By Jay Holmes
On this Memorial Day, I offer my humble gratitude to my fellow veterans. To the young men and women who walk the patrols, fight through convoys to distant bases, fly missions, man ships, and actuate our president’s orders in all the myriad ways necessary to effect our nation’s foreign policy and assure our domestic security—I salute every one of you.
On those occasions when I have not been overseas, Memorial Day has always been a time of reflection for me. This Memorial Day, I would like to focus on one particular veteran who has been on my mind lately, Eduardo Peniche.
Go Home and Grow
In 1942, a scrawny, 17-year-old Mexican boy showed up at the US Army recruiting station in Paducah, Kentucky and announced that he was there to join the 101st Airborne Division. He explained that he had heard a talk given by members of the division and wanted to become a “Screaming Eagle.” The recruiter suppressed a laugh and explained that he was a bit too young and a bit too small to be a paratrooper.
Disappointed, the boy told the recruiter that he had his heart set on learning to use a bazooka to knock out German tanks. The recruiter measured the boy and said that, indeed, at 5’5″ tall, he was still too small to be a paratrooper, and that he would never be able to heft a bazooka unless he did some more growing. The boy remained polite and insisted that they should take him. A young officer observed the conversation and decided that the boy had “something” about him, and that they should let him try. They repeated the measurements, and the boy had miraculously grown an inch. Little Eduardo Alberto Peniche Y Carvajal of Yucatan, Mexico, a.k.a. “Ed,” was going to get his chance.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the US 101st Airborne division conducted their famous night assault on Normandy, France in hopes of securing the forward stretch of the allied armies south flank. The transport planes had the standard navigation equipment of the time, and they quickly became lost. Most of the troops were dropped out of sequence and far from their jump zones. In Ed’s case, thanks to the massive confusion in the huge Normandy operation, he did not enter combat until June 9, on the French Carentin Peninsula, three days after most of his fellow Screaming Eagles had begun to engage the German army.
In September, 1944, during British General Bernard Montgomery’s ill-conceived Operation Market Garden, American and British paratroopers were dropped across Holland, deep behind German lines. Their mission was to capture key bridges across the rivers and canals of Holland to facilitate an armored assault into Germany before the Germans could place divisions that would stop a run on Berlin.
The idea was every bit as bad as it sounds. British and American paratroopers took the required bridges against heavy resistance, but the Germans failed to panic as Montgomery had predicted they would. Instead, they fought a skillful defensive action all along “Hell’s Highway.” The armored column could not move fast enough to consolidate the bridgeheads, and the operation was a bloody disaster. The Germans had no intention of giving up Holland, and the Screaming Eagles had no intention of giving up. The result was 73 consecutive days of combat in Holland for the 101st Airborne. The Germans left; the Eagles stayed. Too many Eagles stayed forever.
Battle of the Bulge
Ed survived the fighting in Holland, and, in late November, he and the remainder of the division were withdrawn from combat for rest and recuperation. They were to receive replacement paratroopers and new equipment. Allied command expected to have the division ready for combat for the spring offensive against Germany. Spring came early.
On December 16, from well-concealed positions on a quiet sector of Ardougne, the German army launched its last great offensive. It would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The German goal was to drive a line between the American and British positions and take the port of Antwerp. Without the critical port facilities of Antwerp, the allied offensive would quickly starve.
The road from Trier, Germany to Antwerp runs through a small town that few people had ever heard of, and fewer still had cared to remember. By Christmas, the Allied peoples across the world would know its name. Bastogne. They would come to know the name as not just a town in Belgium, but as a synonym for courage and sacrifice.
The Allies had the 10th Armored Division at the road-junction town of Bastogne. The Germans achieved complete surprise, and the offensive quickly rolled forward. The 10th Armored was ordered to hold Bastogne as long as possible to allow for a retreat to Namur, where the Allies could blow the bridges, and then fight a defensive action across the river.
A glance at a map of Belgium will quickly reveal why the Germans wanted Bastogne, and why the Allies didn’t want them to have it. It’s all about the road junction. There are no easily defensible positions between where the hills end at Bastogne and the city of Namur.
The fight was on, and things looked pretty good for the Germans that December. In desperation, the Allies scraped together enough trucks to move the 101st to Bastogne. Short of men, equipment, and supplies, they arrived on December 18, sans their commanding general, who was on a trip to Washington, D.C. to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about air assault operations for the spring.
The executive officer, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, was in command. McAuliffe made a critical decision. In the face of an enemy with vast local superiority in men, tanks, guns, and material, he decided on a forward defense. He would fight the Battle of Bastogne as far from Bastogne as he could.
Normally, no general would spread his men out so thinly when so vastly outnumbered, but McAuliffe had two extra weapons that day. First, he had the miserable weather. That weather was a godsend to the Germans, because it grounded the superior air forces of the Allies. But there was another side to that particular coin. The blizzard was falling on still unfrozen ground, and if you are an off-road enthusiast or a heavy tank driver, that matters. The massive German assault was “carnavalized.” That means that, because of deep mud, they could not use the open ground, wide sweeping tactics refined on the steppes of Russia by their great armored genius, Hans Guderian. They had to take the roads from the Americans—from the Americans and one Mexican.
On the maps in Berlin, it was clear that German SS General Sepp Dietrich would quickly sweep around the annoying Americans at Bastogne and take Namur. But the battle was not fought on the maps. It was fought on every yard of passable road within ten miles of Bastogne.
McAuliffe’s second extra weapon that day was that he knew his paratroopers could and would fight in isolated positions, far from any support, without panicking. He knew they might die. In fact, he expected that they would, and that he would die with them. He also knew that they would fight to the last with the skill they had acquired through years of hard training and months of hard combat. McAuliffe was buying time for the Allies to build a defensive position at Namur.
There is another reason why McAuliffe was willing to stay and die at Bastogne. German SS troops had made sure that no American would want to surrender. Part of Hitler’s plan for the offensive was to cause as much slaughter of prisoners and civilians as possible. His goal was to make the battle so horrible and bloody that the Allies would be coerced into agreeing to halt their armies at Germany’s border. Hitler expected half a million French and Belgian civilians to be killed.
In the early days of the battle, German SS commandos dressed as Americans infiltrated American positions and murdered wounded soldiers and staff in a field hospital. Two of the wounded Americans managed to escape, and outrage spread throughout the 101st Airborne. After the battle, we learned that German SS units systematically murdered captured Allied prisoners. During the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans offered McAuliffe the opportunity to surrender, the legend indicates that he sent a one word response, “Nuts.” I have always suspected that it was actually a two-word response, and did not include the word “nuts.” Suffice to say he refused to surrender.
General Bernard Montgomery declined to reinforce Bastogne. He had his hands full further north. General George Patton had his 3rd army poised for an assault on Metz, too far from Bastogne to help. No reasonable man would have attempted to move the US 3rd army sideways, two hundred miles along the German front, in the middle of a blizzard, to try to reach Bastogne. George Patton was a lot of things. “Reasonable” was never one of them. The Germans were shocked when they realized what Patton was attempting. They knew he would fail. He knew he wouldn’t. The race was on.
Surviving One More Day
The blizzard continued, and the Germans kept using their massive firepower to shell Bastogne into submission and to inch their way up the roads with their tanks and armored personnel carriers. On one of those roads, at one of those roadblocks that scrawny Mexican kid had grown sick and hungry. His feet had frozen, and frostbite set in. (His feet would hurt the rest of his life but he would always swear they were fine.) Private Edward Peniche and his small band of paratroopers held their position day after day. At night, they crawled forward and set traps for the tanks with land mines or infiltrated German positions to do what damage they could. But their luck was running out.
The Germans managed a close hit on Ed’s anti-tank gun position. Some were killed, and the rest were badly wounded. Bleeding severely, they loaded their last anti-tank gun and hit another German tank, which blocked the road again.
The Germans then managed a direct hit on Ed’s anti-tank gun emplacement, badly wounding Edward and his two remaining comrades. The Germans could not maneuver their heavy Panzer 4 Mk 3 tanks in the snow-covered wheat field to get around their disabled tank. They had to perform the slow process of dragging the crippled tank back up the road it had come down. The three paratroopers kept the German infantry under enough fire to prevent their advance.
Ammunition was running low. Nobody was well enough to make it back to the command post to bring up a medic and perhaps a few more Eagles. Ed was wounded in his left leg and arm. He suffered from concussion, bleeding from both ears, and was nearly deaf. In spite of all that, he used his good arm to drag himself several hundred yards through the snow to the command post for help, and a medic and another handful of paratroopers went forward to the man the position. A guy who was supposed to be in Mexico, who was too small to be a paratrooper, and too sick and wounded to fight, and his two buddies who were also too sick and too wounded to fight any more, used an anti-tank gun that was too small to stop a heavily armored Panzer 4 Mk 3 tank.
Ed’s friends knew he would not survive another day. They were pretty sure they wouldn’t, either. They knew they would not live to see Christmas. Hitler, on the other hand, thought he might enjoy a Christmas celebration in Antwerp.
On December 23, the skies cleared. The fields were still impassable to heavy armored units, but planes could fly. The Germans attempted to bomb Bastogne off the map, but Allied air forces overwhelmed them and stalled the German offensive along the entire “Bulge” in the Allied lines.
Globetrotting Missions and Education
Eduardo Peniche was right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about living to see Christmas. He saw a lot of them. Ed died of a stroke about seven years ago in Texas. Between Bastogne and his stroke, he returned to Mexico and founded the Mexican paratrooper forces. Then he returned to the USA, became an American citizen, and rejoined the US Army. He spent three years in Vietnam. Ed helped found the School of the Americas, and was well known for his insistence on teaching students the importance of respect for the men under their command, and compassion for the civilians who they were supposed to be protecting. Ed’s role in Central America was more significant than most people realize, and his influence was far-reaching throughout the US intelligence community. Ed was never about the paycheck or the recognition. He was always about helping the mission and the people in a mission in any way that he could.
Between globetrotting assignments, Ed continued his education. He eventually became a highly respected professor of foreign languages. In 1998, a beloved and highly respected man who was too old to teach any more received the Teacher of the Year Award from First Lady Laura Bush. He thanked her, then he went back to his class and kept teaching. Of his days in Bastogne, Ed said that he felt privileged to have served with the greatest Americans and men of such honor.
About ten years ago, when on a trip to Brussels, I finally took the time to visit Bastogne, Belgium. It was the perfect day for visiting a battlefield. It was cold. The rain and sleet were blowing sideways. When the wind tore our silly umbrellas to shreds, my friend cursed. I was relieved. God must have heard my prayers.
I dispatched my blue-cold friend to the visitor center and walked to the circular wall of honor to be alone with my thoughts. I knew that I owed something greater than I could pay to the men who remained under the ground that I walked across. I could at least pay them my respect.
I was grateful to be alone with them, but I wasn’t quite alone. At the lowered center of the memorial, a middle-aged woman struggled to secure fresh flowers to bronze vases near an eternal flame. Nobody would come there that cold and forbidding day, but she was there with her fresh flowers.
She saw me and timidly greeted me. She recognized my poor French as being American made. She asked if I had lost an ancestor there, or if perhaps my father had fought there. I explained that my father and uncles had all served in the Pacific, but that I did have a friend who had fought there. I told her about the man who was too small to be a paratrooper. She smiled and said “but big enough to stop the Nazis.” Yes, he was big enough to stop the Nazis.
I knew the answer, but I had to ask her. “Why did you bring flowers on a day like this when nobody will come?”
She answered, “You are here, and if you weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They are here. We remember what they did.” I thanked her. She thanked me.
A toast to The Smallest Eagle. He had the biggest heart.
To read Ed’s story in his own words, see White Christmas, Red Snow: A Journal by Prof. Eduardo A. Peniche, Combat Veteran, 101st Abn. Div.