It seemed like the fighting in Europe was almost finished. The American Army was in Germany. In the east, the Red Army was in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and the Canadians had entered Holland.
Now a group of men sat in a German basement less than 450 miles from Berlin. They had landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1. The men were proud of their division, which they called “Indian Head” after their shoulder patch. They were proud to be in a unit where their dad’s fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. They were proud of their motto “Second to None”. In four months they had travelled more than 400 miles from the hedgerows of Normandy, to St. Lo and the port city of Brest. By September 29th, 1944 they had passed through Belgium and took positions at St. Vith. Four days later, they had entered Germany.
The air was thick with moisture and laced with the smell of mildew and wood, wet leather and sweat. The floor was cold, with ammo and empty ration tins littered about. There was a wooden ammo crate that the men sat around. On this makeshift table were Christmas cards, printed by the division, and they took turns writing theirs, getting ready to mail them so they could reach home in time for the holidays. Their fathers had written their parents from Europe on Christmas in 1917, in a different war with the same enemy. Now their sons did the same for them.
In 1939, Hitler gave a speech saying “No foreign soldier shall ever set foot on German soil.” The 2nd Infantry Division remembered that speech. They put it on their holiday cards and added their kicker: “Nevertheless, from somewhere in Germany, we wish you a Merry Xmas.”
By Christmas, the men of the Indian Head were no longer in Germany; they were in Belgium, near an area called Elsenborn Ridge, in a battle where 19,000 Americans would die. There, the Indian Head performed what General Eisenhower would later call “One of the finest divisional actions of the war” holding back the German 6th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge.
In November and December, till the end of the war in 1945, the US Army would suffer more than 450,000 casualties, including more than 133, 000 killed in action, almost as many as the Army had lost in 1941,1942,1943, and until October 1944 combined.
A GI in that basement had written his family, before the German offensive, when the war seemed almost finished and another holiday away from home was ahead. He wrote them with pride and loneliness: “I guess Adolph had never heard of the Second to None. Have a big ‘Xmas and drink some for me, Love J.P.”