On this day 75 years ago one of the most famous lines ever uttered by an American military officer was said when the Germans surrounded the 101st Airborne around Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting Division Commander in the absence of General Maxwell Taylor who was in the United States at a conference at the time, was woken from his bed with the news that the German troops, who had encircled Bastogne, had demanded the 101’s surrender. 

McAuliffe uttered the answer “Nuts” and would immediately be remembered forever. 

In the Ardennes Forest, the Germans had taken the Americans completely by surprise and using their armored reserves attacked the most thinly defended line manned by the green U.S. 106th Division. They easily broke through and created a huge hole, a “bulge” in the allies’ lines. 

The 101st Airborne, still recovering from the beating it had taken in Operation Market-Garden, was refitting in France. It was rushed into the breach, short of men, equipment and with nearly a total absence of winter clothing. They were given the task of holding the important crossroads town of Bastogne where seven roads and the railway intersected. The 101st’s defense of the town steeled U.S. resolve during the battle. The unit would forever become famous for holding out against overwhelming odds. 

McAuliffe was born in Washington D.C. on July 2, 1898. He attended West Virginia University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating just after World War I ended in 1918. He advanced slowly through the ranks in the small peacetime army. Just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. 

By the time of the D-Day invasion, McAuliffe had risen to Brigadier General and was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s artillery. He jumped into Normandy with the troops. After the death of the Assistant Division Commander, BG Donald Pratt in Normandy, McAuliffe was given that title. 

He took part in Operation Market-Garden and after the battle was the acting division commander while General Taylor was in Washington. When the 101st was alerted, he took the troops into Bastogne. The 101st ABN was joined by Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. 

The Germans surrounded the Americans at Bastogne and had a vast numerical advantage over the lightly armed American paratroopers. The German Corps Commander General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz attempted to get the Americans to surrender. They sent four soldiers, two NCOs and two officers under a flag of truce.

The senior officer was Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps and the junior officer, Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section. They approached a portion of the American line covered by Company F, of the 327 Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st. They said they had a written message to be presented to the American commander of the U.S. forces in Bastogne. 

The officers were blindfolded and taken to a command post. The message was passed from the Company, Battalion, Regiment and levels and then finally reached the Division commander: McAuliffe was woken from his sleeping quarters next to the Division Communications Center by the Acting Division Chief of Staff, LTC Ned Moore. He was told that the Germans were asking for their surrender. McAuliffe groused, “Aw nuts” and began to crawl out from his bunk. 

The staff of the 101st then read the typewritten German demand for surrender. 

“December 22nd, 1944

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled 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. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

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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. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two-hour term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.”

McAuliffe left the command post to personally congratulate a group of soldiers who had destroyed a German roadblock. When he returned he received a phone call that the two German officers were still waiting for an answer. 

“Well, I don’t know what to tell them.” At that point, LTC Harry Kinnard, the Division’s Operations Officer said, “What you said initially would be hard to beat.” McAulliffe asked “What do you mean?” Kinnard, said, “Sir, you said nuts.” All members of the staff agreed, so McAulliffe wrote it down on a message pad and said, “Have it typed up.”

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S!

The American Commander”

McAuliffe’s written reply was delivered back down to the Command Post where the German officers were being held, still blindfolded. Asking if it was written or verbal, the German officer was told that the message was written. He was told that it consisted of a single word, “Nuts!” the German officer was confused. “Is that reply negative or affirmative?” The Americans said, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative.”

The Germans were taken back to the front lines were, confused, they again asked what the reply meant, not understanding the American slang. An American enlisted man who spoke German said, “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen.” He told the American officer it meant “You can go to Hell.” Then the officer said to the Germans, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” 

Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” The American officer Major Harper then said, “On your way Bud,” and without thinking, added, “and good luck to you.” After Henke translated, the major acknowledged. They saluted and the Germans started to walk away. Harper angrily called out to them, “If you don’t know what I am talking about, simply go back to your commanding officer and tell him to just plain “Go to Hell.”

The Germans didn’t take Bastogne. Soon afterward the skies cleared and American fighter-bombers began to pound the German panzers in the Bulge, while C-47s began airdropping supplies and ammunition to the men of the 101st. On the afternoon of December 26th, the lead tanks of the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division of the Third Army under General Patton had broken through the German encirclement and created a tenuous lifeline where the most seriously wounded paratroopers could be evacuated. The American lines were restored and the 101st was no longer encircled. Getting back the terrain lost took another month. 

The German attack had failed at a tremendous cost. The German reserve armor had been smashed and there were no more to replace them. With the Russians pushing from the east and the Western Allies squeezing them from the Belgian/German border, the Nazis were finished. It was just a matter of time. Germany capitulated on May 7, 1945.

When the Third Army linked up with the 101st, General Patton personally decorated McAuliffe with the Distinguished Service Cross on January 14th, 1945. The next day, McAuliffe was promoted to Major General and given command of the 103rd Infantry Division. He would lead the division against the Germans for the remainder of the war and later liberate the Kaufering concentration camp, part of the Dachau complex. The 103rd would take Innsbruck in Austria and secure the Brenner Pass where elements of the Fifth Army, moving up from Italy, linked up and joined the Italian and Western fronts. 

After the war McAuliffe returned to Europe as the commander of the 7th Army in 1953 and in 1955. After being promoted to full General (4 stars), he was named Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army Europe. He retired in 1956.

McAuliffe died of leukemia on August 11, 1975, aged 77. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside his wife, son, and daughter.