The 'Black Christmas' Of 1944

Excerpt

November 08, 2009

The following is an excerpt from "Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II."

American troops came under fierce German bombardment on the Ardennes Front as the Battle of the Bulge began at 5 o'clock in the dark morning of December 16, 1944. It was midnight then in Baltimore, plenty of time for a news flash in the morning papers. But the Baltimore Sun night news desk had no way of knowing about the surprise attack by thousands of German troops and tanks, wiping out lightly manned U.S. positions. No wire service alerts announced the greatest American intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. ...

What was to be a terrible Christmas for tens of thousands of American soldiers figured hugely in December 24 Sun staff dispatches of Mark Watson, Lee McCardell, and Price Day. Watson praised those soldiers who "stood like a rock" and prevented the Germans from making a breakthrough across the Meuse River and as far away as Antwerp. ...

In post-holiday stories [Dec. 26, 1944], all four Sun correspondents described why the Yuletide had come to be called "Black Christmas" by soldiers in the trenches.

"This has been one hell of a Christmas," wrote McCardell. "It has been a magnificent winter day of bright sunshine and freezing temperatures along the pine-clad Ardennes, white with snow where the American troops are fighting to beat back one of the main thrusts of the German counter-offensive. But there is no Christmas spirit out there so far as the soldiers are concerned.

"Snow-covered hills and deep little valleys have been noisy all day with machine-gun and artillery fire." ... Price Day, with the Seventh Army the day before Christmas, described a moonlit Christmas Eve as "an unquiet one." "There is no snow but the moonlight falls almost as cold and white as snow. For the first time this winter the canals here are frozen over. The water in the shell and bomb craters and in abandoned dugouts and foxholes has become thick ice. The churned mud of the fields and roadsides has stiffened, holding impress of the last vehicles to pass through before it froze. Only the swift streams remain fluid." ...

With Day reporting about action south of the main Ardennes, Holbrook Bradley filed from north of the Ardennes along the Roer River. "Doughboys, standing guard duty, stamp their feet to keep the circulation flowing. Overhead a million stars glow in the cloudless night, casting a cold gleam on the barren fields and battered villages." ...

Nine days later [Jan. 16, 1945] McCardell wrote a riveting story about the plight of soldiers fighting in the Ardennes Forest in the dead of winter.

"You have to see it to believe it. If you can imagine an army fighting its way through the mountains of Garrett County in mid-January, with ten to twelve inches of snow underfoot, the trees encased in frozen sleet, the temperatures four to five degrees above zero, the skies overcast with the constant threat of more snow -- if you can imagine this you'll have some idea of the ordeal through which the American troops are passing.

"But that's only part of the picture. You must blacken the snow with greasy soot where enemy shells have burst. You must drop frozen bodies with waxen faces in the drifts along the back roads where burial parties have not yet passed. You must people the pine forest with cold soldiers in shallow foxholes, their fingers numb and their toes frostbitten. You must picture tanks crawling across unbroken fields of snow, the dull clank of their tracks over the snow-caked bogie wheels muffled and remote. You must see infantrymen gloved and bundled against the stinging cold, weighted down with ammunition and weapons, toiling across hilltops, knee-deep in snow.

"When the dreary winter afternoon's cold, unfriendly half-light fades across these frozen hills, you must see the infantry men drop their gear in the snow, get out their shovels and dig in for the coming night - dig through a foot of fine, dry, sifting snow and another foot of hard frozen earth. You must feel the bite of the icy Ardennes mist that rises now from the snow to fill the hollows among the hills and cling to their heights like thick, gray, frosty mildew. You must get stuck in one of these drifts, get out and push or shovel a path for your jeep while the snow beats into your face like a desert sandstorm. You must try keeping warm in a freezing countryside whose houses have been stripped of their doors, window glass and roofs. You must try to keep warm in unheated truck cabs, tanks, half-tracks and open jeeps.

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