Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe and his men — many from the 101st Airborne Division, along with some stragglers from Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division (known as “The Bloody Bucket”) and the 9th Armored “Phantom” Division — spent Christmas of 1944 in the Belgian city of Bastogne, surrounded by an ever-encroaching enemy and greatly outnumbered.

On December 22, the German commander sent word to McAuliffe, informing him that he and his troops were surrounded and demanding that they surrender. He warned the American general that if he did not surrender, the attack would be swift and merciless — and he promised that the inevitable civilian casualties would be blamed on the Americans.

McAuliffe responded to the German threat with just one word: “Nuts!” And, as promised, the German army began to tighten its grip on Bastogne. Machine-gun fire and approaching tanks met any American soldier who approached the perimeter, and Junkers Ju 88 bombers flew over the city as visibility allowed. The Germans also blanketed the area with pamphlets promising relief from the hunger and frigid conditions to anyone who surrendered.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve, McAuliffe sent a letter to rally his troops:

McAuliffe’s letter began with the heading “Merry Christmas”:

What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting — it’s cold, we aren’t home. 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? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance:

To the U. S. A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U. S. A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompres-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U. S. A. Troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected the German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U. S. A. Troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hour’s term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.

The German Commander

The German Commander received the following reply:

22 December 1944

“To the German Commander:

N U T S !

The American Commander”

Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: “Well Done!”

We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.

That night, the Junkers dropped one-ton bombs on the city of Bastogne. They destroyed a makeshift hospital, killing dozens of wounded soldiers, nurses, and medics. But McAuliffe’s men held the city, earning for the 101st Airborne Division the nickname “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne.”

General George S. Patton arrived the day after Christmas, bringing with him the necessary strength to break the siege and relieve McAuliffe’s men.

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