It was cold -- 10-degree cold, 5-degree cold, zero cold. And the snow came, to cover the rolling hills and forests and fields of eastern Belgium, much like those of New England. It was December 1944, and it was quiet along the World War II battle front where Belgium bordered Germany.
American troops worked to improve their positions, enlarging dugouts, finding places to sleep in cellars and barns where there was some escape from the cold, where they would pass the winter waiting for the fighting to start again in the spring.
Those who were there remember, and every year as the seasons change and fall becomes winter and December comes, they are there again, in the cellars they had found or the dugouts they had dug or the barns or smoke houses they had made their home where they hoped to spend the winter.
They remember the cold, the relentless, biting, cruel cold and their efforts to get some relief from it. It was quiet, and nothing much was happening, and the front was thinly held with only a few divisions defending a long front.
Then, on Dec. 16, the German army attacked in a staggering onslaught led by heavy Tiger tanks. Several mechanized divisions and thousands of foot soldiers poured across the border. The attack broke the stillness of the dawn as heavy artillery fired into the villages where the American soldiers were hunkered down. Chaos was everywhere as the tanks rumbled on, their guns firing everywhere, knocking down buildings, setting houses afire, their shells bursting among groups of soldiers and the machine guns in their turrets sweeping the area with fire.
GIs leapt out of their beds, struggled into their shoes, grabbed their rifles and their overcoats if they could and rushed about awaiting orders on what to do. The officers could do little in the first moments of the attack, and the troops fell back, stunned at the power of the forces moving against them, turning back from time to time as they retreated to fire their rifles at the advancing tanks and the white-clad foot soldiers alongside them.
But soon, despite the overwhelming power of the German attack, some defenses were established. Artillery began to answer the onslaught and stalled the advance at the tiny village of St. Vith. It delayed the advance in the south long enough to upset the pincerlike German advance that had created the bulge in the allied forces' lines, and set the whole timetable of the attack into shambles.
But it did not stop the advance, and the Germans continued their mighty assault.
The Americans continued to retreat, and the cold continued. Soldiers, with nowhere else to go, often hacked slit trenches out of the frozen ground and lay in them through the nights, two or three of them huddling together in effort to stay alive in the cold. Frostbite was common, and worse, when a soldier was hit and wounded, and no medics were able to get to him, he died there in the snow, freezing, alone, afraid, in agony.
But, finally, American forces held, and the weather cleared, and the heavy overcast that had lain over the land lifted. American warplanes could fly and they attacked the German columns, strafing them and bombing them. The German drive was halted. A long retreat began, and air attacks and artillery decimated the withdrawing German forces.
The Battle of the Bulge was this country's biggest land conflict of the European Theater, with 19,000 American soldiers killed out of 89,000 casualties. German casualties were much heavier, and although six months of bitter fighting lay ahead, the Nazis were unable to mount a major offensive again, and in the following spring Germany's great Wermacht began to falter, and by May 1945 it had dissolved.
The fighting in the battle was vicious and intense. And the cold made it all worse. No winter supplies had been provided for the troops. They would not be needed, the generals decided, as armies did not fight in the winter. Everyone knew that.
When winter comes now and wind blows snow across the land, soldiers who fought in the Bulge pull their coats a little more tightly around them. They feel the bite of the cold, and those days in Belgium return to them with the fear and the blood and the struggle to stay warm, and they wonder how they ever lived through it.
They are glad it all was long ago and lives only in their memories.
Bob Reed, 92, is a former editor of the editorial page at the Sun. His email address is Bgreedy1@aol.com