It was a great honor of my life to join a bipartisan Senate delegation to Belgium and Luxembourg to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. This was a defining battle of World War II – where the Greatest Generation stopped Hitler’s last major effort to turn the tide of the war in his favor.
As Defense Secretary Esper pointed out, most of the Americans who fought in World War II grew up during the Great Depression. They knew hardship. They endured adversity, they were tenacious – and they refused to quit. When the Battle of the Bulge began the Allies were severely outnumbered, but with the fate of the free world in the balance, our troops bravely held the line.
An estimated 19,000 Americans sacrificed their lives in this struggle, resulting in the bloodiest and largest battle in the history of our U.S. forces. Approximately 47,500 were wounded and another 23,000 were captured or determined missing in action.
After five months of fighting, the Allies secured a decisive victory, the darkness of evil was lifted – and World War II came to an end.
Seventy-five years after the battlefield fell silent, our delegation gathered at Ardennes American Cemetery to lay wreaths and honor these soldiers. We remembered their courage and unmatched determination.
I was also humbled to have the opportunity to visit the Henri-Chappelle Cemetery and honor the 73 Nebraskans laid to rest here.
One evening we attended a ceremony in the Ardennes Forest. In a powerful tribute, current service members and families of the fallen stood next to the foxholes holding lanterns and read scripture, prayer books, and letters from their loved ones who served.
I also had the privilege of speaking with the World War II veterans who attended the ceremonies. Private First-Class George Merz, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, was one them. Nine months after enlisting, he left the Boston Harbor on his way to Normandy, where he participated in the D-Day invasion. Private First-Class Merz was among the “men who took the cliffs” and “the men who held the line.” The young private was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge.
I then attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the General McAuliffe Memorial in Bastogne, Belgium. During the battle, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was stationed in the town with the 101st Airborne Division. The Germans had surrounded Bastogne and our troops were outnumbered, outgunned, and running out of food, ammunition, and medical supplies. General McAuliffe received an ultimatum from the Nazis – surrender or die, to which McAuliffe sent back the reply that read:
“To the German commander,
The American commander.”
He made our position very clear to the Germans that the United States never surrenders. Defying the expectations of the enemy, McAuliffe’s men held off the Nazis until Allied reinforcements arrived.
I was moved by the appreciation displayed by the people of Bastogne and Mardasson. Still to this day, a deep sense of gratitude for our nation is woven into these communities. United in freedom, the young and old cheered for our veterans as they made their way through the towns.
In his remarks, the mayor of Bastogne said it best: “They were liberators then, and heroes always.”
Our nation will be forever indebted to the courage, service, and sacrifice the Greatest Generation contributed to this critical German defeat that helped end the evils of fascism.
This trip was particularly important to me because these brave fighters included people such as my uncle, David Buckner, who participated in the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 117th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division.
Looking ahead to the new decade, we have so much to be grateful for as Americans. As we gather with our families and friends this holiday season, I hope you will remember those who rescued freedom in its darkest hour – and those who are currently keeping the peace in posts around the world. That’s our American spirit at work, and it will continue to sustain our nation through challenges for generations to come.
Bruce and I wish you and your families a wonderful new year!