Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Battle of the Bulge 75th Anniversary – Bastogne

Dec. 16, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Good morning. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is my great honor to help commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill characterized as “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war.” I want to especially thank our World War II veterans who are here with us today. It is because of their sacrifices during some of the most challenging times the world has ever seen that we are able to live in freedom and prosperity today.

On a bitterly cold morning, 75 years ago, the snow-covered Ardennes forest shook from the artillery bombardment that marked Hitler’s final attempt to push back Allied forces from Germany’s border. U.S. troops, fatigued from months of continuous combat, were, at first, unable to slow the surprise offensive. And to make matters worse, the Allies’ air advantage was negated by the heavy cloud cover and thick fog that shrouded the attack. The Nazis’ rapid penetration, and the corresponding “bulge” in the battle lines that ensued, threatened to divide the Allied forces and possibly turn the tide of the war.

Despite taking heavy casualties, and with little resupply, the Americans were able to slow the enemy’s assault short of the all-important Meuse (Myooz) River crossings. Reinforcements rushed to the “bulge” to fill gaps in the line and to relieve units that had been badly mauled by panzer units that spearheaded the attack. All across the battlefield, American Soldiers, often isolated and unaware of the overall situation, banded together to take on the advancing armor columns and stall the Nazi advance. And here, at the strategic cross roads of Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division – the Screaming Eagles – completely besieged by German forces, carried out one of the most heroic defenses ever recorded in history. 

Outnumbered nearly 5-to-1, lacking cold-weather gear, and short on food, ammunition, and medical supplies, the American paratroopers refused to give up. Their fearlessness was epitomized by the legendary response provided by Brigadier General McAuliffe when the Germans demanded he surrender; his reply was one simple word: NUTS!

Over many days, the American troops went on to beat back repeated attacks from all directions. News of their fierce defense quickly spread, boosting the morale of Allied forces all along the Western Front. Within days, reinforcements from the south would break through the German flank and reopen the supply lines into Bastogne.

There is much to be learned from this battle, which is remembered as one of the greatest in American history. But more than anything, the victory of the Battle of the Bulge is a testament to the fortitude and heroism of the American Soldier. For nearly six weeks, more than half a million troops took part in the intense efforts to preserve the incredible gains that had been achieved over the prior six months since the Allies’ invasion of Normandy. The Americans who fought here were led by some of our Nation’s most respected military leaders of the time, but it was ultimately the intrepid and indomitable spirit of the American Soldier that brought victory.

Today, the world remembers the sacrifices of the brave patriots who faced death and unimaginable adversity on this field of battle. More than 19,000 Americans laid down their lives in this gallant stand against tyranny. We will forever be grateful for the extraordinary service of our greatest generation, whose legacy we preserve through this ceremony and others like it. Their efforts not only defended America, but also ensured that the peoples of Europe would be free again.

The United States has a proud history of standing up for our friends and allies around the world in the face of evil and oppression. We have long believed that our Nation’s values – respect for sovereignty and independence, adherence to international rules and norms, and the defense of individual liberty and human rights – are worth fighting for. We have done so many times in the short history of our Republic. My generation’s calling was the 1991 Gulf War, where I was honored to serve in combat as a Screaming Eagle, and that famed division once again faced a “Rendezvous with destiny.”

But the gold standard is clearly the greatest generation. In World War II, America was willing to commit everything we had to preserve freedom and protect our way of life. And on this ground, where the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge hung in the balance, American troops forged an incredible victory that assured Hitler’s defeat.

We must never forget the grave dangers of that era, which threatened to completely alter our way of life and the course of human history. We must never forget how the free world joined together in a united effort to ensure good triumphed over evil. And we must never forget this ever-famous American battle, and the men who bravely endured the most trying conditions to achieve victory.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you once again for commemorating this historic 75th anniversary with us today.

May God bless our troops, our peoples, and our nations, and may the legacy created by this epic victory guide us for generations to come.

Thank you.