WINCHESTER – 75 years ago, Allied troops involved in the Battle of the Bulge were facing a bleak Christmas. After a surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest on Dec. 16, the Germans were initially victorious, pushing the Allies back from the German border.
In the center of the resulting bulge in the Allied line was the city of Bastogne and several outlying villages. Because all seven main roads in the Ardennes converged on Bastogne, it was a vital target in the German’s westward drive.
The 101st Airborne was sent to defend Bastogne, along with detachments of the VIII Corps. Among the paratroopers of the 101st were S-Sgt. Gerry Ficociello (72 Oak St.) and Maj. (later Lt. Col.) John Hanlon (6 Bridge St.), who was a battalion leader of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Both men had landed in Normandy on D-Day. Each had been wounded, Ficociello in France and Hanlon in Holland, but they were back with the “Screaming Eagles” for the action in Bastogne.
The 101st Airborne formed an all-round perimeter. On Dec. 22, the German commander sent the American commander a demand to surrender. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe replied with the one word, “Nuts.” In response, the Germans advanced. Bastogne was under siege.
On Christmas Eve, Gen. Anthony MacAuliffe sent a memo to his troops with a crude map showing Bastogne in the center of a circle. Ringed around the town were marks indicating the presence of German troops and at the top it said, “Merry Christmas.”
At about 2:45 a.m. on Christmas Day intense shelling hit the forward area. At 4 a.m. the enemy launched an attack where Hanlon was located.
“There was no warning. At first light a wave of tanks and men mounted the ridge and were upon us. To the right and to the left they sliced through our slender defenses. By the time I could make any estimate of what was happening, the Nazis were everywhere—threatening our flanks and, a few of them actually behind us. The fighting that followed was the most vicious I ever knew.”
But Bastogne did not fall. “The defense of Bastogne was not only a spectacular feat of arms but had a great effect upon the outcome of the battle,” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote.
The 101st was able to defend Bastogne and its outlying villages until Gen. George S. Patton’s army, slowed by snow-choked roads, arrived. The defense of Bastogne not only saved that city but, since the enemy was concentrating on that attack, it allowed the Allied armies to the north to go on the offensive.
Why they won
“You can have those high-sounding ideas that say we won the war against Germany because we were ‘masters of the sea and air’ or because our supply force ‘performed miracles.’ For my brass, we won because it never occurred to the American soldier that we might lose,” Hanlon wrote.
“During the siege of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, my battalion held a vitally important town just north of Bastogne. On Christmas Day, Jerry launched a fierce attack on our position which, with his superior numbers, pierced our line in the center. At the apex of his advance we fell back, but held firmly along the sides—a sort of a bulge within the Bulge. As Jerry pushed further into the center of town, I had just about decided that we could defend no longer; that we must pull out of our positions and reform for a counterattack. Then I met a private who was lying in back of a small mound popping away at every German who moved in the center of the town. Our brief conversation changed my decision.
"‘It looks,’" I said a bit gloomily, ‘like they are in there.’
“He answered brightly. ‘Yessir, they got in there all right, but just wait and see. They'll have a hell of a time getting back out!’
Before the attack on Dec. 25, it snowed. At Hemroulle, a village his battalion was assigned to defend, Hanlon envisioned his men like sitting ducks against that white background. He asked the mayor for bed sheets for camouflage. By ringing the church bell, the mayor summoned the villagers and told them that the Americans needed sheets.
The Belgians went home and returned with armloads and even a sled load of bed sheets. In the battle that followed none of Hanlon’s men was killed.
Because he was desperate to help his men, Hanlon had rather foolishly promised to try to return the sheets. But they were ruined and lost.
After the war, his conscience pricked by the failed promise, he wrote the story for the Boston Globe and expressed his hope to return those sheets. The story captured the attention of people across the country. Some readers contributed checks and sheets. But it was Winchester, which organized a program and set the price of admission as one sheet, which helped Hanlon more than repay the debt.
Feb. 21, 1948, was Winchester Day in Bastogne and Hemroulle, when Hanlon made good on his promise. He was given a hero’s welcome, while expressions of friendship and gratitude abounded that he had remembered.
Keeping Hanlon’s story alive
And the story is still being retold. A piece of Winchester history lives on in Bastogne.
While leading tours of the battlefield, WWII historian Robert Remacle, a resident of Bastogne, retells the story to tourists. In this 75th anniversary year, he was invited to tell the story for Belgian television viewers. A three-minute report on the sheets, including historic photographs and film footage of soldiers donning and wearing sheets, plus views of Hemroulle and of the last known remaining pair of sheets may be viewed by following the link on the Archival Center’s page of the town’s official web site, www.winchester.us.
In a different way, this story has also been remembered and honored by American pilot Bill Lockhart. A history buff, particularly about WWII, he had heard the story prior to visiting Bastogne, which he did a few times.
But it was on his first visit to Hemroulle, where a brief recap of the story is printed on a battlefield display board, that he promptly went out, bought sheets, and left them at the church entrance.
“I guess I wanted to keep the memory of this specific event alive,” he told the Daily Times Chronicle. “The story of Col. Hanlon of the 101st Airborne is more than a war story. It’s about two separate towns with a lot in common.”
When he later returned with a colleague, both contributed sheets to help a family in need. Continuing to contribute sheets whenever he visits Belgium, Lockhart presented more last August.
In July and August of 2015, Hanlon’s story was printed in the Daily Times Chronicle. Revised in book form and illustrated with pictures contributed by both American and Belgian sources, it was presented to the mayor of Bastogne by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium as a gift from Winchester’s Board of Selectmen. The selectmen also stipulated that it be available to anyone.
This year 500 Sheets: Lt. Col. John D. Hanlon’s Debt of Honor is available at the Bastogne War Museum. But, closer to home, it is available through the Winchester Archival Center in Town Hall or directly from the printer by shopping at Lulu.com.
(Eisenhower quotations are from his Crusade in Europe, published serially in the Boston Globe in 1948. The Dec. 8 installment included a photo of a soldier camouflaged in sheets, with the caption headed “Remember the Bed Sheets?” which the Globe certainly did since it carried the initial story.)