Vincent Vicari knows about the Battle of the Bulge - he was there.

He remembers Dec. 16, 1944, when the field phone rang in the command post of the 101st Airborne Division's artillery regiment near Reims, in eastern France, and a voice told him to wake his boss, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, and have him report to HQ.He recalls that as McAuliffe went out the door, he turned and said, "Lieutenant, stay by that phone. Don't move." And he remembers the call an hour or so later, instructing him to alert all units to "get ready to move out, immediately."

Those units couldn't know it then, but they would be spending Christmas fending off Adolf Hitler's last desperate attempt to turn the Allied tide that had been advancing since D-Day, six months earlier. The six-week battle to come would be the largest of the war in western Europe.

Whatever was brewing, 1st Lt. Vicari and the rest of his unit didn't welcome it. They were still recovering from three months of combat .

"We were exhausted, and we'd had no time to refurbish," Vicari says. "We had no winter equipment. We were still in the same torn uniforms, short of food, ammo and everything else."

But orders were orders. By midnight, the troops had boarded hastily organized convoys of trucks, jeeps and other vehicles.

"Nobody knew where we were going," recalls Vicari, now 84 and retired in Easton, Pa. "We had never heard of a place called Bastogne."

Bastogne, a market town where several roads converged, was critical to blocking the German advance.

The troops also didn't know Allied intelligence had been fooled into thinking a German code-name, "Wacht am Rhein" - Watch on the Rhine - referred to a defensive buildup, not a surprise counteroffensive into Belgium.

Aided by overcast skies that grounded Allied aircraft, 200,000 German troops and 600 tanks surged westward through the rugged Ardennes, driving a wedge into American lines that on battle maps would become famous as "the Bulge."

Stretched thinly across the forested terrain were five U.S. Army divisions - outmanned, outgunned and mostly untested in battle.

By contrast, The 101st Airborne, the "Screaming Eagles," had jumped into the dark behind enemy lines on D-Day and fought across France and Holland. They were seasoned veterans, but even their biggest weapons were no match for the Wehrmacht's fearsome 70-ton Tiger tanks.

As the Americans rumbled through the bitter cold, they met their defeated comrades stumbling to the rear.

"We could see our people going in the opposite direction, walking back," Vicari says. "Whenever the convoy slowed, we jumped off the trucks to get their ammo, hand grenades and guns."

By getting to Bastogne first, the Americans blocked German movements in southern Belgium. But after a week of fighting, the paratroopers and their supporting forces found themselves surrounded.

German artillery shelled the town. Snow and fog allowed few supply drops, and many parachutes drifted into German lines, delivering much-needed supplies to the wrong side.

"Some of the townspeople gave us white sheets to cover our uniforms in the snow," Vicari remembers. "It was so cold that GIs had to keep their rifles under their coats to keep them from freezing."

At Bastogne, the 101st's paratroopers repulsed attacks and were low on ammunition. In the wintry darkness, American soldiers sang "Silent Night" and heard Germans singing "Stille Nacht," the same carol.

On Dec. 22, four German couriers approached American lines under a flag of truce, carrying a message "from the German commander to the American commander."

Asserting that Bastogne was "encircled," the note gave McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st in the absence of Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, two hours to surrender or face "total annihilation." It offered "the privileges of the Geneva Convention" to the would-be POWs.

What came next would be one of World War II's seminal moments.

As Vicari, McAuliffe's personal aide, recalls it, "General Mac read the note and said, 'Aw, nuts.' Then he asked, 'What should I tell them?"'

Lt. Col. Harry W.O. Kinnard, the division operations officer, said, "Why not tell them what you just said?"

"What did I just say?"

"You said, 'nuts,"' Kinnard replied.

McAuliffe scribbled a reply: "To the German commander. Nuts! From the American commander." He handed the message to Lt. Col. Joseph Harper, who had escorted the couriers.

While WWII historian Barry Turner says McAuliffe's one-word riposte "lost something in translation," others have speculated that "nuts" might be a sanitized version of what the tough paratroop general actually said.

Not so, Vicari says.

"General Mac was the only general I ever knew who did not use profane language," he said in a telephone interview.

"'Nuts' was part of his normal vocabulary."

The weather cleared the next day, enabling American P-47 Thunderbolts to attack enemy positions while cargo planes dropped supplies .

On the day after Christmas, Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, commanding the 37th Tank Battalion and under orders to attack German positions in a nearby village, realized that the road to Bastogne was open. His first four Shermans roared into the battered town about 4 p.m.

"How are you, general?" asked a tank officer, Capt. William Dwight.

"Gee, I'm mighty glad to see you," McAuliffe replied.

Bitter fighting continued, but on Jan. 8, even Hitler conceded failure.

Abandoning hundreds of their tanks, the Germans began retreating. By Jan. 28, the battle was over.

The Allied casualty toll included 8,600 Americans and 200 British killed, 21,000 captured or missing and 47,000 wounded. The Germans suffered nearly 68,000 total casualties, including 17,000 dead.

War historians offer a mixed verdict: the Battle of the Bulge delayed the Allied victory in Europe by at least six weeks, but by depleting the best of Hitler's forces, made the final push to Berlin less costly.

Bastogne is today a tourist favorite that annually celebrates its famous survival. It has a Place McAuliffe and a Rue Nuts.

Vicari returned to civilian life as an official of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

From his perspective, the Bulge was Bastogne: "Hitler wanted it, and they used up a lot of fuel, a lot of ammo and a lot of men trying to take it. I don't think there was anybody who had guts like our people."

Only he didn't say "guts."

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