Seventy Years Ago Today and the ‘Battered Bastards of Bastogne’

506th P.I.R. 101st Airborne Division 'E' Company memorial outside Bastogne. Photo by John Biver.

“The battle began on a cold, foggy dawn of December 16,” writes Steven Ambrose in his book Band of Brothers, the true story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the US Army during World War II. The year was 1944.

On December 16th — seventy years ago today — the members of Easy Company were encamped at Mourmelon, France, and unaware they were about to enter a place in military history equal to that of the English soldiers at Agincourt in 1415 or the Union troops on Little Round Top in 1863.

The members of Easy were hopeful that mail and Christmas packages from the states would soon be reaching them. “Excitement ran high” as expectations were that they might even get to enjoy New Year’s Eve in Paris. Instead, the events about to happen were to be much different.

Thirteen years ago HBO ran the popular ten-part mini-series based on Ambrose’s book. For those of us raised on the stories of what our G.I.s accomplished during WWII, it was a pleasure to see another heroic chapter put to film.

Are you tired of the pathetic travails of the Republican Party? Are you in need of some inspiration that can come from stories of honor and courage of the kind that are absent in American politics? Seventy years ago the members of the 101st had already endured grueling and at times cruel training at a Georgia army base. They had been dropped into combat behind enemy lines on D-Day. They had fought their way through Normandy and Holland and suffered some of the highest casualty rates of any division in the war.

After several interminable stretches on the front lines they caught a breather in late November and early December 1944. That breather ended when what became known as “the Battle of the Bulge” began December 16th. On the 17th, General Eisenhower ordered the 101st to the city of Bastogne, in Belgium. In Ambrose’s words, “When Easy set out to meet the Wehrmacht on the last, greatest German offensive, the company was under strength, inadequately clothed, and insufficiently armed.”

It was Easy Company that was surrounded at Bastogne but refused to surrender. It was Easy that later captured Hitler’s private getaway called the Eagle’s Nest in the Bavarian mountains.

Seventy years ago today Easy Company was in the midst of writing their place in history. Seventy years later you might benefit from taking the time to read Steven Ambrose’s book or watch the HBO mini-series. Catch up with them on their way to Bastogne — and then follow them on to V-E Day. Theirs is a powerful and inspirational story, and well worth the trip.

Photo by John Biver in May, 2008.

A version of this first posted on this day in 2002.