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“Battered Bastards of Bastogne”

Stars and Stripes

Published: January 6, 1945

BASTOGNE, Jan. 6th – Private David Threnody of the 969th Anti-Tank Battalion saved more than just a little girl.  He saved more than just a church where war-torn families huddled around fires built from broken wooden pews.  His altruistic actions helped boost the morale of depleted American forces holding out for reinforcements in the bitter winter siege of Bastogne, establishing him as a lesser-known hero of the Ardennes counter-offensive.

When Patton learned of General McAuliffe’s response “Nuts!” to Nazi surrender demands, he’s reported to have said: “A man that eloquent has to be saved.”  The commander of the 327th GIR interpreted it to the German truce party as “Go to hell!”, and out of this defiance many stories of bravery and heroism have sprung up.  The story of David Threnody’s actions during the siege of Bastogne is no less a tale depicting this American defiance against superior forces.  His small victory over German troops Christmas Day captures the humanity of that spirit.

“I guess she just wanted to play in the snow,” says Threnody, of the three-year old Belgian girl, who slipped away from her un-suspecting mother hiding with others in the church.

Liberated by the Allies in late 1944, Bastogne was attacked by German forces shortly after due to Hitler’s plan to re-establish control of the Ardennes. The goal was to advance to Antwerp, to cut off supply and separate British from American troops. On December 16, taking advantage of the cold and the fog, the German artillery started what is now being called Battle of the Bulge, attacking the sparsely deployed American troops around Bastogne. A few days later, Brigadier General McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne Division along with elements of the 10th Armored Division and the 82nd airborne arrived to counter-attack but, after heavy fighting, became encircled within the town. All seven highways leading to Bastogne were cut off by German forces by noon of 21 December, and by nightfall the conglomeration of airborne and armored infantry forces were recognized by both sides as being surrounded.  Allied control of Bastogne was a major obstacle to the German armored advance, and the morale of Allied forces elsewhere on the Western Front was boosted by news of the stubborn defense of the besieged town.

Johnny Tribout, of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion—a friend of Threnody’s—shares the account of what happened Christmas morning:

“We couldn’t fall back.  There was nowhere to fall back to.  And I felt like they were gloating at us—ya know…  Allied forces had ushered most of civilian families into St. Pierre church, and we had taken up defenses there, in the Place de St. Pierre…  I was the first to see her, running out in the street.  German artillery bombardment was temporarily under a reprieve, but we knew a panzergrenadier regiment was advancing.  While under cover fire, I ran to save the girl, but was wounded in the leg in the process…  That’s when I saw it, and I guess David saw it to.  We saw the Goliath advancing, its goal the church.”

The German assault—led by 18 tanks carrying a battalion of infantry—pierced the lines of defense Christmas day. However, Allied forces held their original positions and repulsed the infantry assaults that followed, capturing 92 Germans. The panzers that had achieved the penetration divided into two columns and were halted by tank destroyers of the 705th

The Goliath tracked mine is a remote controlled German-engineered demolition vehicle, also known as the beetle tank to the Allies.  Employed by the Wehrmacht since 1942, this caterpillar-tracked vehicle is relatively small, approximately 4 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 1 foot tall.  Carrying 75–100 kilograms (170–220 lbs.) of high explosives, its intended use has multiple purposes, such as destroying tanks, disrupting dense infantry formations, and demolition of buildings and bridges.  The vehicle is steered remotely via a joystick control box. The control box is attached to the Goliath by a triple-strand cable connected to the rear of the vehicle.  Two of the strands are used to move and steer the Goliath, the third is used for detonation. Using 650 m of cable, each Goliath is disposable, blown up with its target.

“It was kind of like cutting of the head,” says Tribout.  “First he grabbed the little girl and ran her inside the church.  Then, under heavy fire he advanced towards the Goliath.  He had only one shot at it.  The vehicle was already in proximity to detonate.  And maybe he was lucky—I don’t know—maybe God was with us, but he managed to cut the right cable, the detonation cable.  After that it was useless, and he dragged me back to safety…  And we held.  We held our position.  David saved that little girl.  He saved the church.  He saved me.  And I’m not sure we would have done that, we would have held.  Not if David hadn’t done what he did.  Not if he hadn’t faced that Goliath…”

Elements of General George Patton’s Third Army succeeded in punching through to Bastogne, reaching the lines the day after the Christmas attack. Ground communications with the American supply dumps were restored on 27 December, and the wounded were evacuated to the rear. Among them Johnny Tribout, who told combat reporters of The Stars and Stripes of David Threnody’s defiance and heroism.

When asked why he did it, why he saved the little girl and Johnny Tribout, why he stood up to the Goliath threatening the church, he had only this to say: “I’m just a guitar player.  I’m not really a soldier.  I did what I did for personal reasons.  I had to save that little girl because I thought I knew her.  I thought I knew her mother…”