In this Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 photo, World War II and Battle of the Bulge veteran Arthur Jacobson, from Port St. Lucie, Florida, speaks with a journalist during an interview with the The Associated Press at the Remember Museum 39-45 in Thimister-Clermont, Belgium. It was 75 years ago that Hitler launched his last desperate attack to turn the tide for Germany in World War II. At first, German forces drove so deep through the front line in Belgium and Luxembourg that the month-long fighting came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Nuts! 75 years since U.S. troops thwarted Hitler’s last gamble

The recollection of his worst day in the Battle of the Bulge still haunts Arthur Jacobson

Pvt. Arthur Jacobson was seeking cover in the snow behind a tank moving slowly through the wooded hills of Belgium’s Ardennes, German bullets whizzing by.

That was when he lost his best friend and Bazooka team partner to sniper fire. “They couldn’t hit him, he shouted,” Jacobson said wistfully. “Those were his last words.”

The recollection of his worst day in the Battle of the Bulge still haunts him, three quarters of a century later during the first return of the 95-year-old to the battlefield.

And at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump is fanning the flames of trans-Atlantic discord, the pristine-white rows of thousands of grave markers over the remains of U.S. soldiers in cemeteries on the former front line hark back to the days when Americans made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause across the ocean.

The fighting in the bitterly cold winter of 1944 was unforgiving to the extreme.

What Jacobson didn’t know then was that he was part of the battle to contain Nazi Germany’s desperate last offensive that Adolf Hitler hoped would become his version of the Allies’ D-Day: A momentous thrust that would change the course of World War II by forcing U.S. and British troops to sue for peace, thus freeing Germany to focus on rapidly advancing Soviet armies in the east.

“WE WERE THERE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT”

The Battle of the Bulge “is arguably the greatest battle in American military history,” according to the U.S. army historical centre. Such perspective came only later to Jacobson, who was barely 20 at the time.

“They really didn’t tell us anything,” he said . “The Germans had attacked through Belgium, and we were there to do something about it.”

Out of the blue at dawn on Dec. 16, 1944, over 200,000 German troops counter-attacked across the front line in Belgium and Luxembourg, smashing into battle-weary US soldiers positioned in terrain as foreign to them as it was familiar to the Germans.

Yet somehow, the Americans blunted the advance and started turning back the enemy for good, setting allied troops on a roll that would end the war in Europe less than five months later.

This battle gained fame not so much for the commanders’ tactics as for the resilience of small units hampered by poor communications that stood shoulder to shoulder to deny Hitler the quick breakthrough he desperately needed. Even though the Americans were often pushed back, they were able to delay the German advance in its crucial initial stages. The tipping point was to come later.

All weekend, a handful of returning veterans like Jacobson will be feted by an ever grateful local population for their bravery. Royalty, dignitaries and some government leaders will gather in Bastogne, Belgium and Hamm, Luxembourg, on Monday to remember the battle itself. “It will be a great day,”” said Belgian Vice Premier Koen Geens. Remembering both the German forces, driven on by Hitler’s hated SS troops, and the allied soldiers, he said: “We are capable of the worst and of the best.”

ALSO READ: U.S. school official sorry for calling Hitler a ‘good leader’

“I DON’T NEED A NECKTIE”

Overall, deaths in the month-long battle are estimated in the five digits. The Americans suffered at least 80,000 casualties including more than 10,000 dead, while up to 12,000 were listed killed among some 100,000 German casualties.

Among the fallen was Albert W. Duffer, Jacobson’s Bazooka team partner, shot in the neck by a German sniper on Jan. 6, 1945. Last Tuesday Jacobson went to greet Duffer for the first time in 75 years — at the Henri Chapelle U.S. cemetery in the northern part of the battle zone, where 7,987 U.S. soldiers lie buried. At dusk, Jacobson watched the U.S. flag being lowered and was presented with it in recognition of his valour.

The Battle of the Bulge was one of the war’s least predictable campaigns. After D-Day and the draining Normandy drive, allied troops sweeping across the continent believed the worst was behind them.

Paris had been liberated, Gen. George Patton was moving eastwards toward Germany, and Hitler had to keep an increasingly bleary eye on Stalin’s Soviet armies advancing on the Eastern Front.

“The thought was that Germany was on its knees and could no longer raise a big army,”said Mathieu Billa, director of the Bastogne War Museum.

Still, Hitler believed Germany could turn the tide, and centred on regaining the northern Belgian port of Antwerp with a push through the sparsely populated Ardennes.

The 120-mile (170 kilometre) dash seemed so fanciful that few of Hitler’s own generals believed in it, let alone the allied command. Allied intelligence heard something might be afoot, but even on the eve of the attack the U.S. VIII Corps daily note said that “There is nothing to report.”

For days to follow, the only reports would be bad for U.S. troops retreating amid word that SS troops were executing their prisoners — like at Malmedy, where 80 surrendered soldiers were murdered in a frozen field.

When Jacobson moved into the Ardennes, night temperatures outdoors dropped as low as -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). “”You had to dance around not to freeze to death,” he said. Daytime saw the constant fear of sniper fire.

Back home in the States, some were oblivious to the soldiers’ plight. “My family sent me a necktie,” Jacobson chuckled. “I sent a letter back: ‘I don’t need a necktie’.”

“NUTS!”

Soon though, the German effort pushed its limits as Antwerp remained well out of reach and troops ran out of ammunition, morale and, crucially, fuel. Even the weather turned against the Germans, as the skies finally cleared, allowing the all-powerful allied air force to pound the enemy.

Nowhere was that tipping point more visible than in the southern Ardennes town of Bastogne, where surrounded U.S. troops were cut off for days with little ammunition or food.

When Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne received a Dec. 22 ultimatum to surrender or face total destruction, he offered one of the most famous — and brief — replies in military history: “”Nuts.”“

Four days later, Patton’s troops broke the encirclement. And so it went with the Battle of the Bulge too, with the U.S. troops gaining momentum after Christmas.

After the fighting ended on 28 January 1945, Allied forces invaded Germany, eventually leading to the Nazi surrender and the end of the war in Europe.

Jacobson, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, also entered Germany. But his war was ended by a March 2 mortar blast, which seriously injured his leg and killed three other soldiers.

After eight months of front-line horror, hospital offered him a kind of deliverance despite the pain.

“I used to wake up at night in the hospital. I’d dream about having to move out at night,” he said. “Orders would come down, ‘let’s move out to another position.’ And I’d wake up,” he said, “and look around and see where I was and then smile to myself and go back to sleep.”

Raf Casert, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Quesnel businesses can apply for 2020 façade improvement grants

In 2019, the City helped five businesses through the Northern Development Initiative Trust program

Ranch Musings: Our mental health and well-being in these times

Columnist David Zirnhelt writes about ranching during the COVID-19 pandemic

CN suspending service between Williams Lake and Squamish, effective April 3

Rail traffic north of Williams Lake will be routed to Vancouver through Prince George and Kamloops

COVID-19: United Way of Northern B.C. establishes relief fund to get resources to the most vulnerable

There has already been ‘a huge outcry’ for food supports, funding and personal protective equipment

COVID-19: Quesnel’s Billy Barker Days Festival will happen but may be delayed and look different

‘It will be something different than it has been in other years,’ say organizers

VIDEO: ‘Used gloves and masks go in the garbage,’ says irked B.C. mayor

Health officials have said single-use gloves won’t do much to curb the spread of COVID-19

Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

Unclear if Cowichan couple refusing to self-isolate will face penalty

No fines or charges have been laid to date, including Cowichan couple who won’t self isolate

Sinclar Group curtailing all sawmill operations temporarily

Nechako Lumber, Apollo Forest Products and Lakeland Mills to be curtailed for three weeks starting April 5.

COVID-19: Postponed surgeries will be done, B.C. health minister says

Contract with private surgical clinic to help clear backlog

Black Press Media ad sparks discussion about value of community newspapers

White Rock resident hopes front-page note shines light on revenue loss during COVID-19 crisis

Don’t stop going to the doctor, just do it virtually: B.C. association

Doctors encourage patients to access telephone, online visits

Businesses advised to prepare for federal, B.C. COVID-19 assistance

Canada Revenue Agency portal expected to open next week

Most Read