In December 1944, Nazi Germany launched what would be its last major offensive campaign during World War II. This attack caught the Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest by surprise, and in the ensuing battle – the Battle of the Bulge – our troops faced record low-temperatures, dwindling supplies, and a German army that outnumbered them three to one. Their response was a testament to the power of common purpose devoted to the cause of freedom.
Among the Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge was my father, Robert Wood. This month, I had the honor of traveling with a bipartisan Congressional delegation to Belgium and Luxembourg to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, and to thank some of the heroes who fought in the same battle as my dad.
In talking with veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, I heard firsthand about – and was struck by – the brutality of the conditions that they endured.
These troops – many of whom were just 18 or 19 years old at the time – had to fight through incredible cold and snow without appropriate gear. There wasn’t enough food. Many experienced hypothermia.
Against incredible odds, unit by unit, American soldiers continued to fight – persevering with courage and resilience. And their valiant sacrifices led to a victory in the Battle of the Bulge that set the stage for defeating Hitler and, literally, saving the world.
During our visit, it was remarkably touching to see how grateful the people of Belgium and Luxemburg remain to this day. At a commemoration parade, people lined the streets, braving the cold and rain to wave American flags and thank our country’s veterans.
I was particularly struck by the words of the mayor of Bastogne, Belgium, Benoit Lutgen, who at one ceremony turned to veterans and said, “Time has not changed you. You are always there, valiant, at your stations. Dignified. Unwavering. Awe-inspiring.”
Those words describe perfectly the character of those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge – and all of those who were a part of what we today refer to as the Greatest Generation.
My dad told stories about his platoon and sometimes mentioned that in traditional terms, he and his fellow platoon-mates had little in common. He was partway through college, while some of those he served with had little formal education and were from different parts of the country.
He helped one of them write letters to his girlfriend every Sunday, and he read comic strips to another. And he was quick to tell us how his comrades’ strength and bravery helped protect him and the entire unit.
These soldiers didn’t have much in common except for one particular thing: they were all fighting for freedom, and believed in it. With that belief in mind, they fought for their country, for each other, and for people anywhere and everywhere who loved freedom.
My dad and all those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge never forgot what they experienced on the battlefields of Europe – the bloody consequences of fascism, demagoguery, and anti-Semitism.
They took the lessons of war home with them, and they built democratic institutions and reinforced democratic values across our country. They cherished freedom because they saw what could happen when freedom was eroded and then assaulted.
The question for all of us – and for generations to come – is whether we’ve learned that lesson too. It is the job of every generation of Americans to be ready and willing to do what it takes to ensure that our country is worthy of the sacrifices that our veterans have made.
To honor all of our veterans, each of us must give every measure of our effort to fight for, nurture, and sustain freedom. And to love each other, as Americans, and despite our differences, because of that shared and essential commitment.
U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, is former governor of New Hampshire.