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Battle of Bulge Anniversary Remembered at Tree Lighting

By J.D. Leipold
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2009 – The Army’s chief of staff stepped back in history Thursday evening to Christmas Eve in Belgium 65 years ago by reading one of the most inspirational letters written by a commander to his troops.

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Gen. George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army, reads the World War II Christmas letter from Gen. Anthony McAuliffe to his troops during the 13th annual Norwegian Tree Lighting Ceremony in Union Station, Washington D.C., Dec. 3, 2009. The tree is a gift from Norway and a symbol of the friendship between the United States and Norway. DoD photo by Myles Cullen

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“What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold, we aren’t home,” Gen. George W. Casey read to onlookers at the annual Union Station Christmas tree lighting ceremony and tribute to the 99th Infantry Battalion, a Norwegian-American World War II unit which rescued 52 U.S. soldiers in Malmedy, Belgium.

“All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades, the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest?” Casey continued reading of the letter written by Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division between Dec. 16, 1944 and Jan. 25, 1945, when he and more than 800,000 Allied troops found themselves in a raging battle in Bastogne, Belgium, and the surrounding area. The nearly six-week battle pitted slow-moving, massive German Tiger tanks against nearly twice as small, nimble American Shermans with significantly less firepower.

The outcome of the Battle of the Bulge -- the German army’s last offensive drive to split the Allies in the Ardennes -- ultimately determined who would be left standing at the end of World War II in Europe.

Casey continued reading McAuliffe’s letter to the troops, many of whom that winter were still wearing clothing from the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy, France.

A special guest at the lighting of the 32-foot fir, 87-year-old Jarvis Taylor was a heavy weapons 30-caliber machine gunner with the 99th Battalion. He recalled in a phone interview how it was a treat to occasionally get shuttled by a jeep behind the battle line for a shower.

“I know it was a great relief to a lot of us when there was a quiet spell where we’d get a chance to have showers, and usually they would give you a change of underwear and maybe socks, but you pretty much had to make do with the uniform you had,” he said.

Casey continued with the Christmas letter in which McAuliffe talked about how the Allies had stopped the German advance, though he had conceded that the Germans had surrounded the Allies while “their radios blared our doom. Their commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance,” Casey read.

The German commander’s Dec. 22 letter to McAuliffe described how “the fortune of war was changing,” how the American forces were encircled and that there was only one way in which McAuliffe could save his troops from “total annihilation”… through “honorable surrender.” McAuliffe was given two hours to respond.

McAuliffe’s four-letter reply to the German commander: “NUTS!”

Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen presented the Christmas tree as a gift for the 13th year to the people of the district. The tree bears hundreds of Norwegian and American flags and is accompanied by a ribbon honoring the 99th Infantry Battalion.

Like the troops far from home during Christmas 1944, Casey reminded the crowd that thousands of U.S. servicemembers are serving worldwide this holiday season.

(J.D. Leipold writes for Army News Service.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageTaylor Jarvis, representing World War II veterans of the 99th Infantry Battalion, holds a "hero" teddy bear presented to him by a youngster during the 13th annual Norwegian Tree Lighting Ceremony in Union Station, Washington D.C., Dec. 3, 2009. This year's theme honors the Norwegian and Americans of the 99th Infantry Battalion who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and freed 52 Americans at Malmedy during World War II. DoD photo by Myles Cullen  
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