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A NIGHTMARE BEFORE YULE IN 1944 FOR U.S. SOLDIERS

SHARE A NIGHTMARE BEFORE YULE IN 1944 FOR U.S. SOLDIERS

Fifty years ago, the towering pines were caked thick with snow. Under a frigid, starry sky, the gently rolling hills resembled white carpets. Rarely has a Christmas been as nightmarish.

It was the height of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium's Ardennes, and any thought of peace or good will was cast aside by hunger, death and fear that Adolf Hitler's Nazi army would prevail."It was impossible to think of anything normal-- let alone Christmas," said Bastogne Mayor Guy Lutgen, who was 8 at the time and spent the Holy Night crouched in a cellar, not knowing that his father was lying nearby in the snow, killed by the Germans.

But even in such dire conditions, some went to extraordinary lengths to mark the occasion.

On Christmas Eve, a choir of American soldiers sang carols for the many lying wounded in a cold, dark cellar, hoping German bombs would miss their hideout. Others decorated Christmas trees with what little tinsel they could find.

Whether it was Christmas or Weinachten, the thoughts of many soldiers facing death drifted back home.

A homesick German officer wrote, "Let the world never see such a Christmas night again. To die, far from one's children, wife and mother, there is no greater cruelty."

But die they did, by the thousands.

Hitler's last Blitzkrieg caused more than 100,000 German casualties. The battle left 81,000 Americans killed, wounded, captured or missing and took the lives of 2,500 Belgian civilians.

"Your buddies who fell here did not die in vain. You have given Europe 50 Christmases in peace," U.S. Gen. George Joulwan, the supreme commander or NATO forces in Europe, told veterans at a rememberance ceremony last week.

Some of the worst carnage was in Bastogne, a key junction in the Ardennes region and a symbol of resistance to the German onslaught. The city lay surrounded on Christmas Eve.

Only a week before, the townsfolk had been expecting to celebrate their first Christmas since liberation in September from Nazi occupation. What they got instead was remorseless shelling. Two tons of bombs were dropped in advance of a new assault on Christmas morning.

Bombs hit a temporary first-aid station in the center of town, burning and burying two-dozen wounded GIs.

"We heard all their crying. It was sheer horror," said Odette Giroux, who was 16 at the time. On Christmas morning, the charred bodies were taken to the cemetery.

Many of those who survived also went through hell.

"It was terrible. Snow, fighting, killing...you didn't know if you were going to make it or not," said Steve Bull Bear, a veteran from Lakota Nation in South Dakota, who was fighting north of Bastogne half a century ago.

It was the coldest winter in decades. Soldiers had to use explosives to blast fighting holes in the frozen ground. Many lost toes and fingers to frostbite.

So hot Christmas turkey must have been manna from heaven.

Fog and bad weather closed off Bastogne from the air at the start of the German attack. But the weather began to clear two days before Christmas, allowing U.S. planes to make the first airdrops, which included turkeys.

Louis Renquin remembered cooking them for the American soldiers. Once out of the oven, they were cut up and put into thermos bottles. "By noon, they were already distributed along the front," he said in "Civilians Witness," a book of recollections on the war.

Some soldiers were treated to Christmas cake.

Nicole Maus de Rolley had prepared a cake for her family and put it on the porch to cool. The smell reached hungry GIs who had been surviving on milk.

"A lieutenant came and told me to take it away: 'You see, it smells great and my men are hungry,'" she recalled. She agreed to bake cakes for the men on Christmas. "Who would have thought it would be for the wounded."

On Dec. 26, Gen. George Patton's Third Army lifted the siege of Bastogne. Within a month, the offensive was crushed and the way was clear for an Allied march into Germany.