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Fried Chicken and Family – Christmas 1944
Christmas Day 1944, near Trois-Pont, Belgium, was truly a white Christmas. It was also incredibly cold, especially for those 82nd paratroopers that were holding a tenuous thin line against the best combined armed force the German army could muster. Due to the lack of manpower, men were scattered in two-man foxholes across a much broader front than normal tactics dictated. In such situations, necessity breeds violation.
Combat is the ultimate test of doctrine and wise commanders adjust doctrine to meet tactical necessity. The men were at the crest of a large hill mass that faced another even larger mass, separated only by a partially cleared but snowbound field. Their position could be reached by only the suggestion of a bad road worn into the land by years of wood collectors and game wardens. By no stretch, could it support the requirements of an infantry unit. As such, it did not.
The troops, most still wearing only the light summer paratroop fatigues and leather boots, spent much of their time simply trying to survive. The frequent forays of probing German units served as momentary periods of warmth as adrenalin fired the near-frozen skin and viscera of the combatants. Once quiet resumed, the necessary acts to retain or gain some form of warmth took precedent. Open fires were out of the question. Consequently, the outposts huddled in small foxholes for body warmth and occasionally built small twig fires in the bottom for a moment of heat. But only a moment.
Some had “acquired” a quilt or blanket from some luckless peasant quarters earlier or had the foresight to steal the blanket off their beds in Soissons, France, where they had been recovering from Market-Garden. Very few had the new shoe pacs or even galoshes, so quick was their departure the evening of 17 December. Virtually all troops had bedsheets as hasty camouflage cover.
16 December had brought the juggernaut of two panzer armies against the thinly held Ardennes sector. Very quickly, two US regiments of the green 106th Division were overrun and surrendered. All along the Belgian border area, US units were thrown back in disarray coalescing in pockets of resistance as best they could. Engineer elements blew bridges and with great courage, stoically defended crucial crossing sites and intersections. Places such as Bastogne, St. Vith, Malmedy, Trois-Pont, and Fraiture began to fill with withdrawing elements, mostly leaderless and in some panic.
General Dwight Eisenhower, after understanding the magnitude of the effort, released his only Theatre reserves, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions at 1900 on 17 December. They were only at part strength with many troops on leave and much of their ordnance in shops for repair. Only a minimal amount of ammunition was locally available.
Loading on hastily assembled Red Ball Express vehicles, mostly open trucks, the troops deployed as rapidly as they could be assembled with only minimal attention to unit integrity so great was the need. Throughout the night, and in alternating sub-zero and sleeting weather, they traveled east to the disintegrating sectors. One division would go to Bastogne in the southern area and the other to Werbomont, further north. Ultimate assignment would be determined after MG Jim Gavin, Acting Corps Commander in the absence of MG Ridgway in the UK and CG, 82nd, met in Bastogne with MG Middleton, the CG VIII Corps.
By luck of the draw and a shorter distance to travel, the 101st arrived in Bastogne, and Gavin ordered it to hold the road structure. The 82nd would go to Werbomont and figure it out from there, so tenuous was any intelligence on German dispositions and intentions. Gavin, meeting the lead elements of his division in the early dawn of 18 December, and with no real feel for enemy dispositions, sent them east on a line paralleling the high ground overlooking the valley between the Rivers Salm and Ourthe. This was a long ridge stretching from Belgium almost into Germany. This would be the northern shoulder of what was soon labeled “The Bulge.”
One of these elements was the 505 PIR which was assigned the easternmost portion of the loosely held line. It was a small group of troops from one of the three battalions that found themselves on a very cold Christmas, receiving presents beyond price.
The outpost had been in intermittent contact all day and much of the preceding night. Sleep was a forgotten luxury. Both extreme cold and professional German infantry, well-supported by artillery and armor, forced a maintenance of alertness that a hard core NCO would have envied.
The troops were closely rationing the few boxes of K rations they had snatched in France. Most had eaten the main meals some time ago and were now subsisting on cigarettes, gum, candy, and memories. There was no reason to believe this situation would soon change.
In this area, daylight was a rumor and dark a reality. Fog, even in this most frigid air, had frequently clouded and rolled over the position obscuring all but a few meters to the front. The NCOs in response, sent small patrols and outposts as far forward as the leading edge of the fronting woods, not daring a further positioning for fear of the outposts being bypassed.
Every step broke the hard dry snow surface and sounded across the ground. Here, the snow was dry as flour but crusted. A walk of less than a hundred meters was exhausting. A small patrol could be a full day’s affair. Stealth was achievable only under the dark snow-laden trees that delineated the irregular open ground. The rough roads and paths were packed with deep drifts, all but impenetrable except by armor—of which the Germans apparently had a great deal.
Dark arrived quickly here, with less than six hours of furtive daylight to bar its entrance. The skies had been consistently low, leaden, and impenetrable. The only consistency was the sharp, surgical precision of the cold. No planes were seen or heard. Silence was deep and profound except for the sudden eruption of artillery announcing a German thrust in the sector. A battle would be fought, and calm and cold would then return.
The troops talked in low mutterings through blue lips and clenched teeth. Talking expended energy and movement was prized more than conversation. What talk there was, was of past Christmases, sumptuous feasts relived mouthful by mouthful, and warm surroundings. While they talked to Army efforts to feed a Christmas feast, they were completely aware that this would not happen here, at this time. But, they were wrong.
Famous for being “up front” and for caring for his troops, MG Gavin did not shirk this moment—though his position would allow him to do so. Christmas Day 1944, was not auspicious other than for the precarious nature of his command. Stretched very thin along rugged snow packed terrain, his command was constantly engaged by a force superior in arms but not in will. Only because of the tenacity and ingenuity of his troops, was Gavin able to hold his positions.
From his headquarters in Bra-sur-Lienne, Belgium, as he always did, he visited as many troop positions and subordinate commanders as he could. A review of the Division Operations Report (OpRep) indicates the history for that day.
25 December 1944
All units successfully broke contact with the enemy and withdrew to the new defense line (NOTE: the 82nd had been ordered to withdraw to a tighter line in the rear by General Bernard Montgomery the night before. This, somewhat, allowed a reduction of the distance between them. But it also forced Gavin to find his elements in new positions.)
325th Glider Infantry, the 1st Battalion, filled the gap between the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 7th Armored Division by occupying DRI-LE-CHESLIN and VAUX-CHAVANNE. At 2200 hours, an enemy infantry attack was repulsed. The 2nd Battalion as Division Reserve and the 3rd Battalion as Regimental Reserve occupied positions near AU-HETRE.
504th Parachute Infantry—2nd and 3rd Battalions occupied new positions along the line EN BERGIFA to BRA-VAUX-CHAVANNE. The 1st Battalion, in Regimental Reserve, vicinity of BRA.
505th Parachute Infantry—the 2nd and 3rd Battalions now occupied new defensive positions between TROIS-PONTS and BASSE-BODEUX. 1st Battalion occupied a position 3000 yards north of BASSE-BODEUX as Regimental Reserve.
508th Parachute Infantry—occupied new defensive positions along the line HAUTE-BODEUX, EN BERGIFA with all Battalions on the MLR. The 3rd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment (28th Inf Div) was relieved of attachment to the 508th Prcht Inf Regt.
307th Airborne Engineer Battalion laid minefields; constructed field fortifications called abatises, and blew bridges to form a barrier along the Division Front.
B Company, 86th Chemical Battalion, A Company, 703d TD Battalion, and 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion were attached to the Division. C Company, 563d Antiaircraft Artillery, Automatic Weapons Battalion was relieved of attachment to the Division.
Previously, on 24 December, the skies had cleared. On one hand, this was a Godsend permitting planes to fly for the first time since the initial attack. Fighters assisted the Division several times in taking out German armor, now constricted on narrow mountain roads and almost out of gas. But, there was a downside.
The open skies meant a much colder temperature for the troops, bound in deep snow and ice. The somewhat warming effect of the low clouds and fog was lost. Concurrently, night brought an almost full moon, eerily illuminating the sparkling snow across the entire front. What once was lost to sight, was now open and at a good distance. Only the dark, laden pines and fir trees obscured vision. It was in the early morning of 25 December that General Gavin began what was his normal day—visiting the units, talking to the troops, and encouraging them where they needed the most support. He was always mindful of the mental condition and emotional needs of his troops. If he could not supply warmth, he could supply spirit. Most often, that was all his troops needed to carry the day.
Preparing to depart his CP with his aide, Hugo Olson, and a driver, he stopped briefly at the mess, took an empty K ration box and went into the kitchen. He returned to his vehicle and asked Hugo to navigate the jeep to his first position. Over the course of the day, he would traverse more than 15 miles of frontage, visiting each of his subordinate units.
The first elements he visited were from the 325 GIR, now holding the high ground along Baraque De Fraiture, the scene of tenacious Tank-Infantry combat the previous few days. The 325, now fully blooded in Normandy, was an integral and highly competent force despite their lack of Airborne status.
Next were elements of the 508th PIR, a mixed element of the 517th and 509th PIRs and the 504th PIR. The recently added 517th and 509th elements had been rushed from the UK as Airborne reinforcements and were not a normal part of the 82nd. However, as Airborne, Gen. Gavin welcomed them to the Division and gladly added them to his stretched forces.
Well past dark and at almost midnight, the General’s jeep found itself at the base of a hill near the last unit. A barely discernible trail was indicated through the deep snow by a small path cut by soldiers who had gone before. The jeep began to wind its way up the narrow twisting trail until it was almost completely snowbound near the crest. At this point, General Gavin ordered the jeep to stop and jumped out. He was almost waist deep in snow but could clearly see the troop positions in the shining moonlight and moved methodically toward them. To his rear, his driver followed with a K ration box in his arms.
Coming upon the men, now on full alert to the people looming behind them, they recognized the general and assumed a loose posture of attention. Gen. Gavin, as he always did, immediately put them at ease with a:
“Hey fellas. Merry Christmas.”
He jumped down into the nearest position, followed by his driver and opened the K ration box and its small remaining portion of fried chicken. He passed the box around to each man who quickly reached in and extracted a piece. While Gen. Gavin held light conversation, the troops eagerly gnawed the long cold meat.
After a few minutes, he turned to his driver and said;
“Come on. Let’s go.”
With that comment, he departed, leaving his troopers with some of the greatest gifts they could have, something to digest for both the stomach and the soul. This is why soldiers fight and would fight for him. It was a lesson in loyalty, dedication, compassion and steely resolve-for both the superior and the subordinates.