A Christmas Story no American who cares about valor will ever forget. Our debt to The Greatest Generation is memorialized at The American Cemetery and Memorial near Luxembourg’s Findel Airport, just outside Luxembourg City.
You stride through the elaborate gates, look at the magnificent mosaic presentations of troop movements in World War II, but even at the sight of 5076 white crosses and Stars of David, it’s easy to overlook what it all means. Aside from the sacrifice of young Americans in defense of their country and the bulwark against the totalitarian Nazis regime, you’re still left in ignorant awe. There are young men and old interred here and at the head of them, in a grave set apart, lies a leader among leaders, General George S Patton, Jr.
Is this just another graveyard, like so many others? Unfortunately, we are accustomed to seeing rows and rows of white crosses, from a war that cost us about 360,000 men and women killed. What’s the story? Or to put it another way, what makes this military cemetery different.
A thumbnail of the saga goes like this: from 16 December 1944 until 25 January 1945, the German Army, under Adolf Hitler’s direct orders, fought what would be their last great offensive. It was a final, desperate effort to fight the western allies to a stalemate and free Hitler to concentrate on the Russian front. The battle has many names. The Ardennes Offensive, or in French Bataille des Ardennes, or in German Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine. The American Army referred to it as The Ardennes Counteroffensive, but the press coined the name that stuck, The Battle of the Bulge.
But, why Luxembourg as a place for an American Cemetery? Look at the map. Luxembourg and Belgium were where Germany thrust the sharp end of its last spear.
In short, the German forces massed and struck almost undetected. The object: Cut the allied forces in two and secure the channel ports, preventing reinforcements and devastating the allied war effort. Very ambitious. Had it worked, even if the allies had been only stifled for a year, the German Army had a bare chance of rearranging the final outcome.
What stopped the Germans? Lack of sufficient fuel and fierce allied opposition. The American line bent, but did not break, the most famous example being the 101st Airborne Division at the small town of Bastogne, but there were many others.
But the 101st couldn’t hold out indefinitely. On 19 Dec, General Eisenhower discussed with his staff how to respond. How fast can we get more troops there? General Patton said, Give me 48 hours. Everyone else at the meeting said it couldn’t be done. Patton’s 3rd Army was heavily engaged in contact with the enemy. He’d have to disengage, turn the 3rd Army 90 degrees, and march his 23 divisions from Metz, France to Bastogne, some 90 miles north, in winter, under attack. But, having few other options, Eisenhower decided to let George Patton give it a try.
While watching his men heading toward the Germans surrounding Bastogne, he said, "No other army in the world could do this. No other soldiers could do what these men are doing. By God, I'm proud of them." Bastogne was relieved shortly after Christmas, 1944.
Luxembourg has not forgotten. The land for the cemetery is granted in perpetuity.
That’s what so special about these graves and these men who have lain here some 70 years, including a far sighted general, intent on victory, who drove his men hard, and himself even harder. What lost dreams lie in these graves. What sacrifice they represent.
Enjoy a Merry Christmas and give a thought to all those men and women, throughout our history, for whom Christmas is now just another cold December day.