“What’s merry about all this, you ask?”
With that blunt question, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, acting commander of the besieged 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium, began his storied Dec. 24, 1944, Christmas message to the overmatched Screaming Eagle Division.
For seven days, Soldiers of the 101st and other Army elements fended off the siege of Bastogne, the key crossroads city that was beset on all sides by nine determined German divisions. The miserable weather that prevented resupply and air support added to the American’s woes as they found themselves ill-equipped for combat in the dead of winter.
In his journal, then-Pfc. Eduardo A. Peniche, a distinguished member of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, described the experience as a defining moment in his life as a Soldier and as an American.
“To see well-disciplined, courageous fellow Soldiers well-motivated to follow orders under the most hellish of circumstances yet, without hesitation, at that very trying moment everyone seemed to know what had to be done and they did it,” he wrote.
Despite the odds and adverse conditions, the Screaming Eagle Division remained defiant and rolled with the punches. On Christmas Eve, as Soldiers read McAuliffe’s motivational missive, Bastogne was bombed twice by the Luftwaffe.
“Yet, on that unholy night, history has recorded an unforgettable mass that took place in town,” wrote Peniche in his journal.
“Wounded airborne Soldiers shed tears at the tune of ‘Silent Night,’” he continued.
The German prisoners of war were visited by McAuliffe himself as they were singing “‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O Tannenbaum.’” He wished them a Merry Christmas.”
This Christmas thousands of Soldiers will be spending the holiday far away from the warmth and comforts of home and Family. They will be manning the ramparts of freedom and democracy in locations around the globe. They do this not in self-interest but in the spirit of sacrifice, which is what Christmas is all about.
In McAuliffe’s letter, he said that through sacrifice, service and duty the battered bastards of Bastogne were giving a worthy Christmas present to their country and their Families – a gift that the Soldiers of Fort Campbell continue to provide to this day. Unlike Thomas Paine’s summer soldier and sunshine patriot who, in crisis, shrinks from the service of their country, it is the winter Soldier who weathers the storm and wins the day. Merry Christmas Fort Campbell.