I think I was in high school the first I heard about U.S. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe’s reply to the Germans when asked to surrender when his army was heavily outnumbered and surrounded at Bastogne. A few German officers approached his lines under a white flag to offer an ultimatum of total surrender or annihilation. Even though his men, facing a dire situation and surrounded, the brazen McAuliffe initially believed it was the Germans who wanted to surrender.
McAuliffe wasted little time and sent back a typed message centered on the page:
“December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander”
Winston Churchill called the Battle of the Bulge America’s greatest moment during the war, not just for the heroics, but because we shouldered the burden of the thunderous German offensive alone.
Many Americans today know the story of the Bulge through the eyes of Easy Company, profiled by the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” based on the book by Stephen Ambrose. Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne, fought the Germans without winter clothing and limited supplies in December of 1944.
“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,” the brave-faced McAuliffe told the allied command. In reality, the frigid weather, low visibility, high casualties, and constant shelling proved a miserable existence. All the while, freezing Americans in foxholes waited in agony for a the desperate and dangerous German advances.
Still, in a heroic feat, the 101st Airborne held out for seven days against overwhelming odds until the arrival of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army right after Christmas.
I learned many great American stories from a high school teacher in South Mississippi named Doug Bremenkamp. He told riveting tales about people like Alvin York, Pappy Boyington, and the heroic men of Torpedo Squadron 8. I’m sure many of the students found it boring and irrelevant to their daily lives, but I was enthralled. Nobody had sat me down and told me these stories, and if they did, I hadn’t cared enough to listen yet.
I hope they still teach this kind of history in the schools, but like many, I have my doubts.
Bremenkamp was a great teacher, and his dad, who substituted at the school from time to time, seemed more popular with the students. He told stories about being a forward air control (FAC) pilot in Vietnam. Savvy students realized if they could get the elder Bremenkamp talking up his war experiences, the more mundane lesson for the day might vanish. As education for life goes, tales of war from a faraway land are invaluable. They stay with you.
When one hears about the Battle of Okinawa or the Chosin Reservoir, it’s a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants as Americans. Seeing the world—my dad is a retired Air Force pilot—and hearing all those stories cultivated a love for studying and researching military history.
From an educational standpoint, I’m not sure anything impacted me like that until I picked up a book titled “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius. A seminary professor in Kentucky assigned it for class. I remember weeping through almost every page.
Everything about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and Christmas became clearer and more profound than I ever imagined. “For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in human body,” wrote Athanasius. The ancient text spoke to me in ways, so many modern ones seem hollow.
Christmas is not about acquiring stuff but receiving and standing for truth. I’m thankful that resonates with so many of our readers.
Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor and a Second Amendment research fellow at the John Locke Foundation.