Fred Sauceman Sr. served in the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Photo courtesy of Fred Sauceman Jr.
It was Christmas, 1944. My father, a soldier in a World War II glider unit, had survived the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944, only to find himself in even greater danger just a few months later, hiding in Belgian basements during the Germans’ desperate push to the west: The Battle of the Bulge. The weather that winter was the coldest in decades.
My father and mother were not yet married. Their wedding was nearly three years in the future. In harm’s way as he had been during most of the war, my father naturally wondered if that day would ever come.
Like so many other fiancées, wives, mothers, grandmothers and sisters, my mother felt a paralyzing helplessness as news reports told of the entrapment of the 101st Airborne Division, my father’s outfit.
While the troops of the 101st Airborne were fighting for their lives and for the preservation of Western civilization in the woodlands of Belgium, my mother, back home, oversaw the making of armored flyers’ vests at Southern Garment Corporation in Greeneville. With so many Greenevillians far from home battling the Axis Powers, the employees of Southern Garment embraced the chance to support the war effort by literally creating an extra layer of protection for the American soldiers.
On the company’s bulletin board, a sign proclaimed: “You all may be very proud of the work you are doing, as you are instrumental in getting our boys a life saving garment. The demand for these garments is critical, and YOU are surely doing your share to help in the war.”
World War II was the defining event of my parents’ lives. The postcards from Paris, the German camera, the wooden plate with a Screaming Eagle carved into the center, and the Bronze Star in my father’s war-era trunk all made for good fourth grade show-and-tell at East View Elementary School in Greeneville.
But somehow, though, a letter had gotten buried in that trunk, beneath all those souvenirs of war. I found it 25 years after my father died at the age of 53. The paper is yellowed and creased now, but every typewritten letter is still legible. The grammar is mathematically precise. The masthead is a hand-drawn screaming eagle, emblem of the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The date is Christmas Eve, 1944.
What I had found was Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe’s newsletter to his troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium. “Merry Christmas” is emblazoned across the top.
“What’s Merry about all this, you ask?,” McAuliffe wrote on that snowy Dec. 24. “We’re fighting — it’s cold, we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. How effectively this was done will be written in history, not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us; their radios blared our doom.”
In that letter I found in my father’s possessions, McAuliffe quotes the German commander’s demand for surrender. If you don’t think words can change the world, consider the impact of just one — a simple word of only four letters. About four-fifths of the way down the page, centered, each letter underlined, spaced, capitalized, and ending with an exclamation point, is McAuliffe’s rejoinder to that call for surrender — maybe the most famous one-word quotation in history:
N U T S !
“Allied Troops are counterattacking in force,” McAuliffe reported to his men. “We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present.”
That one word, N U T S !, has resounded through history. It gave hope to cold and hungry men who were completely surrounded by the enemy. It inspired the world. It boosted morale in every theater of Allied operations.
The word became a symbol of defiance, of courage and determination under fire. That word, and the emotions it engendered, helped change the course of World War II. It helped save Western civilization.
Anthony McAuliffe was not a flashy general. As you can tell from the language in his newsletter, he was businesslike, concerned with getting the job done. Yet his bravery preserved the free world.
A citation honoring him in January of 1945 reads: “General McAuliffe continuously exposed himself to enemy bombing, strafing, and armored and infantry attacks to personally direct his troops, utterly disregarding his own safety.
Brig. Gen. McAuliffe’s courage, fearless determination, and inspiring, heroic leadership exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 740 a day. McAuliffe died in 1975.
Veterans Day observances remind us of the urgency to learn from those who are still among us. To hear and document their stories. To honor their valor, their courage, their sacrifices while we can.
I did not have the privilege of serving in the armed forces, but one of the proudest facts of my life is my father’s record of service at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. And among my most treasured possessions is that noble letter and its message of defiance and hope that kept us free.
Fred Sauceman holds a bachelor’s degree in English and history and a master’s degree in English from East Tennessee State University.