By mid-December of 1944, the eighteen men of the 99th Infantry Division’s Reconnaissance and Intelligence Platoon knew something big was about to go down in the Ardennes Forest on the Belgium-Germany border. Something that could potentially change the course of World War II. Something that could also potentially make Eisenhower and Montgomery crap their pants.
Under command of First Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, this elite platoon of American recon troopers had spent the past few weeks setting up communications listening posts along the German-controlled Siegfried Line, trying to get a feel for what was going down in Nazi town. When that hadn’t worked, they were like fuck it and went out on a bunch of ultra-dangerous commando missions deep into enemy territory, breaking into German bases as far as two miles behind the front lines, grabbing unsuspecting Wehrmacht troops, and beating information out of them the old-fashioned way.
What they learned was that somewhere along the border of Belgium and Germany Hitler was amassing 200,000 of his toughest veteran soldiers – including four insanely-badass, elite SS Panzer Divisions packed with hundreds of tanks – in preparation for a balls-out full-scale attack across Allied lines. These battle-hardened warriors were ordered to punch through overextended American lines, capture Antwerp, and reverse the Allied successes in the Normandy Campaign in one massive punch to the balls with a few thousand tons of Blitzkrieg-ready armored vehicles, and they were locked and loaded for the operation.
The Battle of the Bulge was about to begin, and Lyle Bouck and the Reconnaissance and Intelligence Platoon were about to get a front-row ticket for the action.
At 20 years old, First Lieutenant Bouck was one of the youngest officers in the American army. A Missouri native, he’d joined the National Guard at the age of 14 to help his parents pay bills, but after Pearl Harbor he was sent to OCS and trained to lead dangerous patrols behind enemy lines to gather intel. His 17 men, all expert marksmen trained for badass commando ninja shit, were some of the first soldiers to receive the Combat Infantryman Badge for kicking ass on the field of battle in World War II.
They were an elite Mission: Impossible strike team capable of sneaking in, surveying the enemy, breaking a few necks, and getting out of there undetected.
So when these guys were told by Allied command that they were to occupy defensive positions on a ridge overlooking a major road near the Belgian town of Lanzerath, dig fortifications, and prepare to hold their ground at all costs until death do you part because the entire goddamned German Sixth Panzer Army was headed their way, they were a little surprised. Kind of in the same way you’d be a little surprised if you won three multiplayer Splinter Cell matches in a row and Norman Schwarzkopf kicked in the door to your apartment and told you to assassinate the Ayatolla of Iran, then kicked you in the crotch with a steel-plated boot for no reason at all without any warning whatsoever.
Except instead of complaining and grabbing their nuts, Bouck and his men got to work on their bunkers immediately.
They knew that on the road towards Lanzerath were several hundred hardcore Panzer Mark V “Panther” main battle tanks, tens of thousands of crack SS stormtroopers, an imperial metric fuckton-load of trucks and armored cars, and a few hundred tons of artillery, all of them prepared to fight with the sort of blood-rage desperation that can only come from the knowledge that this was Nazi Germany’s last chance to turn the tide of World War II and keep the Americans from setting foot in the Fatherland.
Lyle Bouck had 18 men organized in two 9-man squads, supported by 4 forward artillery observers – the dudes who are supposed to be ranging in howitzer fire, not engaging in hand-to-hand combat with goddamned Nazi sturmtruppen. He had no armor, no anti-tank capability (there had been a Tank Destroyer company assigned to cover his flank, but they drove away without telling him), no air support, no backup, no reinforcements, and he’d been told via his only radio that the artillery had “higher priority targets” and that he shouldn’t be able to count on calling in a barrage.
On 15 December 1944, Bouck ordered his men to dig trenches overlooking the road to Lanzerath, fortify them with pine logs, and set up pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire. With a forest at his back, between Bouck and the town was an open field with a barbed-wire fence. He positioned his .30 caliber machine gun, two BARs, and traded a supply guy for the .50 cal on his jeep.
Then he waited.
The German plan of attack was simple – they needed the road to Lanzerath open so they could roll the 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions through it. After a massive, 90-minute artillery barrage that shredded the trees apart above Bouck’s head, a full-on attack by Wehrmacht infantry was to break through American lines across the entire Ardennes front, and then the SS Panzers were to exploit the breach and break for Antwerp. The job of securing Lanzerath Pass fell to the 3rd Fallschmirjager Division – a once-proud unit of crack paratroopers who had been decimated in Normandy, and who now had their hardened core of veterans supplemented by young boys and old men previously deemed unfit for service in the German military. Despite their recent losses, morale was high – the Germans had been told that the Americans were “a gum-chewing, undisciplined half-breed with no stomach for real war.”
Atop Lanzerath ridge Lyle Bouck and the 18 men of the I&R Platoon lay in wait, clutching their rifles, each man drawing a bead as a full battalion of over 700 German Paratroopers marched down the road towards the town. Bouck ordered his men to wait for the lead elements to pass, wait until you see an officer or two, and then open fire.
When the enemy was in range, Bouck and the I&R troops opened fire, each man’s rifle finding its mark. The Germans dove for cover in ditches on either side of the road, keeping their heads down as the .30 and .50 cals ripped up the ground around them. Not realizing what they were facing, the Paratroopers dispatched a full company – over 150 men – to assault the woods and take out the Americans. As one, a wave of Germans rose and began charging up the hill, cranking out massive amounts of firepower from their fully-automatic MP40 and MP44 submachine guns.
The Americans kept their heads down, didn’t lose their cool, and mowed down the enemy as they raced across the open field with accurate fire from their M1 Carbines and curtains of hot lead from twin machine guns and two assault rifles. No German made it beyond the barbed wire fence.
After a brief truce for German medics to pull back their wounded, the Paratroopers launched a second assault, this time charging through knee-deep snow under the cover of heavy mortar and machine gun fire. Still, the Americans held them off, each of the 18 I&R guys losing their shit and fighting like madmen – one crazy Serb named Milosevich was manning the .30-cal by himself (usually a two person operation) despite being barefoot for most of the battle because the Germans showed up while he was drying his socks. His foxhole mate was a psychotic real-life FPS character switching between his M1 rifle, a Grease Gun, and a Colt .45 pistol depending on the situation.
Once again, the German assault was thrown back by a hail of gunfire. Somewhere down the road, behind the 700 paratroopers, the men of the 1st SS Panzer Corps waited at their tanks, stuck in a traffic jam and already five hours behind schedule in an operation that required near-perfect execution to succeed.
The 3rd Division launched two more full-scale attacks, this time not just supported by 81mm mortars, but also by hardcore full-scale artillery that pounded bus-sized holes around the American foxholes. Still Bouck and his men fought tenaciously, even as Paratrooper units got close enough that the U.S. recon troops “could see the expressions on their faces as we shot them.” Twice more they were thrown back by point-blank pistol shots in the face and hand-to-hand combat.
The battle had begun at 6am. Now, ten hours later, almost completely out of ammo, with his .50 cal knocked out by a mortar and a couple men wounded, Bouck was hoping to make it one more hour so he could withdraw his men under the cover of darkness. 18 American recon and intel troopers had successfully held up an entire German Panzer Army for almost a full day, buying the Allies that much more time to organize a defense and counterattack to stop the Nazi advance.
The Paras launched their final attack at dusk. This time, however, instead of a head-on attack, they flanked through the forest, where they stepped on a bunch of tripwires attached to grenades and blew themselves up. The Americans heard the grenades go off and tried to adjust their positions, but their ammo was depleted and their positions were overrun by swarming Germans. Bouck and his men surrendered and were almost summarily executed by the pissed-off Krauts, but cooler heads prevailed and instead of being machine gunned they were taken prisoner. They hadn’t lost a single man.
The Americans had fought so hard the Germans weren’t convinced that these 18 guys were all that were in the woods, and even though the forest was clear the Germans refused to advance until the commanding officer of the 1st SS Panzer Division, Joachim Peiper, showed up at 1am that night and personally took a battalion of paratroopers into the forest to verify that it was empty.
1LT Lyle Bouck turned 21 years old at midnight on December 17th. He was finally legal to drink in the States, but instead of partying at a titty bar he was walking two miles through knee-deep snow with a bullet in his calf while Nazis pointed guns at him.
The I&R Platoon was sent on an 11-day train ride to a prison camp in Germany, where they spent four months in the freezing-cold outdoor camp in the middle of the German Winter. Suffering from hypothermia, starvation, and dehydration, Bouck himself was near death when the men of his old unit – the 99th Division – finally marched in and rescued him.
Lyle Bouck made it back home to Missouri, became a chiropractor, and has been married for 58 years. From the day he got home he started writing letters to the government insisting on medals and recognition for the brave men of his unit who had fought so hard and single-handedly delayed the German advance in the Battle of the Bulge by almost 24 hours. His story went untold until 1981, when the President awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, and ordered that Bronze Star or Silver Star medals should be awarded to all 17 of his men. It is now the most decorated American platoon of World War II.
Bouck turned 90 years old last week.
The I&R Platoon in 1981.
Kelly, C. Brian. Best Little Stories from World War II. Sourcebooks Inc., 2010.
Kershaw, Alex. The Longest Winter. Da Capo, 2005.
Merriam, Robert E. Battle of the Bulge. Merriam, 1999.
Neill, George W. Infantry Soldier. University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Wijers, Hans J. The Battle of the Bulge. Stackpole, 2009.