Anthony McAuliffe was born in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1898. Both sets of his grandparents were born in Ireland. He attended West Virginia University from 1916-17 and then moved on to West Point, graduating in November 1918. For the next 23 years, America remained at peace and McAuliffe served as a career Army officer. All that changed when America entered World War II in December 1941.
McAuliffe took part in the June 1944 D-Day assault, landing in Holland by glider as the commander of division artillery for the 101st Airborne. For the next six months, Allied forces under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower steadily pushed the German armies in France and Belgium eastward, back toward the borders of Germany. By late fall, however, the Allied push had stalled. Then, on Dec. 16, 1944, the German military command launched a last, desperate counterassault centered in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium. Catching the Allies off guard, Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt’s 5th and 6th Panzer Armies staged two parallel assaults aimed at retaking the vital port of Antwerp. A third German force, the 5th Army under Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel, surged forward to the Meuse River. Viewed from a map, the surge of German forces westward into caused a huge bulge in Allied lines, hence the name Battle of the Bulge.
The German offensive came straight at McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne, which had been holding the Belgian town of Bastogne, located at a strategic junction of major roads. McAuliffe achieved his moment in the spotlight through a set of chance circumstances. The regular commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, was away in Washington, D.C., to meet with the War Department. McAuliffe stood in as acting commander until Taylor returned, determined to make good on his orders to hold the town “at all costs” even as his men came under heavy fire.
Word soon came to headquarters that four Germans had been spotted walking toward American lines waving a white flag. Most of the American officers, assuming the men were trying to surrender, were stunned to learn that they bore an ultimatum from Gen. Heinrich von Luettwitz of the XLVIIth Armored Corps. It read in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircles town of Bastogne. The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units — There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town.” It concluded by saying that the Americans had two hours to think the matter over, after which the assembled German forces would “annihilate” the Americans.
At first McAuliffe thought the ultimatum was a joke. When his officers made clear that it wasn’t, McAuliffe scoffed at the idea of surrender: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!” As McAuliffe thought about the precise wording of his reply, he asked his staff officers for advice. “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat,” one of them offered. “What do you mean?” asked McAuliffe. “Sir, you said ‘Nuts,’ ” answered the staffer. Smiles and laughter broke out in the room and McAuliffe decided to answer German audacity with a bit of his own:
“To the German Commander,
The American Commander”
When McAuliffe’s reply was handed to the German officers who bore the original ultimatum, they asked what it meant. “If you don’t know what ‘Nuts’ means,” snarled one of McAuliffe’s officers, “in plain English it is the same as ‘Go to Hell.’ And I’ll tell you something else, if you continue to attack we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.”
The Germans ignored the threat and kept up their assault. But McAuliffe’s men were equal to the task. Many took inspiration from their commander’s response, word of which had passed quickly throughout the lines. One day later, Gen. George S. Patton arrived with reinforcements and the siege of Bastogne was repulsed. Because of its strategic position as a junction of major roadways, victory at Bastogne proved a key element in the overall Allied victory in Battle of the Bulge, which officially ended a few weeks later, on Jan. 16, 1945. Four months later the German defeat was complete.
The press seized upon McAuliffe’s story as an example of American resolve and grit. One week after McAuliffe sent his terse reply, a headline on page 1 of the New York Times blared, ” ‘Nuts!’ Retort By McAuliffe; Taken Up as a Rallying Cry.” The article compared the one-word line to John Paul Jones’s famed “We have not yet begun to fight!”
The victory of the 101st at Bastogne resulted in the first award of the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. McAuliffe later received the Distinguished Service Medal. In gratitude for his famed stand, the people of Bastogne renamed their main square McAuliffe Square and erected a monument in his honor.
After the war, McAuliffe stayed in the military and served in a number of high-level capacities in post-war Europe, including head of the Army Chemical Corps, head of Army Personnel, commander of the Seventh Army (1953), and commander-in-chief of the United States Army in Europe (1955). McAuliffe retired in 1956 and took a job with a private chemical company. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1975 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 22, 1691: Defeated by King William, Patrick Sarsfield and 16,000 soldiers (known as the Wild Geese) sail for France.
Dec. 24, 1889: Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell is named as “co-respondent” in divorce papers filed by Capt. William O’Shea. Revelation of Parnell’s affair with O’Shea’s wife, Kitty, leads to his downfall as a public figure.
Dec. 24, 1948: St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City provides the setting for the first midnight Mass broadcast on television.
Dec. 23, 1862: Baseball manager Connie Mack (born Cornelius Alexander McGilicuddy) is born in East Brookfield, Mass.
Dec. 25, 1829: Bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore is born in Dublin.
Dec. 28, 1856: President Woodrow Wilson is born in Staunton, Va.