By December of 1944, Hitler's Third Reich was on the defensive.
In the east, the Soviet Red Army was racing to Berlin and in the west, Allied American and British Forces were amassing in Belgium — right on the German border — in preparation for an invasion of Germany.
The Fuhrer thought he had one last desperate chance. Hitler had convinced himself that the alliance between Britain, France and America in the western sector of Europe was not strong and that a major attack and defeat would break up the alliance. Therefore, on December 16, 1944 he ordered a massive attack through the Ardennes Forest against what were primarily American forces. The initial attack by the Germans created a bulge in the Allied front line and this massive battle has become commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge.
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The winter in December 1944 was the coldest on record in memory in the Ardennes forest as the 500,000 German troops launched their strike. American GIs were spread through dense forests, living in foxholes, already trying to survive the cold. Early in the battle, on December 17th, American soldiers were taken prisoner and, while captive, were murdered by the German SS in an infamous war crime known as "The Malmedy Massacre." One of the few to survive Bill Merriken of Bedford, VA said, "It was a complete surprise. And we stood there, hands over head. And then there was a German officer and he picked out a guy I know, he pulled his pistol up and shot him. And I saw him fall. Then he shot again. Then that is when machine guns started."
Eighty-six Americans prisoners of war were massacred at Malmedy that day. Hiding under the bodies of his dead comrades for hours, Merriken escaped and found refuge in a nearby farmhouse. Merriken was saved when a village boy took a note across enemy lines to tell the Americans that one of their soldiers was alive.
"That was a brave deed on his part to go through the mines," Merriken said.
"War Stories" returned to Malmedy, Belgium and met the boy — Emile Jamar — now a man, living in the same area. Jamar said of his special history with Merriken during World War II, "There was a bond that formed between us in that moment."
By December 25, 1944 the battle had become the largest land battle for Americans in World War II. General Harry Kinnard, then a Lt. Col. in the 101st Airborne recalled, "We had Christmas dinner in our headquarters there. It was a K ration, and a little flag in the middle of it. And everybody trying to look cheery."
For many of the American GIs fighting in the savage battle, the modest celebration in the 101st headquarters would have been a feast. Recalls Indiana native John Kline of the 106th Infantry: "If I can remember that Christmas it would be trudging along the road just keeping alive."
— Gregory Johnson is a "War Stories" producer