Christmas 1944 was a pivotal time for the Allied efforts to defeat Nazi Germany. In the 6 months since the D-Day landings they had driven the Wehrmacht out of France and were poised to cross the Rhine into Germany proper. The soldiers of the Allied armies were exhausted and their supply lines were stretched to the breaking point.

While they rested, regrouped and resupplied the Germans had other plans. Hitler and his generals threw everything they had into a final offensive. The plan was to drive a wedge of men and materiel into the American lines thereby splitting the Allied armies in two and then sprinting to the Belgian coast to cut off their supplies. The attack was launched 16 December 1944.

It was a bold move born out of desperation and in the beginning they routed the Americans overrunning their positions and capturing, killing or wounding thousands. The situation was bleak as the Allied High Command scrambled to thwart the German offensive.

But one small Belgian town stood in the path of this German onslaught—Bastogne. Bastogne was a critical point in that it was the center of a network of roads in all directions that could have sped the Nazi advance if it fell. It was defended by the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division.

They were short on ammunition, food and medical supplies and most of their medical personnel had been captured in the first few hours and days of the battle. Like the defenders of the Alamo in 1836 or the Marines on Wake Island during the early days of the war during Christmas 1941, they were surrounded, outnumbered, and about to be slaughtered by tanks and Waffen SS regiments. The Americans knew what their fate could be if they surrendered. Just a few days before the Nazis machine-gunned 90 unarmed American prisoners in an open field near the town of Malmedy. And that was not an isolated incident.

But the men of the 101st held the perimeter around Bastogne against numerous assaults. Finally the frustrated German commander sent a message under a white flag to General Anthony McAuliffe demanding that he surrender his forces and the town. According to Wikipedia…

“When General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st, was told, a frustrated McAuliffe responded, "Nuts!" After turning to other pressing issues, his staff reminded him that they should reply to the German demand. One officer (Harry W. O. Kinnard, then a Lieutenant Colonel) recommended that McAuliffe’s initial reply would be "tough to beat". Thus McAuliffe wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans: “NUTS!” That reply had to be explained, both to the Germans and to non-American Allies.”

I think we all know what he meant. Bastogne continued to hold out.

Then on 26 December 1944, one day after Christmas at 16:50 hr, the cavalry arrived led by that old cavalryman himself, General George S. Patton. Bastogne was relieved and the German advance halted. And while it took another month to re-establish the Allied lines, the Nazis were spent and their inevitable defeat was within sight.

Why am I bringing up this story of war and death at this time of the year? For two reasons.

First, just like 1944 we are facing one of the most difficult tests as a nation we have seen surely in our lifetimes as America and the world struggles with the issues of a worldwide financial meltdown, unrest and uncertainty in many nations and the threat of global terror to name a few.

But our response seems to be one of shock and anger at how bad things are and we are looking for someone to blame for our troubles whether they be members of our government or the business leaders from Wall Street to the boardrooms of America’s companies .

We are in a crisis and our leaders seem to be clueless as to what to do next. What have we come to when those we entrust to lead this country have no clue about what to do next then throw up their hands and go on vacation before they have done their jobs? The men at Bastogne could not just go on vacation.

Just compare that with what General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander told his battlefield commanders at a critical meeting on 19 December 1944 to decide what to do in the face of the overwhelming German offensive that had begun three days earlier.

“The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.”

He took a crisis and turned it into an opportunity. I can’t imagine an American political leader of today saying anything like that without weasel words and qualifiers. All I hear today is finger pointing and petty politics. To them my answer is the same as General McAuliffe so eloquently said to the Nazis, “Nuts!” And to my fellow Americans I say, “when the going gets tough the tough get going”.

But the second reason I wanted to write about this is to remember that no matter how bad things can get here at home, on countless bases and ships and in forts or foxholes around the world, thousands of our countrymen are standing guard against our enemies so that we can be free to celebrate this holiday season as we see fit. No more no less.

And no matter how bad things seem to be now, we as a people have been through much worse. And this generation of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is facing a test of our national character much like our parents and grandparents faced in that Christmas of 1944.

Are we made of the same stuff as that generation embodied by the soldiers at Bastogne and the many battlefields on land and sea of World War ll?

I think we are. In fact I am counting on it. And maybe just maybe we will emerge from these troubles stronger and wiser remembering that in the end a life is not judged by what one has acquired in material possessions but by leaving behind the world a little better than you found it. That is America to me.

So during this joyous season of celebration and the time of reflection that should come with the passing of the old year and our hopes for the new, always remember that somewhere, 24/7, the men and women of the United States Military are standing guard so that you can enjoy as it says in the Preamble to the United States Constitution, the “blessings of liberty”.

And to those soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines who have served our country over the years from the cold and snow of Bastogne during World War ll or the freezing temperatures of the Choisin Reservoir during the Korean War and from the fetid humid jungles of Vietnam to the intense sweltering heat of Iraq, I know all Americans join me in saying “thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

And to the families, who sit and keep a lonely vigil for their loved ones, you have our full support and we will stand by you, provide comfort for you and pray for you as you think of those far from home and long for their return.

Whatever your personal beliefs, here’s wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah. And to all of us here’s wishing a Happy New Year that brings with it the eternal hope of all peoples, “Peace on Earth, good will towards men”.

Here is a link to “A Soldier’s Christmas” that I think captures far better than me what I have been trying to say.