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VETERANS MARK 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF HUGE OFFENSIVE

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Gathered at a hilltop memorial swept by an icy wind, U.S. veterans who faced Hitler's last great offensive in the West marked the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge Friday.

The 1944 winter onslaught in the thickly wooded Ardennes region in southern Belgium was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, pitting German armored divisions against unprepared and thinly spread U.S. defenders."You fought in bitter ice cold weather like today. You demonstrated tanks run on gas but infantrymen run on guts," NATO's commander in Europe, U.S. Gen. George Joulwan, told assembled veterans - Belgians as well as Americans.

Belgium's King Albert II and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, flanked by two veterans, laid a wreath at the massive star-shaped Mar-das-son memorial on a hill outside the town of Bastogne.

A 21-gun salute echoed in the hills as 200 seated veterans, wrapped in blankets to keep them warm, looked on.

Weather conditions, with a freezing wind and drizzle, were similar to those on Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans used the bad weather and forested hills to launch their surprise attack on the lightly defended 90-mile front.

"For those who fought here, living or dead, the torch of liberty has passed to our hands. Together we must nurture and sustain it," said Albright, who represented President Clinton at the ceremony.

The six-week battle was dubbed the Battle of the Bulge because of the large dent German forces made in the front line as they pushed toward the northern Belgian port of Antwerp, hoping to cut Allied forces in two.

The Germans failed when U.S. resistance stiffened and they ran short of fuel to keep the advance going. Clearer weather finally allowed swarms of Allied planes to pound their armor.

The battle was the bloodiest for U.S. forces in World War II, with almost 90,000 men killed, wounded or missing.

There were 100,000 German casualties, one-third of the attacking force.

German veterans were not invited to the Bastogne ceremonies. But a handful of veterans from the German infantry were due to meet some U.S. veterans near the German border in eastern Belgium later Friday.

The hilltop ceremony was the first of a day of activities in Bastogne, one of the focal points of the battle.

The U.S. commander in Bastogne, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, found his forces cut off by the advancing Germans and was called on to surrender. His curt reply - "Nuts!" - came to symbolize U.S. resistance against overwhelming odds.

The town will re-enact the siege, this time without Germans, later Friday. Six tanks and other army vehicles will drive through Bastogne's main street, and explosions and air raid sirens will be heard once again.

Belgian and U.S. flags hung outside many houses, and Bastogne's main square was festooned with flags and other decorations in remembrance of the battle.

Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Harry Kinnard, an aide to McAuliffe during the battle, said it meant a great deal to return to the region's towns, see them restored and people "happily preparing for Christmas in peace and freedom."