Belgians and US veterans quietly recall the Battle of the Bulge

Today the region is one of picturesque, rolling hills and pine forests. But amid an eerie fog and bitter snow 40 years ago, it was the scene of one of the bloodiest turning points in the Allied defeat of the Third Reich.

With little of the fanfare of the D-Day festivities in Normandy, residents of this frontier area of Belgium and survivors of the Battle of the Bulge have been recalling a two-week period that turned the tide of the war.

To them, names like Bastogne, Malmedy, and Stavelot, are where Hitler made a last desperate bid beginning on Dec. 16, 1944, to counter the Allied recon-quest of Europe. That was also where Gen. Anthony McAuliffe sent back his celebrated expletive ''nuts'' to the German officer requesting the surrender of the US garrison in Bastogne.

Gen. James Gavin, then the youngest general in the US Army, recalled on a Belgian television documentary series on the conflict that ''it was terrible.'' Gavin, from his home in Nantucket, also remembered how his unpre-pared 82d Airborne troops took white bed sheets and blankets from Belgian villagers to fashion make-shift snow-camouflaged cloaks.

A tearful US veteran remarked how only 13 of his 120-man unit survived a foggy night of hand-to-hand clashes between the American GI and German SS troops. Countless Belgian residents also recalled the price their families paid in victims to SS brutality and Allied air raids.

From Dec. 16 to after Christmas 1944, all Germany's spare manpower was thrown into a last-ditch counteroffensive to penetrate advancing Allied lines and recapture the key port of Antwerp. Crack SS troops disguised as American soldiers did make a breakthrough, but after fierce fighting and hundreds of thousands in military and civilian casualties, the entire German onslaught was decisively crushed.

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