On December 16, 1944, the men of Lieutenant Lyle Bouck’s platoon had their all-night vigil interrupted by a pre-dawn fusillade of artillery rounds from a hundred German guns, their muzzle flashes punctuating the darkness like a volley of fireballs hurled from the pit of hell. Instead of telling his intelligence and reconnaissance platoon to withdraw against the German onslaught and return to their company, he ordered them to stay and fight. And fight they did. After allowing some 300 German troops to pass close by their foxholes on the road to Lanzerath, Bouck saw his ambush plans foiled by a last-second warning to the German commanders behind them, and the firefight commenced.
The men under Bouck’s command had a pair of .30 caliber machine guns, a .50 caliber mounted on a jeep, a bevy of Browning Automatic Rifles, as well as standard issue M1 Garands. Stephen Ambrose, who recounts this episode in his excellent “Citizen Soldiers,” reports that 400 to 500 enemy troops were slain by Bouck’s skeleton platoon of eighteen GIs. Finally overrun with half his men wounded or dead, Bouck surrendered his unit and was marched east to a first-aid station behind German lines. After a fruitless attempt to interrogate one of Bouck’s surviving soldiers, a German officer whispered to his charge, in English, “You and your comrades are brave men.”
Very brave, indeed. And typical, as well: “There were any number of … men who, although new to combat and inadequately trained, stood to their guns, to the dismay of the Germans,” Stephen Ambrose points out. But such countless episodes of raw courage under fire have been often overshadowed by one of the most dramatic and memorable incidents of Hitler’s last military expedition in Bastogne. This city in Belgium was surrounded by formidable German armored units, which included the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger, better known as the Tiger tank, a 50-ton (or 70-ton Tiger II) behemoth that mounted one of the most feared weapons of the war, the 88-millimeter gun. Arm-chair analysts are fond of pointing out that machine’s shortcomings—too heavy, too slow, too mechanically complex and hard to maintain—but to American soldiers shivering in foxholes and facing this monstrous mountain of metal clanking in their direction, its only weakness seemed to be a shortage of gas.