlene" to the raucous applause of hundreds of GIs.

     Meanwhile, on the German side of the line, in assembly areas across the front, German commanders read a message from Field Marshall von Runstedt. The message began as follows: "Soldiers of the West Front! Your great hour has arrived! We attack at dawn!"

     In the early morning hours of 16 December, the tramping sound of hobnailed jack boots broke the stillness of that cold, silent night as Nazi troopers, with visions of past glory, strutted upon the field of battle as they marched to the line of departure and formed into assault formations.

     Hitler was personally directing his grand offensive from the Adlerhorst, an underground bunker amid the wooded hills of Taunus. At the Alderhorst, the door of the cuckoo clock hanging on the wall opened and the cuckoo bird came out and announced that the hour of destiny had arrived.

     A split second after 5:30 a.m., an American soldier in the 28th Infantry Division manning an observation post high atop of a water tower in the village of Hosingen, frantically turned the crank on his field telephone. He reported to his company commander that in the distance, on the German side, he could see a strange phenomenon — countless flickering pinpoints of light piercing the darkness of the early morning fog and mist. Within a few seconds, both he and his company commander had an explanation. They were the muzzle flashes of over 2,000 German artillery pieces.

     The early morning stillness of the fog-shrouded forest was suddenly shattered with the thunderclap of a massive artillery barrage landing on the Americans. The onslaught had begun! The German code name for the operation was AUTUMN MIST.

     The Americans called it the BATTLE OF THE BULGE.

     The Battle of the Bulge lasted from the 16th of December 1944 until the 28th of January 1945. More than a million men participated in this battle. It was to become the greatest battle ever fought by the United States Army.

     The 16th of December was indelibly stamped in the memory of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower. Early that morning, Eisenhower received notification of his promotion to the rank of five stars — General of the Army. Later that morning, he received a signal from Field Marshal Montgomery. Montgomery requested permission to return to England for the Christmas holidays since all was quiet on the Western Front. Request approved.

     Aside from these activities, Eisenhower had something special he was looking forward to that day. His old Army buddy, General Omar Bradley, was coming back from his Army Group Headquarters to spend the night at Eisenhower's headquarters. Eisenhower had prepared a special treat for his old friend, Brad. Taking advantage of a plane flying in from Washington, Eisenhower had ordered a bushel of oysters. Eisenhower loved oysters and he planned a special dinner for his old friend. Dinner would begin with oysters on the half shell, then oyster stew followed by fried oysters as the main course.

     In the fading light of a wintry sunset, the two commanders and several of their staff officers were discussing the major problem at hand, the diversion of replacements by Washington from the European Theater to the Far East, when a colonel from the Intelligence Section tiptoed into the discussion with the first wisp of information about the battle. He announced that the Germans had secured penetrations at five points along General Middleton's VIII Corps front.

     A review of the operations map revealed that there were two U.S. Armored Divisions out on the line. After much discussion, Eisenhower, who alone of those assembled had the benefit of the intercepts of Baron Oshima's reports to Tokyo, believed that it might be more than a spoiling attack and said, "I think we had better send Middleton some help. Send the two Armored Divisions."

     In the dinner that followed, it almost went unnoticed that Bradley was allergic to oysters and had to be served "powdered" eggs instead.

     Far from the comfort of the council rooms of the high ranking generals and field marshals was the soldier on the front line. As the last rays of sunlight fell dim and purple on the snow-covered hills of the Ardennes, there were no oysters on the half shell for Willie and Joe and their comrades on the front line that night! The order of the day for them was man's first law — self-preservation. They were dry-mouthed and their bowels churned with fear as masses of German troopers dressed in greatcoats emerged through the veil of the early morning fog and mist, and charged toward them like men possessed. Low in their foxholes they prayed to the Lord, and the enemy discovered the fury of their rifles.

     The real story of the Battle of the Bulge is the story of these soldiers and the intense combat action of the small units; the squads, the platoons, the companies, and the soldiers who filled their ranks. For the most part they were children of the '20s — citizen soldiers, draftees — young men hardly more than boys. Raised during the Great Depression, they did not experience the carefree days of childhood. They watched as the worry and stress of the times wrinkled their mothers' faces. They watched as the dust storms, the stock market crash, and the breadlines humbled their fathers, impoverished their families, and dashed their hopes and dreams of the future.

     Then, as the Depression receded, the world staggered into war and they received a letter from their local draft board: "Greetings . . . Orders to report for Induction." Summoned by the clarion call to arms, they came from across the land, from the farms and the factories, from their offices and schools, from the sidewalks of New York to the shores of San Francisco, they came. They raised their right hand and pledged their sacred honor to defend their country. In their youth their hearts were touched by the flame of patriotism.

     Resourceful, tough and tempered as hard as steel in the crucible of the Great Depression, these men were as tough as the times in which they were raised. These are the men who made up the fighting strength of the divisions, carried out the orders of the generals and engaged the Germans in mortal combat.

     Battalion commanders and company commanders — young, lean, tough, battle-wise and toil-worn.

     And second lieutenants — newly minted officers and gentlemen, some still sporting peach fuzz on their upper lips — too young to require a razor.

     And grizzly NCOs with faces chiseled and gaunt by the gnawing stress of battle and the rigors of a soldier's life in combat.

     And seasoned troopers, scroungy and unkempt, but battle-hardened, competent, and disciplined in the automatic habits of war never learned in school.

     Around their necks hung their dog tags and rosaries, on their head was their steel pot, and in their pocket, next to their heart was a picture, the picture of their girl back home.

     Surprised, stunned, and not understanding what was happening to him, the American soldier found himself in a situation that was as confusing as trying to read a compass in a magnet factory. Nevertheless, he held fast until he was overwhelmed by the German onslaught, or until his commanders ordered him to withdraw.

     The battle was very personal for them. Concerned with the fearful and consuming task of fighting and staying alive, these men did not think of the battle in terms of the "Big Picture" represented on the situation maps at higher headquarters. They knew only what they could see and hear in the chaos of the battle around them. They knew and understood the earth for which they fought, the advantage of holding the high ground and the protection of a trench or foxhole. They could distinguish the sounds of the German weffers and the screaming sound of incoming German 88s.

     And they knew the fear of having German artillery rounds passing overhead. And they were reassured by the sudden stabs of flame through the darkness of night as friendly artillery tubes belched tongues of fire into the air, spreading a glow of flickering light above the blackened trees of the snow-covered forest.

     They knew the overwhelming loneliness of the battlefield, the feeling of despair, confusion, and uncertainty that prevails in units in retreat. And they knew that feeling of utter exhaustion — the inability of the soldier's flesh and blood to continue on, yet they must, or die. They knew first hand the violent pounding of the heart, the cold sweat, the trembling of the body, and the stark terror that mortal combat brings. It was a hell that had to be endured, and they endured it.

     Even Mother Nature was their enemy with bitterly cold weather. The ground was frozen solid. The skies were gray. The days were short, with daylight at 8 and darkness by 4. The nights were long and frigid and snow, knee-deep, covered the battlefield. GIs, their bodies numb, were blue-lipped and chilled to the bone.

     At night, the German ground assault was assisted by artificial moonlight created by giant German searchlights bouncing their lights on the low-hanging clouds. The night sky was aflame with shimmering lights and pulsating patterns, casting an eerie, ghostly light in the fog and mist over the snow-covered field of battle.

     When the chips were down and the situation was desperate, the American soldier molded in the adversity of the Great Depression, proved to be unusually adept at taking charge of the situation and "going into business for himself" on the battlefield. GIs on that battlefield were craftier than crows in a cornfield.

     These are the soldiers who, when their officers lay dead and their sergeants turned white, held the enemy at bay in the days when the heavens were falling and the battlefield was in flames with all the fire and noise humanly possible for over a million warriors to create.

     For a brief moment in history, these men held our nation's destiny in their hands. They did not fail us. They blew the trumpets that tumbled the walls. Theirs was the face of victory. Super heroes — super patriots. Their legacy — victory, victory in the greatest battle ever fought by the United States Army.

     But the cost of victory was high. There, on that cold, brutal field of battle, 19,000 young Americans answered the angel's trumpet call and had their rendezvous with death. Heroes sacrificed on the altar of the god of war, whose valor in many cases died unrecognized with them on the field of battle.

     Tonight we look into the mirror of the past and remember them. In the muffled cadence of memory only, they go marching by, and we salute them. We hear the echo from those years long ago as the drumbeats the long, slow roll of the soldier's last tattoo, and the bugler blows the sad and bitter notes of Taps.

     Back home in America, Western Union telegraph lines hummed with those dreaded messages of sadness: "The Secretary of War regrets to inform you . . ." — telegrams that forever shattered the lives of the innocent, bringing tears and sadness to homes across our land. Aged mothers and the youthful wives must bear the burden of grief throughout the remainder of their lives.

     Over 23,000 American soldiers were captured during the heat of battle. Prisoners of war who staggered in tattered columns as they were marched to German stalags. There they were forced to serve behind barbed wire in silence and with courage, each in his own way until the war's end.

     Purple Hearts were awarded by the thousands. The bleeding wounds of 81,000 young Americans stained the snow and left the "red badge of courage" in that blood-soaked field of battle.

     Amid the serene hills of the Ardennes to this very day reposes the dust of American soldiers listed as "missing and unaccounted for" from that battle. Those known only to God, who were left behind, never to return. There, on that field of battle they perished and disappeared as though they had never been born. History cannot record their deeds for it knows not even their names.

     We muster here tonight to honor and pay tribute to all those brave young warriors who served with honor and won that battle. We are reminded of what their journey through life has left behind for us.

     The warriors of "the greatest generation," a generation that is taking their final curtain calls and soon will leave the stage of life. They have passed "Old Glory" on to the next generation unsoiled, their swords untarnished, their legacy a great nation under God, with liberty, justice and freedom for all.

     Look at these old warriors gathered here tonight. They are yesterday's heroes. They were soldiers once and young — the vibrant youth of that time, men who were there on that battlefield 57 years ago.

     Young American men, hardly more than boys — these men and the others like them are the soldiers, who, in the hours when the earth's foundation shook, and the ground did tremble, stood their ground amid the whine of bullets, the blast of mortars and the zinging sound of jagged artillery shrapnel filling the air around them.

     Some bear visible signs of their service: a missing limb, a jagged scar, or a certain faraway look in the eye. Others may carry the evidence inside them: a steel pin holding a bone together or a piece of shrapnel still in their arm or leg. But they all bear another kind of inner steel, a spirit forged with their comrades on that field of battle. The spirit of a band of warriors, a band of warriors called Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Veterans bound together with a bond as strong as right itself and as lasting as their lifetime.

     With their fellow warriors on that field of battle, they followed duty's call and lived the code of the soldier: duty, honor, country.

     When history calls the roll of heroes, these warriors earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with their forebears from Valley Forge, Fredricksburg, and the Marne. Before them, the Nazis visions of glory drifted away like the sound and fury of battle. When the smoke had cleared, more than 120,000 enemy soldiers lay stiff in the snow, wounded or captured, and over 800 enemy tanks were left burning and rusting in the wooded hills of the Ardennes.

     Their place in history secured as "the greatest generation," the generation that saved the sum of all things we hold dear. And all this for love of their country and the meager pay of a soldier.

     Ask yourselves now, with heads bowed, from where, Oh God came such men as these?

     This country was truly blessed.


     BGN Bill Carlson, a native of Florida, received his ROTC commission at University of Florida in 1951. He served in the artillery during the Korean War, first as a forward observer and later as a battery commander. In Viet Nam he served at a battalion commander in the First Cav. Div. and later as assistant division commander of the 7th Inf. Div. His final assignment was as deputy U.S. military representative to NATO in Brussels. He has received 29 awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal Legion of Merit, Silver Star, and Bronze Star.