Two dates on the calendar never fail to raise memories of my command of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II. One date is June 6, D-Day in Normandy, when I had the privilege of leading the division in a spearhead airborne landing behind Utah Beach. The other is Dec. 21, the day in 1944 when I found myself in Washington while the 101st under Brig. Gen. Tony McAuliffe had been rushed from our Mourmelon training area near Reims to occupy and defend Bastogne, a small town but an important crossroads in the Ardennes indispensable to the German divisions racing westward to the Meuse River and Antwerp in Hitler's last desperate offensive effort. Since Dec. 17, the Battle of the Bulge had been under way, and here I was some 3,000 miles from my division.
What is my excuse for being in Washington at such a time? My trip was in response to a decision by Gen. George Marshall to have me come to Washington to help his staff resolve a number of issues affecting the airborne divisions in Europe. Given the quiet on the Eastern Front, I felt no qualms in leaving for Washington in December, knowing that in addition to useful work I would have an opportunity to see my family after two years' separation. Besides, I knew that the division was in good hands with Tony McAuliffe in temporary command.
Arriving in Washington with my aide, Capt. Tom White, on Dec. 6, I called on Gen. Marshall and set about carrying out his desires. These included not only discussions with his staff but also visits to airborne activities out of town. I was engaged in the latter when rumors of a new German offensive began to appear in the press, but I paid little attention because of my low opinion of the quality of the German units we had been fighting in Holland. However, on the morning of Dec. 21, Washington released a formal announcement of heavy fighting in the Ardennes that sent me scurrying back to the Pentagon.
There I got the bad news -- the Germans were driving a deep salient into the Ardennes front, the airborne divisions resting in the rear had been ordered to the front, and my division, the 101st, was surrounded in Bastogne. I went to Gen. Marshall at once, gave him a hasty report of what I had been doing since my arrival and asked permission to return at once to my division, which was obviously in serious trouble. The general agreed at once, but the weather did not. All flights across the Atlantic were suspended, but I was promised the first ride available.
That did not occur until Christmas Eve, late enough in the day to allow me to help Mrs. Taylor put our two sons to bed, complete the decoration of the family Christmas tree and take sad leave of my brave wife. At Andrews Air Force base, I found my aide and a cargo plane waiting to take off. White and I climbed aboard and joined the boxes and barrels in the longest Atlantic flight of my life. We did not get to Orly field in Paris until near noon of Dec. 26 where a waiting Army sedan took us to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters in the outskirts of Versailles. At the entrance, despite my uniform of an American major general, I was obliged to display my identification tag to prove I was not a German parachutist in disguise.
This fear of parachutists resulted from a night jump behind the American lines of a few hundred German parachutists just as the major German attack got under way. As I learned later, the commander was a Col. von der Heidte who, with his parachute regiment, had fought against the 101st in the Normandy campaign. His jump was badly scattered and did little damage beyond stirring up rumors of killings and depredations spread far and wide enough to reach Gen. Eisenhower's headquarters, which I was about to enter.
Doing so, I asked for Ike's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, whom I greeted as an old friend and promptly asked for a plane to allow me to jump into Bastogne. He replied that it wasn't necessary, that the previous afternoon a unit of the 4th Armored Division had succeeded in breaking into Bastogne and in removing most of the wounded. Instead, he said, I should go by Luxembourg and check in at the headquarters of generals Omar Bradley and George Patton before heading for my division. He then launched into praise of the performance of the 101st and chuckled over McAuliffe's reply of "nuts" to a German demand to surrender. This comment gave me the opportunity to recommend that McAuliffe be given the next division without a commander, a suggestion to which he readily agreed.
Taking leave of Smith, I began the long trek to the front. I first drove to Mourmelon to pick up all my combat equipment, including the winter clothing so necessary in the Ardennes. When we arrived, we ate dinner and then I lay down to sleep, something that had been lacking for some time. But there was too much on my mind for sleep, so I roused White and our driver and took off for Luxembourg, a drive I estimated as being about five hours. Unfortunately this estimate did not take into account the parachutist phobia. The road was cluttered with towns and villages, most of them with guards on the lookout for parachutists and who wanted to inspect all vehicles driving by. We soon got tired of these delays and proceeded to drive along without stopping. Luckily, the occasional bullets generated thereby were not fired by sharpshooters.
Arriving in Luxembourg the morning of Dec. 27, I succeeded in calling on generals Bradley and Patton. Both seemed confident that the German offensive was slowing down and that soon we would be able to launch a counter-attack -- a hope that proved premature. The Battle of the Bulge was to last until the end of January after the loss of some 80,000 casualties among the 600,000 American soldiers engaged -- the biggest battle in American history.
Leaving for Bastogne I exchanged our sedan for a Jeep and then headed north to find the sector of the 4th Armored Division where I expect to receive the latest information. We had little difficulty in finding the leading unit of this division where we were told of the fighting on the Assenois road by which their tanks had entered Bastogne. This road was believed to be still open, but my armored friends suggested that we go in by tank. I declined, preferring the mobility of the Jeep as well as the better air it would give this airborne commander trying to catch up with his men. As we were about to take off for Bastogne, we encountered three war correspondents warming themselves by a stove on the side of the road. I invited any one of them to take the vacant seat in our Jeep, but there was no taker. In later years they probably admitted that, by doing so, they had missed one of the best stories of the war.
The distance to Bastogne was only about a mile. Although the road was littered with burnt tanks and debris, there was no evidence of enemy presence beyond a few distant rifle shots. So with little concern we stepped on the gas and quickly reached the outskirts of Bastogne, where several of our engineer soldiers were gathering up supplies that had been parachuted into the division sector during the day. They gave us directions to the division comand post, which turned out to be an old barracks in the middle of town. We arrived at its door at 4:10 p.m., Dec. 27 just as darkness was falling on the snow-covered Ardennes. My 3,000-mile marathon was over, and I was in my military home once more.
Inside, I was received by a hilarious welcome from McAuliffe and the principal staff officers. I greeted them with "How does it feel to be international heroes?" They answered with an incredulous, "Who -- us?" and were furious to learn that the arrival of the 4th Armored Division the previous day was being referred to as a "rescue." Thir attitude was that expressed by our men the first day of the siege: "They've got us surrounded -- the poor bastards!"
After things quieted down, McAuliffe gave me a thorough briefing on the situation and the state of the troop morale that justified my wiring a message to III Corps Headquarters to which the division now belonged. It said that in my judgment the 101st Airborne Division was ready now to join the offensive operations that I understood were to begin shortly against the flanks of the bulge.
The message was all right, but the offensive was slow in coming. The division had to drive off many attacks during the following weeks before there was an offensive that we could join. It was not until Jan. 20 that the division was relieved from Bastogne and assigned a new mission to the south. We marched out of the town, by now flattened by enemy bombs and artillery, leaving a big placard over our headquarters: "Bastogne: Bastion of the Battered Bastards of the 101st Airborne Division."