70 years ago today, American Humor & Defiance

Posted on: December 22nd, 2014 by Will Rodriguez 18 Comments
BG Anthony C. McAuliffe (left) & LTC Harry Kinnard, at Bastogne. - US War Dep't

70 years ago today American troops found themselves engaged in the second largest battle in its history.*  Over half a million American troops eventually fought the Nazis during that Battle of the Bulge but in its early days the odds were very much in the Germansd favor.

From the city of Bastogne emenated major highways critical to the German’s advance and tight timetable. Realizing its strategic importance the 101st division was taken out of strategic reserve while recuperating from Operation Market Garden.  Short winter issue in the coldest winter in Belgium in almost a century, ammo, medical supplies and even key commanders, the 101st was rushed in cattle cars driving all night to reach Bastogne before the Germans did.

The 101st along with a hodgepodge of units defended Bastogne on the losing end of five to one odds against units of the XLVII Panzer Corps starting on 20 December 1944.  On the morning of the 22nd four Germans approached the American lines under white flags to deliver a message to the 101st’s Division Commander.  Blindfolded, two German officers were taken to a regimental headquarters while the message was taken to the Division command post.

The message read:

“December 22nd 1944

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 Hompre-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 one 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
hours’ term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this
artillery fire would not correspond with the wellknown
American humanity.

The German Commander.”  

Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe was roused from his sleeping bag after two days of establishing and conducting the defense of Bastogne against parts of the German Panzer Lehr Division, 2nd Panzer Division, 5th Parachute Division and 26th Volksgrenadier Division.  Upon being shown the German letter McAuliffe initially asked if the Germans were surrendering.  When informed the Germans were asking for the Americans surrender the General replied “Us surrender, aw nuts!” and drop the letter to the floor and left the CP to congratulate a unit that had taken a German road block that morning.

The German officers waiting at the regimental headquarters expected a written response to the German’s written request.  Gen McAuliffe asked his Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard what to say to which he responded the General’s initial response would be hard to beat.  It was typed up:

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S !

The American Commander”  

COL Bud Harper, the 327th Regimental Commander personally delivered the letter to the German officers who before opening asked if the answer was “affirmative or negative”.  COL Harper said, “The reply consists of a single word, NUTS!” The German lieutenant, not understanding, asked, “Is that reply negative or affirmative?” COL Harper said, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative”, adding, “If you continue this foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous.”

The Germans were then escorted to the front line where they opened the letter and read it.  Still not understanding they asked for a further explanation.  Harper said to German speaking PFC Ernest Premetz , “Tell them to take a flying s**t!” Premetz paraphrased the Colonel’s response and said, “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen” or “You can go to Hell.”

The response would make its way through the grapevine throughout the 101st raising the spirits of the surrounded troops and eventually to the whole front.  It has since become a piece of American martial folklore and appropriately punctuates the highly unlikely and extremely rare achievement of shivering paratroopers, their boots wrapped in blankets responding and eventually repelling German armored in classic “grunt” style.


*The Battle of France was the largest US ground battle.

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • YankeePapa

    …I moved to Seattle from Boise in May of 1964… That Fall
    went to an old junior high school.  But in the Fall of 1965 I became a
    Sophomore at a fairly new high school… Nathan Hale.  The seniors that
    year were the first to enter the new school as Sophomores.  School
    spirit was something amazing.  
    …Every Monday morning
    four trumpeters from the school band played “To the Colors…” in the
    hallways.  A candy wrapper would not be on the deck for more than a
    minute before someone would pick it up.  When my class graduated…
    girls that I knew a class behind be wrote to me about how much things
    changed after my class left.  
    …My step-brother expelled
    for lighting a cigarette in the school parking lot after school… six
    months later he was in RVN with the 101st Airborne (AMBL).  But “smoking
    rooms” were opened for the class after ours. My class the last where
    girls had to wear skirts or dresses (except on snow days…)  Ratty
    jeans just fine the following year.  School was no longer free of
    litter… and “To the Colors” no longer played.  
    don’t know when they would have taken it down, but next to all of the
    many school’s trophies was a framed document on the wall.  It was a copy
    of General McAuliffe’s written address to his men detailing his “very
    American” response to the German commander.  Being proud of the good
    part of America’s history was not considered anti-social behavior in my
    …Below:  Part of Memorial Day posting of mine this year from SOFREP…
     … Our first KIA from Nathan Hale in Vietnam (1966) was Jim
    Godsey… his brother in my junior year class.  Godsey was a Marine
    L/Cpl choppered in from LPH on assault.  Was supposed to be little more
    than a training mission against very light VC opposition June 19, 1966… Landed in a
    massive hornets nest of a main force unit staging for an attack.

    nearest American units (Army) pouring into the area… Marines were
    massively reinforced, then relieved…  Became part of Operation Nathan
    An assembly was held at Nathan Hale.  Veterans’ group there.  Presented
    the school with a flag that had flown over the White House… and a
    plaque with Jim Godsey’s name, date of graduation… branch of
    service… and date KIA. 
    There would be more names added from that war… and later wars…  But there would be no more assemblies. 
    Read more: http://sofrep.com/35526/best-sofrep-memorial-day-sofrep-community/#ixzz3MhKcSMvH

  • toril

    Interesting article Will, I had seen the response before, but never the letter the German’s had originally sent.  Its amazing how that four letter word summed up everything so well. Also interesting to read about the “Tell them to take a flying s**t!”, again so much summed up in a short phrase.

  • LawyerHandle

    In your (and others, ah hem, YP) opinion, does the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers do a decent job of depicting events during the Battle of the Bulge & Bastogne? And, does anyone know a good source to read more about Capt. Ronald Speirs actions during the fight for the town Foy? Here is a link to the scene in BoB

  • YankeePapa

    LawyerHandle ,
    …I will let Majrod handle questions specific to Battle of the Bulge.  Two comments that I would like to make though.  First, is that I much preferred Band of Brothers to Saving Private Ryan for a number of reasons. 
    … Second, once the Germans had shot their bolt and the Battle of the Bulge itself was over… I am not so sure about the campaign to roll them back.  I know that there were some Army officers who wanted a less direct roll-back.  Somewhat costly… especially with so many replacements in the line… But I don’t know if maybe larger issues prevented another approach.

  • LawyerHandle 
    From my research Band of Brothers is an excellent study of the 2-506th, units associated with it and its general history.  The 2-506 was one of about a dozen BN’s at the Battle of the Bulge and is pretty representative but you have Battalions like the 1-506 that lost a third of its strength conducting a fighting withdrawing from its forward positions early in the battle.  It was subsequently placed in division reserve because of the mauling.
    The series seemed to depict the 2-506 paratroopers as better prepared for the cold weather than what’s recorded.  From my discussions with 101st veterans, they relay a hellish experience when it came to the cold even worse than Korea for some that served in both wars.

    Speirs’ actions at Foy are probably one of the top three combat scenes for me in the series and especially speak to me as an officer because that’s what I was taught was expected of me as a young Lieutenant.  The best telling I’ve ever read is Ambrose book which also has some not so nice things to say about Speirs when it came to his treatment of German prisoners or summary justice.

    When it comes to a general study of Bastogne I’d also highly recommend the movie “Battleground” and the references that went into its making.

  • LawyerHandle

    Thanks for the reply. I remember them mentioning how miserably cold and under-clothed they were @ Bastogne in Band of Brothers; it wasn’t a constant throughout all the Bastogne episodes but they did make a point to bring it up- and it was mentioned often in the pre-episode interviews w/ the real guys. Maybe it was just me but I certainly walked away w/ an understanding of how miserable the weather was for those guys that winter.
    As for Speirs; I had heard the various allegations about shooting POWs and they hint at it in the Band of Brothers HBO series a few times- everyone gets really nervous whenever Speirs offers them a smoke. There is also an allegation that Speirs killed a sergeant (I think) for failure to obey orders- one version says the sergeant was too drunk and the other says the sergeant snapped/broke and couldn’t stop shouting, thus giving away their position, so Speirs shot him. He reported the incident to his Capt. but the Capt. was KIA the next day (some say before he could report it further up the chain) and nothing ever came of it. Maj. Dick Winters speculated that even if it was reported up the chain (and the POW allegations too), nothing would’ve happened to Speirs anyway b/c the Army was desperate for good officers. Do you all think that has some truth to it?

  • LawyerHandle 
    and then there was the incident after VE Day where he dispatched troops to a suspected especially virulent Nazi and if what he heard was true,to shoot the Nazi.  They did.
    Yes, I’m sure the shortage of good officers had something to do with it as well as Speirs specific performance and a different mindset about what happens in combat.  
    Atkinson’s WWII trilogy shocked me with the number of documented American atrocities during WWII (hundreds).

  • LawyerHandle

    Did Speirs participate in the Brécourt Manor Assault or was that something where the BoB’s writers took a little artistic liberty and included him to show the audience that he was a badass… And not to get too off topic from the Bulge but was BoB’s depiction of that assault otherwise pretty accurate?

  • LawyerHandle 
    BoB’s depiction of the battle is spot on based on everything I’ve read of the battle.

  • LawyerHandle 
    About combat in the cold…
    Most people can’t appreciate it and how it impacts you.  To do so would mean living outdoors in a hole unable to build a fire for fear it would give away your position and having to weigh doing pushups/jumping jacks with exposing yourself to enemy fire.  Worst of all, enduring those conditions with someone else beyond your control deciding if/when you’ll get a respite. 

    I’ve done extended (weeks at a time) field problems in pretty cold weather (sub freezing and single digits).  It sucks beyond description and can be a soul sucking experience.  It’s why I don’t live in areas that typically get snow in the winter.  I knew when the field problem would end.  It can only be exponentially worse to not know when your suffering will end.

  • LawyerHandle

    I cannot even begin to imagine how terrible it was. In the pre-interviews several of the real guys from BoB would talk about waking up from nightmares about Bastogne w/ chattering teeth and chills even though they were in a warm bed, inside a warm house years after the war. They would also talk about how just when they would get somewhat comfortable in their foxholes, almost w/out fail, the Germans would open up w/ a bombardment from their howitzers and the guys would just duck down as much as they could and just hope that it wasn’t thier time to go. I cannot imagine how helpless that feeling had to be. I also remember one guy saying that he would get sick at the smell of pine trees for years after the war b/c it reminded him of Bastogne and how all they could smell was pine and gunpowder after the bombardments ended- the explosions would split the trees.

  • LawyerHandle 
    I can empathize.  It took me a couple of years to visit a beach after Desert Storm and to this day I don’t eat anything with mangos.  Seems every meal we were given over there had some mango dish e.g. mango milk, mango pie, chicken with mango, mango juice, mango pudding, mango candy…
    (I always imagine Bubba from Forest Gump reading off a list of mango dishes instead of shrimp…)

  • Txazz

    majrod LawyerHandle When I think of Korea “bitter cold” is what comes to me.  What a terrible war.

  • aGrimm

    YankeePapa First time commenting here, but have been a lurker for some time.  I very much appreciate yours, Major Rod’s and a couple of others historical information and wish to say thanks.
    Re Nathan Hale HS, Have you seen the news about all of the NH juniors opting out of Common Core tests?  http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/education/nathan-hale-high-school-juniors-boycott-state-test/ 
    I’m a ’67 Seattle Prep grad, but I had a couple friends who went to NH.   I remember being quite impressed with the school (despite the usual HS rivalry mentality we all have at that age).   Anyway, this latest news out of NH may indicate that it is getting back on the right track.   It is a  sad commentary on the times that assemblies ceased to happen to honor the fallen NH alums, but we both know why that happened.

  • YankeePapa

    aGrimm YankeePapa ,
    …Nathan Hale had 100% refusal rate (highest in city).  Interesting, and maybe even hopeful.  Some good news from there would cheer me up.

    …In September of 1965 I wound up at Nathan Hale for my Sophomore year.  Took a seat in the typing class (I never would have made it through high school, let alone college without typing… my handwriting is like that of a stroke victim… seriously…)  
    …Almost 30 years later I got my first PC and took an adult education class re care and feeding of same.  By chance I wound up in the same seat in the same typing classroom.  Only instead of typewriters… PCs… 
    …The school was not the same.  One day’s worth of trash and litter when I walked in at 4 PM… vastly more than I ever saw back in the day.  We adults had to clean the PCs… they were massively dusty… The janitors said that they were not required to clean electronics and the teachers said that it was not in their contracts.  
    …The only thing sadder than all that was when I looked at the plaque with Jim Godsey’s name.  I had not been back to the school except for one visit after I completed Marine boot camp, ITR, and BITS.  The plaque was not only filled up… but they had started another. 
    …Anyway, welcome aboard.  Pull up a bayonet and make yourself at home.

  • aGrimm

    YankeePapa aGrimm Picked up this site from SOFREP because I love military history, especially the Civil War.  However I’m no scholar at military history or other military things so probably won’t comment too often here.  My forte is more along science lines.  Didn’t get issued a bayonet in Recon – will a K-bar do?

  • YankeePapa

    aGrimm YankeePapa ,
    …Any interest at all in any kind of history (let alone loving it) puts you ahead of far too much of the American public.  People with a healthy interest in history and events always welcome here.  Comments and questions always welcome by Majrod, myself, and others here. 

    …I haven’t posted up anything on the Civil War yet, 

      But you might check out items here on frontier infantry, ordnance history, and bicycle infantry… 
    K-Bar will do just fine.
    -Yankee* Papa-
    *”Handle” not from Civil War, but from Africa…

  • aGrimm YankeePapa 
    Thanks for visiting and jumping to post a comment.  Appreciate the participation!