Having just observed the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II, December 16 this week marked the 70th anniversary of another equally important event in that war: the Battle of the Bulge.
Caliente resident and WWII veteran Don Phillips, who served in the East Asian Theatre, said he thinks there were “four or five guys” from Lincoln County who participated, but all have since passed away, and he could only remember the name of one: Oswald “Tubby” Viator, from Caliente. However, Tubby died in 1954.
Jack Horner of the Caliente VFW Post and Martin Cox of the Alamo American Legion Post said there was no one currently on their roles who were involved.
Tubby’s daughter, Rozanne Mangum of Caliente, said she did not remember much of what her Dad’s experiences were at the time, other than he was with the Army Engineers.
His son-in-law, Richard Marsing of Green Springs, Wyoming, in a telephone interview said Tubby was with the 146th Combat Army Engineer Battalion, and had landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the 146th was stationed on the northern flank, near the town of Monschau, Belgium.
No further information about Tubby’s involvement was available.
As winter was in full swing, heavy snowstorms had blanketed the area, and the course of the war did not look good at all for the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.
Successful Allied landings had been made in southern France as well as Normandy. The “soft underbelly” of the Axis, as Winston Churchill called it, had been successfully invaded in Italy, Rome and Paris had been liberated, the Soviet’s were advancing ever closer to eastern Germany, and now the Allied armies were poised to roll into western Germany.
Against the advice of his advisors, Hitler decided he would throw the dice in a gigantic gamble, by massing large Panzer divisions and infantry on the eastern Belgium border and make a last major, decisive and desperate push.
Intelligence reports informed him the Allies’ weakest point was in the Ardennes sector, a heavily forested area of eastern Belgium. Only six divisions of the American First Army were stationed there, along with the British 21st Army Group. In addition, they were stretched out thin along an 80-mile front. If the German troops could drive a wedge through that line and reach the Meuse River, they could then proceed along the river to the port city of Antwerp, capture the center of the Allied supply depots, and split the American and British forces.
However, Germany’s best Panzer commander, Erwin Rommel, had committed suicide in October for his possible connection in the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July.
Therefore, command of the operation, code named Watch on the Rhine, was given to 70-year old Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, who had earlier come out of retirement and been appointed Commander in Chief in the West in September.
Early in December 1944, von Rundstedt began to assemble about 30 infantry and Panzer tank units under cover of fog, bad weather and darkness in the Ardennes Forest, moved in on straw covered trails to muffle the sound.
Possibly detected by American reconnaissance planes, the German attack began at 5:30 a.m. Dec. 16, with a 90-minute bombardment from 1,600 cannon, tank guns, and other heavy artillery, along with 250,000 infantry, in a massive surprise offensive, quickly overrunning the thin line of American and British troops, and taking some 6,000 prisoners, many of whom were carted off to prisoner of war camps.
In the meantime, a specially trained group of English speaking German soldiers, dressed in U.S. uniforms, infiltrated behind enemy lines with some success in disrupting communications and giving misleading directions.
In the center section of the attack, General Eccard von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer division soon came upon the city of Bastogne, an important railroad center. American General Anthony McAuliff’s 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne had been immediately rushed in to defend the city, but were just as quickly surrounded by the German offensive.
Here von Rundstadt made a huge mistake. Instead of attacking Bastogne head on and capturing it promptly, he directed his forces to surround the city, employ a siege, and force McAuliff to eventually surrender. But McAuliff would not surrender, and on Dec. 22, issued his famous one-word reply, “Nuts,” to the German demand for surrender. The city held out.
In a few days, American C-47 cargo planes were able to break through a heavy cloud cover and drop many desperately needed supplies to the Bastogne defenders.
As the weather cleared, American planes began bombing German supply dumps, and oil refineries, cutting off the fuel supply to the Panzer’s, and other heavy equipment, all of which were on a limited supply to begin with.
The German advance did reach about 60 miles inside the American lines, creating what, on a map, looked like a large bulge in the defensive line.
Fighting continued through Christmas, but as New Year’s Eve approached, it became clear the German offensive had weakened, the attack blunted, and the spearhead stopped.
General George Patton’s Third Army Tank Corp pulled out of their position in the south, raced north, and on Dec. 26 broke through the enemy’s southern flank surrounding Bastogne to rescue the city. This opened a corridor for more Allied troops to come through.
By mid-January 1945, the German Army was in retreat back into the Fatherland, however fuel supplies were so low, most of the tanks had to be left behind. After having suffered more than 100,000 casualties in the Battle, Hitler reluctantly had to understand he had gambled and lost.
Later, Churchill, addressing the House of Commons following the Battle of the Bulge said, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”