Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke the famous line, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away," but it is another American general, Anthony McAuliffe, who is credited for recent warfare's most memorably terse utterance.
In December 1944, a badly battered but unbowed German army began an effective counterattack against American troops that following the June 1944 Normandy Invasion had retaken much of occupied France. The German surprise attack, labeled the Battle of the Bulge, was intended to push through Allied troops to regain the strategic Dutch port of Antwerp. German troops and tanks pushed through the thick Ardennes forest that overlaps France, Belgium and Luxembourg, catching pre-Christmas paused U.S. troops off guard.
McAuliffe, a 46-year-old, Washington, D.C.-born brigadier general, was in command of the U.S. 101st Airborne, famous along with the 82nd Airborne for its D-Day role, when it was attacked and besieged by Nazi troops near the Belgian city of Bastogne, which German tank general Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz was determined to retake. By Dec. 22, 1944, in dismal weather, von Lüttwitz's tanks had bottled up the badly outnumbered U.S. troops. Worse for the Americans, cloudy, rainy weather made air support impossible. It was then that Von Lüttwitz issued an awkward if elegant ultimatum, borne by a truce convoy of German officers bearing a white flag:
"To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander."
Handed the note, McAuliffe laughed and said, "Aw, nuts!" A single-word reply, Nuts! — apparently underlined — was delivered by an American colonel the head of the waiting German truce delegation, all of whose members had been blindfolded.
"Is the reply negative or affirmative?" asked the German intermediary.
"The reply is decidedly not affirmative," replied the American colonel, who told the bewildered German contingent that "Nuts!" meant, "Go to hell."
Von Lüttwitz's troops attacked fruitlessly for the next six days, including on Christmas Day. The encirclement ended soon thereafter, when McAuliffe's stricken 101st was reinforced by elements of Gen. George Patton's Third Army and the joint American forces pushed back. More than 3,000 U.S. soldiers died in the engagement, some 2,000 from the 101st, but the so-called "Battered Bastards of Bastogne" are remembered above all for McAuliffe's text message-style response.