World War II Veterans Mark 75th Anniversary of Battle of the Bulge in Belgium

U.S. Battle of the Bulge veterans, front row, listen to speeches during a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge at the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne, Belgium on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. The Battle of the Bulge, also called Battle of the Ardennes, took place between Dec. 1944 and Jan. 1945 and was the last major German offensive on the Western Front during World War II. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

It wasn’t the thunderous booms of shelling or the acrid smell of smoke that filled the air on Saturday. It was the click of horses’ hooves on paved roads in a celebratory parade. The smell of churros coming from the Christmas Market on Rue Joseph-Renquin, the main stretch in downtown.

And, it was bursts of fireworks – harmless pink slivers in the night sky.

Thousands from around the world descended on Bastogne, a town of almost 50,000, to celebrate the country’s liberation.

Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, a bloody altercation with Hitler’s Nazi war machine that began Dec. 16, 1944, and stretched into late January 1945. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front, but it was a costly one: An estimated 19,000 American soldiers died during the five-week battle.

The weekend’s scenes were a distant cry from the snow-covered conflict that erupted in the Ardennes Forest three-quarters of a century ago as Germans, supported by powerful tanks and armored carriers, raced to stretch the advancing Allied front lines. A “bulge” was created in the American lines ⁠– but the units held and repelled the Nazi counterattack.

Within weeks, the Allies finished their sprint across Europe and took the fight to Hitler’s backyard.

This weekend, each glass storefront in the quaint downtown row was painted with a scene of the war: Pictures of tanks, gun barrels and kissing sailors all looked out on streets full of reenactors dressed as American soldiers and Belgians waving paper American flags.

Before crowds gathered downtown to see a parade of veterans and active U.S. and Belgian military, a delegation led by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi hosted veterans for a meal at Le Jardin des Anémones outside town.

There, she presented Louisville, Kentucky, veteran George Merz, 94, and others with commemorative coins to mark the occasion.

Pelosi later joined Belgian and U.S. dignitaries atop a second-story balcony along Rue Joseph-Renquin and threw English walnuts – three to a pack – to a frantic crowd reaching into the air, at one point to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B).”

The nuts-throwing ceremony carried on the legacy of U.S. Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe. He is famous for his one-word reply of, “Nuts!” to a German commander who demanded the Americans surrender Bastogne, an essential piece of geography that kept Nazi forces from taking Antwerp and fueling their powerful Panzer tanks.

Frank Riesinger, 93, an Army Air Corps retired corporal from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said McAulliffe’s “Nuts!” sent a simple message to the Germans: “Basically, go to hell.”

Each year, when the nuts are thrown into the streets of downtown Bastogne, it’s a way of “carrying out McAuliffe’s answer to the Germans,” Riesinger said.

Riesinger, who trained to become a navigator for B29 bombers, attended the Nuts Weekend in Belgium as part of the Liberty Jump Team, a group that funds and escorts veterans back to their battlefields.

Riesinger never made it to Belgium but had been itching to get to Europe back then.

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SOURCE: USA Today; Louisville Courier Journal, Sarah Ladd