Recalling America's sacrifices in WWII

War: The 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge puts modern conflicts in a new perspective.

December 19, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THE WEATHER was atrocious. The terrain inhospitable. The enemy tenacious. The toll horrific. The bravery undisputed.

Sixty years ago, American troops were involved in the biggest battle in the history of this country - the Battle of the Bulge. Over 1 million men armed with a fearsome array of weapons spent more than a month trying to kill each other in the midst of a terrible Northern European winter. They succeeded at an astonishing rate.

Viewed from six decades later, it looks like the last gasp of a dying monster. But at the time, Adolf Hitler's high-stakes gamble to drive to the Atlantic coast was a fearsome move that punctured the growing optimism in the United States.

"There was a feeling, especially among the public, that the war was going to be over by Christmas," says Clayton Laurie, adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, of America in the fall of 1944.

The Nazi attack on Dec. 16, 1944 - also known as the Ardennes Offensive - changed that.

"Nobody imagined this would happen," says World War II historian Joseph Balkowski. "It came out of nowhere, a hugely effective punch that caught us by surprise. It left us on the ropes, so to speak."

George Quester, a professor of government who specializes in security matters at the University of Maryland, College Park, was 8 years old at the time and remembers the fear.

"That first week was awfully bad," he says. "The Germans were coming exactly where they had come in 1940 when they first invaded France. What if they got all the way to the English Channel? What if there was another Dunkirk?"

The numbers so dwarf the ones involved in the war in Iraq that they make a mockery of claims that this country is now on a war footing. There are 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; there were more than 1 million in Europe at the end of 1944. Over 500,000 of them eventually became involved in the Battle of the Bulge.

The Iraq war has led to over 1,200 deaths among U.S. troops in 21 months. In the five weeks of the Battle of the Bulge, 19,000 Americans died.

"The casualties during the Battle of the Bulge were suffered at a rate that exceeded that of the Normandy invasion, or even the worst of World War I," Balkowski says. "It affected a lot of American homes."

That, too, contrasts with the current war in which the burden - and the tragedy - is borne by a thin sliver of the population. During World War II, the entire country paid the cost, through the draft, through the casualties, through the hardships of shortages and rationing and controls on wages and jobs, and also through taxes.

According to John Jeffries, a historian at the UMBC, the tax burden increased from 3 percent of personal income in 1941 to 12 percent in 1945.

"Close to half the war was financed by taxes," Jeffries says. "And the income tax was hugely extended, from some 4 million taxable returns in 1939 to almost 43 million by 1945."

An income above $200,000 per year was taxed at a rate of above 90 percent. "[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt would have liked even higher taxes on the wealthy and on high corporate profits, but Congress would not agree," Jeffries says.

Consumers, who these days are urged to spend to shore up the economy, were not allowed such indulgences.

"Factories were not making washing machines, they were making jeeps," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Some 16 million people served in the armed forces at one point or another during the war. "It seemed like virtually every family had someone in uniform," says David Hogan, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Everyone knew someone who was fighting. And many knew one of the nearly half-million soldiers who died during those four years.

There was no controversy among the troops over stop-loss orders to keep people from leaving the military or extending the length of rotations that soldiers served overseas.

"Their tour was `for the duration,' until we achieve victory," says Segal.

Though now those months in late 1944 and early 1945 are seen as the waning days of the war, U.S. mobilization was at its highest after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. Troops were being inducted and trained and sent to Europe at the rate of 250,000 per month to man and supply the lengthening front.

"Normally when a country raises a military force, not every single unit gets into action," Balkowski says. "But in this case, virtually every single unit went into battle. They were being shipped out of training camps in the United States, sent to continental Europe and hitting the fronts in big numbers by October and November of 1944."

That fall, though the burden had never been heavier, optimism was in the air. Once they had broken out of Normandy and liberated Paris, the Allied troops seemed to be racing toward Berlin.

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