AND THE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED “A PEACE ON EARTH”
By Billy Tucci
First off, let me say just how humbled I am by all the wonderful reviews and emails I received this past week regarding “Sgt. Rock – A Peace On Earth” in last week’s “DC Holiday Special 2009”. Questions and critiques alike, though seemed to wonder about the validity of such a story and if it’s truth or fiction. Heck, I myself was skeptical at first, as a story of two enemies taking a break from war to share Christmas seems “clichéd”. But thanks to the amazing research conducted by my good friend, historian and author, Mark Bando, that all changed.
For you see, boys and girls, the story behind “A Peace On Earth” is indeed true -- and here’s what happened…
Among many things, Mark Bando is the foremost expert on the 101st Airborne Division. He’s interviewed over 1,000 veterans of the Second World War, has written many books and is a champion of their memory. He also has the coolest collection of WWII artifacts, uniforms, and weapons, I’ve ever seen and last year, I had the privilege to visit Mark’s home and gawk at his private collection of history.
Today, December 16th marks the 65th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge - - one of the bloodiest and most desperate engagements in history, Suddenly, at dawn on that quiet morning, the Western Front exploded as over 2,300 tanks spearheaded a German force of over 1,300,000 million through the lightly defended Ardennes forest onto the unsuspecting Allies. Overall, the attackers enjoyed a three-to-one advantage in manpower, (more than ten-to-one in the assault areas), but more importantly, the majority of these soldiers were raised just for this moment, (most born between 1925-28) and possessed a fanatical Nazism bent on defending their “Fatherland”.
Most of the American defenders fought hard and well against this onslaught, but they, for the most part, couldn’t stem the Teutonic tide – thousands were captured or killed while others were subject to horrific SS atrocities. Overall, a large salient, or “bulge” cut through the Belgium frontier and with un-flyable weather hindering any countering Allied aircraft, there seemed no way of stopping the Germans. Within hours, hundreds of German tanks were now on the loose behind the front lines, free to move in every direction and destroy anything in their path.
But while many bravely held to the last, overall panic ensued -- as thousands of shocked Americans retreated in disarray, leaving behind tanks, artillery, food, ammunition and vehicles. It was a rout not encountered by the American army since the first Battle of Bull run eighty-three years earlier.
“Run! Run! They’ll murder you! They’ve got everything, tanks, machine guns, air power everything!”
“They were just babbling” Major Dick Winters, 101st Airborne and of “Band of Brothers” fame recalls, “It was pathetic. We felt ashamed.”
It was reminiscent of the pursuit the Allies enjoyed the summer before as they routed the Germans out of France. But the main difference between the German retreat of August and the American retreat of December 1944 was that as the majority of beaten, terrified G.I.s fled West down the middle of the roads, there were combat troops on each side headed East, veteran soldiers marching once again to the sound of the guns.
At dawn on December 19th, as German tanks prepared to surround Bastogne, the 101st marched in to join elements of the 10th Armored Division and 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion still holding out and creating a bastion -- a total of 12,000 men against four German divisions. Soon surrounded on all sides, the Americans had no choice but to hold – the last three minutes of the following video still brings tears to my eyes.
The paratroops who, after serving 77 days on the line in Holland, were rushed to the front -- low on ammunition and with no winter clothing. But they made due, taking ammunition from the fleeing and stuffing straw and burlap into and around their clothing and feet.
It was, on Christmas Eve just east of Bastogne’s city limits were one amazing encounter took place -- a little “Peace on Earth”. As Mark Bando describes it in his book, “Vanguard of the Crusade – The 101st Airborne Division in World War II (Aberjona Press, 2003):
On 24 December, First Sergeant Donald Deam of Service/501st went to a Christmas party of HQ/101st and obtained an armload of champagne and cognac to carry out to his men on the line near Mont. Returning just before dusk, Deam followed the railroad track eastward, then cut through the underpass. While under the railroad culvert, Deam came face to face with a German sergeant, who entered from the opposite side. Both men made a frantic grab for their weapons, slipping and sliding on the icy ground. Their eyes met, and Deam smiled and winked at the German.
“Got a cigarette, Yank?” the German said in English.
Both men relaxed, sat down, and began to talk. They produced photos of their relatives from wallets, exchanged names and addresses, and shared a bottle of cognac. Deam learned that the German was a Frankfurt college graduate.
After that brief interlude from the war, the two enemies parted from opposite sides of the culvert. Each man raised his weapon – an MP40 and a Tommy gun – and fired a burst straight up in the air.”
Now the best part…
Decades after the war, Donald Deam was contacted by the daughter of his “enemy”. She was working as an interpreter for the U.N. in New York at the time. She had kept a promise to her father to visit his friend if she ever made it to the United States and did so. Deam learned that his friend had indeed survived the war, but sadly passed away in 1975. I have yet to find the name of the German soldat, but will keep searching.
Here’s a look at our interpretation of the story in the DC Holiday Special 2009. A special thanks to Brian Miller of Hi-Fi design and his beautiful colors!
This past fall, Mark went to the Bastogne area and actually FOUND the very tunnel that Sgt. Deam and the German NCO spent Christmas Eve.
As you can see, I found this story so heartwarming that I had to do it – I’m even planning to make it into a short film, I can just imagine what stirring emotions were felt – a silent night forever remembered as two “enemies” go their separate ways -- and that stone overpass forever concealing whatever evidence of their shared Christmas Eve and what was, at least for a little while, a Peace on Earth.
Donald Lewis Deam passed away on October 9th 2008.
If you can remember, please take a moment this Christmas Eve to stop, reflect and say a prayer for our gallant servicemen and woman around the world. They like those “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” still the hold the line, and are away from their friends and family this Christmas,
And while you’re at it, raise a glass in toast for Donald Deam, who I’m sure will once again be sharing a bottle of Christmas cognac in Heaven with his “enemy.”
Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Grateful thanks to Mark Bando – an amazing author and teacher --please check out his books for sale on his website - http://www.101airborneww2.com/See the last column by clicking here!