People who skip over their 65th birthdays can be forgiven: there's Social Security and all that. With historical commemorations, 65 doesn't have quite the same ring as 50 or 75. The 60th anniversary in 2004 was a pretty big event, but may have lost some of the usual warm glow due to European unhappiness over Bush's invasion of Iraq.
For those who may not have realized that we are smack in the middle of the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and its Christmas of 1944, here is my take on "the Battered Bastards of Bastogne" (the 101st Airborne Division) and other tales from the Ardennes forest of Belgium and Luxembourg.
The view from our balcony in Brussels the other day (below right) was a taste of what they saw in those days of December 1944. Or didn't see: a large part of the German success in making a mid-winter breakthrough was the freezing fog, which kept Allied aviation (especially reconnaissance) grounded. When the panzers made their dash starting December 16, tank-destroying fighters were still unable to fly.
General George S. Patton was so perturbed by the weather that he had his chaplain compose a prayer for divine intervention (see Carlo D'Este's biography, "A Genius For War"). Less well known perhaps is Patton's Christmas carol, to the tune of "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," after seeing the destruction of the Belgian town of Houffalize:
Oh little town of Houffalize,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy steep and battered streets
The aeroplanes sail by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
Not any goddamned light;
The hopes and fears of all thy years
Were blown to hell last night.
The town had been completely destroyed, mostly by Allied bombing, but that did not appear to dampen the townspeople's gratitude toward their liberators. It was, after all, their second liberation in a matter of a couple of months. And the Ardennes had been a German invasion route in 1940, 1914, 1870...
Houffalize, Bastogne, and other towns in Belgium, plus several in Luxembourg, are marking the events of six and a half decades ago this snowy (but infinitely milder than that of 1944-45) winter. Americans may have fallen out of the habit of saying "Nuts!" as a way of dismissal, but most Belgians still remember General Anthony McAuliffe's famous one-liner, his refusal to surrender encircled Bastogne at the Bulge's most dangerous moment.
See the entire schedule of events, plus campaign maps, on the Ardennes' Tourist Board website (poster, left). Belgian TV channels have been putting on documentaries featuring people whose memories are still fresh, though they were at most teenagers during these traumatic events.
For those who can't make it to this corner of Europe in mid-winter, read a good book (the 101st Airborne's site has an extensive list) or check out Patton, the 1970 classic, or the "Band Of Brothers" episode on Bastogne. Just don't watch the embarrassing "Battle of the Bulge," the 1965 war movie shot - not on location in the Ardennes - but in the Hollywood favorite of arid Spain.