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December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas everybody!.

To heck with it. I'm not taking the laptop with me! So, here's my Christmas post a day early. See ya on the 26th!

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MOSUL, Iraq (Dec. 21, 2003) -- An M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon stands perched under the Christmas tree at the 101st Airborne Division G-6 office at the palace in the Division Main compound in Mosul Sunday night. Instead of under the tree, the presents for the members of the unit are on a cabinet nearby. Photo by Pfc. Chris Jones, 40th PAD

Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards All. And these guys and gals help keep it that way. Just as did this guy and gal.

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Joe and his armored New Testament were in Bastogne that Christmas.

His Christmas may have looked a lot like this... This is how Donald Burgett spent Christmas 1944 as related in his book, Seven Roads to Hell.

We were told to make ourselves at home but not to get too comfortable, for we might have to move out again at a moment’s notice. We moved by squads and platoons into houses, sheds, and cellars vacated by the civilians living there. My squad moved into a small, cave-like place built of rough fieldstone wedged tightly between two larger buildings made of the same material. The entrance was small. A man had to step over a high threshold and duck his head at the same time to get to the dark, windowless interior. Straw was piled mattress high around the four walls and the center of the floor was kept clear for small fires.

Phillips and I kicked the lumpiness out of a pile of straw near the door and settled down for a rest, leaving our musette bags on and keeping our rifles close at hand. At that moment someone stuck his head inside and yelled that we had to form up outside because we were moving out again. We fell out on the double, the order of march was given, and we moved out to the north across snow-covered fields and along little-traveled roads. Our battalion CP would remain in Savy, so we knew we wouldn’t be traveling too far.

Near the end of this march we came to a wide expanse of farm fields to the west of the north-south road we were on. A lone farmhouse stood near the north end of the fields on the east side of the road, and evergreen forests grew thick and deep to the west, then spread around to the northernmost part of the open ground. We crossed the fields, passing through a couple of barbed-wire farm fences that had been cut through at different spots to allow our passage, and entered the dark woods on the other side.

The land dropped off sharply where the fields and woods met, forming a bank about three or four feet high that ran parallel to the road we had just left. The woods were thick with low-hanging limbs that were heavy with snow. A small creek ran from north to south about a hundred yards inside the trees. We dug in along the bank overlooking the wide-open fields. The position offered us the advantage of concealment in the trees and the protective cover of the bank, plus a clear field of fire across the level farmland to the road. We dug our holes large enough for two or three men to huddle together inside for warmth. The temperature was still well below zero and more snow had fallen.

We did not particularly like being in the woods. Incoming artillery or mortar shells hitting treetops explode high above the ground like giant shotguns, driving shell fragments down into foxholes. Tree bursts are terribly effective against ground troops. People instinctively seek the shelter of trees during a thunderstorm. They have the same tendency when threatened by an attacking enemy force. Lightning and artillery fire both will kill you, and trees enhance their effectiveness. You should stay clear of trees if possible whenever artillery may be used.

We dug in so that we could bring our mortars and machine guns to bear in any direction. In addition to digging foxholes for ourselves and primary positions for our machine guns, we dug alternate positions for the machine guns so they could be moved quickly to cover the deepest part of the woods in case the enemy circled to the west and came at us from that direction. The mortars, which had to fire upward, were limited to those spots where there were openings among the trees. The woods might slow German armor but it would not hinder their infantry. We had to be ready at all times in all directions.
There we built small, smokeless fires. By small, I mean a fire small enough to hold in your two cupped hands. These fires weren’t meant to warm the whole body; they were for melting snow for drinking water, warming fingers and toes, or simply to stare into and dream about being warm. Men set about trying to get enough water to drink or to make K-ration coffee. We didn’t have iodine tablets for purifying the creek water, so we hesitated to use it for drinking.

The skies were still shrouded by thick, gray clouds and there was little wind. In the distance we could make out the sounds of shelling punctuated by occasional bursts of small-arms fire. It was fairly quiet for a war.

Men set about cleaning their weapons, straightening out their gear, checking ammo, and sharpening knives. Two men stood guard on each machine gun so the rest of us could get a little badly needed sleep after our weapons were cleaned and ready. Our weapons always came first – before eating, a trip to the straddle trench, or anything else. Care of our weapons came first because our lives depended on them. A malfunction in battle meant death.

I looked at the men around me and wondered if I looked as horrible as they did. Their faces were gaunt, with dark shadows around sunken eyes. Their jumpsuits were caked with filth and grease, and their faces were blackened by dirt and burnt powder. Some of them were sitting around the fires on their haunches, scraping the crud out of their beards with their fingernails, and then cleaning the accumulated dirt from under their nails. Others were sharpening their knives or cleaning their weapons again. We had an oddball collection of weapons that had been gathered from our own dead and wounded, the enemy, or abandoned by other outfits when they fled. We had everything from Lugers to burp guns and M1s to Mausers. Some troopers were reluctant to use German weapons because combat men can tell the difference in the sounds they make. But in close, heavy combat it doesn’t really matter.

I sat with several others near a small fire. I had packed my steel helmet full of snow and set it close to the heat to melt for my canteen. Then I took off my boots and socks and hung the socks on the end of a forked stick leaning toward the fire so they would dry. Sitting on the snow I extended my bare feet toward the welcome warmth. I kept my boots back a little way from the fire, turning them frequently so that they would dry more slowly. I had ruined a pair of high-topped leather boots by drying them too fast when I was a kid during the Depression. They had curled up and gotten hard as wood and, because they were my only pair of shoes for the year, I had to wear them that way.
Some of us were scraping and shaving the crud from our jumpsuits with razor-sharp trench knives. Most of the dirt and grease on our jumpsuits was on the front of the upper thigh. We would take hold of the cloth below the knee with one hand and then scrape upward with a trench knife, shaving the dirt, grease, and other crud off the pants leg. After repeating the process on the other leg, we’d do the same thing on any other part of our clothing we could reach and shave. It wasn’t as good as getting clean laundry but it was the best we could do.

The 969th Field Artillery Battalion, a 155mm-towed-howitzer outfit, was dug in along the edge of the woods to our east. It was made up of Negro troops. They had been on their way out of Bastogne along with everyone else trying to get away from the German juggernaut roaring through the Ardennes. General McAuliffe, being an artillery commander, well knew the value of their big guns, which were much heavier than our lighter airborne artillery. Seeing them go by, heading west with the other troops, fleeing the advancing Germans, the general sent a detail after them and brought them and their big guns back to this area. And here they had stayed.

When receiving fire missions they would sing in rhythmic cadence, loading and firing in death-dealing precision. Their accurate and heavy barrages had helped to break up nearly every major German attack in the 101st’s first two crucial days at Bastogne. However, since then they were completely out of ammo and spent their time fussing about their guns and emplacements. Their sleeping and living dugouts were elaborate affairs built of logs that were large enough to sleep several men at a time and high enough to stand upright in. They even had coffeepots. Hell, we never had it that good back in garrison. [inserts the retired 3rd generation artilleryman... and your point is?]

Most of our men had finished cleaning themselves as best they could and were busying themselves with other odd jobs, improving their foxholes, cleaning weapons again, and so on, when the miracle happened. I had just finished cleaning my forty-five and had put my socks and boots back on when suddenly we were bathed in sun-light. It was like a storybook fantasy: the fog melted, the clouds parted, and the sun broke through.

Bright sunlight reflected off the crisp, white snow, accentuating the dark shadows in the woods. The sun’s rays lanced down through the pines at sharp angles, forming bright, golden shafts that gave the forest around us a cathedral-like appearance. We weren’t in a worshipful mood, however. The sun would soon be followed by fighter-bombers, and soon the sky would fill with transport aircraft that would parachute ammo, food, and fuel to us. Soon we would be able to avenge our dead.

We laughed and joked with each other, standing there in the sunlight and gazing upward into the clear, blue sky. Some of the men farther back in the woods put their hands into the sunbeams, turning them over and over as if they were bathing them, staring at them as though they could feel the light itself. Others held their weapons over their heads and danced fancy little jigs in and out of bright, sunlit clearings. Most of us frolicked and gamboled about like kids, with much backslapping. A few sat hunched over, staring silently into the small fires with grim smiles on their lips.

Yes, Hans and Fritz were going to get theirs. They had come down on us with tanks, self-propelled guns, artillery, and waves of infantry. Soon it would be payback time. They had ridden us down in their huge metal monsters, driving into and over our positions, crushing the life out of many of our comrades. We wanted revenge.

When we finally tired of gamboling around we sat or stood and listened for the drone of aircraft engines that would herald the coming of our fiyboys. At last we were able to make out the vibrant, deep-throated engines of C-47s. The sluggish old “Gooneybirds” came over in a low formation to the south of us, releasing their payloads over the Bastogne area. The Gooneybirds were fat, slow, and coated from nose to tail with dull, olive drab military paint but they were beautiful – just plain beautiful.

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BASTOGNE by Olin Dows Belgium, 1944

We watched as multitudes of colored parachutes blossomed in the clear air and settled earthward. We knew that thousands of hostile eyes deep in the shadowy woods and wrecked villages surrounding Bastogne also watched the sky fill with ’chutes. What were their thoughts Their numerically superior armor, artillery, weapons, and manpower couldn’t beat us when we were down, so how could they hope to beat us when we were up? Surely they must have known they had lost. Surely they knew we would make them pay for the atrocities and crimes they had committed.

Some bundles without ’chutes were kicked out of the planes and plummeted straight down. The sky was full of incoming supplies and we cheered as the C-47s continued to roar overhead. The air was also black with bursts of flak, and tracers lanced upward, crisscrossing and following the sluggish, unarmed C-47s, occasionally converging on a crippled plane trailing smoke. We later learned that our C-47s had run a gauntlet of antiaircraft spanning the entire Bulge area before they reached Bastogne. Many were hit and several went down in flames, their crews either killed or captured by the enemy. The pilots and crews didn’t waver in the face of this onslaught; they stayed in formation, maintaining their course at a highly vulnerable altitude. Courage was the norm for the day.

The flights continued throughout the rest of the day, with supplies coming in by the ton. We watched, fascinated, as the sky filled again and again with hundreds upon hundreds of colored ’chutes. We watched until evening came and the sky began to darken.

Flights of P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter-bombers also roared overhead. The first flight to arrive on the scene circled in low and began strafing and bombing the German tanks and troops that ringed Bastogne. After their bombs and ammo were used up they would climb to a higher altitude and circle our perimeter looking for and locating new enemy targets. They radioed this information to an air-ground liaison officer who accompanied the division into Bastogne. The liaison officer would then radio the target information to fresh flights of fighter-bombers en route to the area. The previous flight would then head back to its forward airfield in France to rearm and refuel so they could return to the fray.
Thanks to these tactics, the newly arrived fighter-bombers did not have to search for targets. They knew exactly what and where their targets were before they arrived on the scene. We cheered as our flyboys pounded the Germans with a vengeance.

The fighter-bombers kept up their attacks all day. Columns of black smoke mushroomed up from count-less spots from the woods around the 101st’s perimeter as our airmen blasted enemy tanks, self-propelled guns, trucks, ammo and fuel dumps, and artillery emplacements, At last the flights ceased and the airplanes grew quiet. Off in the distance we could still hear the sounds of battle. The Germans wanted Bastogne bad. They knew they didn’t have much time left. If they were to conquer Bastogne, it would have to be soon, very soon. What could they try that they hadn’t already tried? The only thing left was to mass their forces and mount an all-out attack at what they figured to be the weakest point in our perimeter.

It was getting dark fast. We set our guards out for the first watch and the rest of us settled into our holes. Few of us were able to sleep. We were like kids on Christmas Eve: excited and full of anticipation. Excited because the weather had at last broken. Filled with anticipation at the prospect of putting the weapons, ammo, fuel, and food dropped to us to good use.

We also heard that several doctors had been flown in by glider. That meant our wounded would be able to get the treatment they so badly needed. Word also filtered through the ranks that General Patton’s spearhead 4th Armored Division was on its way to give us a hand and would reach Bastogne either that night or the next morning at the latest. We may have been as excited as little kids, but we knew that no battle was ever won until after the last shot was fired. We still had a long way to go. We were pleased and proud that we had held the city of Bastogne as ordered, allowing the Allies time to get their feet back under them, regroup, and give us a hand. We had stayed when nearly all others had fled, and we had held.

We stood in our foxholes, leaning our elbows on the edge and surveying everything around us as it grew darker and darker. It is always a good practice to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and what they look like in the growing dark as well as in daylight before the sun goes down. That way, if you spotted a shadow that wasn’t there before it became dark, you knew it had to be something that had moved in after it became dark. Several of us watched as the Negro troops in the 155mm howitzer emplacements got ready to call it a night.

“They sure have it made,” Phillips said. “They don’t pull any guard duty, no patrols, and they are usually so far behind the lines that they don’t even use a challenge or password.”

Later that night, while Jack Thomas and another man were pulling guard duty on the machine gun, one of the Negro artillerymen crept down through our lines, heading for the straddle trenches in the woods. We all heard and saw the man, but we knew who it was and didn’t say anything. Thomas allowed him to pass a few feet in front of his position without challenge. After a short while the man was coming back through the woods and when he was just a few feet in front of Thomas, Jack challenged him in a loud clear voice so we could all hear.
“Halt, who’s there? Give me the password,” he in-toned.
“Man, I don’t know any password,” said the startled Negro.
“Come on,” said Jack. “Give me the password or I’ll cut you in half with this machine gun.”
The man’s response was quick, loud, and clear: “Don’t shoot, man; you knows they ain’t no nigger Nazis.”
Everyone burst out laughing. We laughed until most of us lay weak in the bottom of our foxholes.
“That sure was quick thinking on his part,” Liddle said, wiping tears from his eyes.
The next day the artilleryman Thomas had challenged forgave us when we went to visit him and his crew in their elaborate dugout. They offered us coffee and treated us with great hospitality, explaining the workings of their big guns and how they worked as a team when fire missions came in. We in turn explained about challenges and passwords, and promised to let them in on the daily password as soon as we received it. They in turn promised to use the system we had taught them from that day on. We developed a deep respect for and friendship with these gunners in the very short time that we spent together.

We spent the rest of the night without any major incident but we remained awake and alert through most of it. We knew the twenty-sixth would be clear and that our Air Corps would be on the job and the Germans would get another pasting. We wanted to be there to watch.

Half of our company was always awake at any given time, while the other half rested or dozed. Combat men really don’t sleep. The men on guard with the machine gun were relieved every two hours. Any longer than that and a man becomes drowsy – especially after so many days of strenuous action with little food and sleep.

The sun rose in all its fiery splendor, casting a red glare and long shadows across white snow. By then we had small fires going and were heating K-ration coffee. I took stock of my ammo. I had three rounds left for my Ml rifle and two full magazines for my forty-five, plus what was in the pistol, making a total of twenty-one rounds of .45-caliber ammo.

We thought the previous day’s resupply drop was the first since the division had been surrounded, but we later learned the first drop was made at noon on 23 December. Several C-47s came in low over Bastogne and our pathfinders parachuted in and set up radar and guidance systems to direct the following aircraft to the drop zone. Within thirty minutes, eleven gliders followed them in, delivering surgeons and 32,900 pounds of medical supplies. Three of the doctors were killed by flak just before their glider landed. Many more airdrops followed over the next several days.

IF you've come this far: Be thankful your Christmas is as it is.