'Nuts!': Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's legendary Bastogne rebuff

When retired Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe died in 1975, both the headline and the first sentence of his New York Times obituary prominently featured perhaps the most famous one-word sentence in United States history: "Nuts!"

The fact that McAuliffe rated a lengthy news obituary in the paper of record was attributable mostly to that single word, typed at his direction and handed to a perplexed German emissary on December 22, 1944 in besieged Bastogne, Belgium.

Now firmly entrenched in U.S. military lore, McAuliffe's show of defiance in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge was an immediate media sensation at the time -- though it took a few days for all the pieces to be assembled.

The first mention of the U.S. forces trapped in Bastogne rejecting a German surrender demand appeared in American newspapers on December 26 -- just as the Nazi stranglehold on the crossroads was beginning to break. It came courtesy of a delayed dispatch from Tom Yarbrough of The Associated Press with a Dec. 22 dateline.

The fifth paragraph of Yarbrough's report reads:

When a German carrying a white flag came forward with the demand for surrender, he gave the American commander a false report that three towns far to the west were in German hands. The American commander sent him right back with "no" for an answer.

"No", of course, undersold it a bit, but the full story would emerge over the next few days as American forces regained their footing and beat back Hitler's last great offensive.

"The siege of the gallant Bastogne garrison has been broken, and part of its story can be told today," AP correspondent Edward D. Ball began in a report datelined Dec. 28. He continued:

The heroic American garrison pointed artillery, machine guns and mortars in all directions after their commander sent a curt one-word reply -- "Nuts!" -- to the Germans' surrender ultimatum.

Ball's story quoted the entire missive offered by the German general (Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz), a long-winded screed suggesting "honorable surrender" was the only way to save U.S. troops from "total annihilation".

Ball followed up with the U.S. reply: "To the German commander: Nuts!" For emphasis, Ball's next sentence read: "The last word was double-spaced, underlined and followed by an exclamation point."

Ball's dispatch was a sensation, front-page news from coast to coast back home -- and he still hadn't been able to release the name of the American commander.

Two days later, stories revealing McAuliffe as the man behind the rejection cast the general as a legend.

"General McAuliffe's 'Nuts' One of Classics of This War" blared the page-one headline in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Ball's follow-up story, which began:

The commander of Bastogne's valorous 10,000, who made history with a single word -- "nuts," was 46-year-old Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, one of America's youngest generals.

Ball goes on to compare McAuliffe to John Paul Jones and notes that "this typical bit of American repartee became a rallying call for the garrison of 10,000."

The Cincinnati Enquirer's front-page treatment of an INS wire story was equally enthusiastic, with the headline reading "'Nuts' Tops Saga Of 101st Division!" and the subhead "Acting Commander McAuliffe Steps Into Immortality At Bastogne with Laconic Reply to German Demands for Surrender."

The INS story notes that "the saga of the 101st Airborne Division is a natural for Hollywood -- or history," proving prescient on both accounts.

Once revealed as the man behind the missive, McAuliffe became an instant celebrity -- a remarkable turn of events considering he was merely filling in for Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who was back in the U.S. when the Germans attacked. 

Ball's follow-up story on the general that hit the wires Dec. 30 was widely circulated, quoting admiring soldiers from the 101st lauding the hero of the day.

To the tough fighting men of the 101st, the general is known as “Old Crock” or “General Mac,” Ball wrote. “To fellow officers he is “Tony.” 

General McAuliffe is 46, stands 5 feet 5, is ruddy faced with sharp blue eyes and carries himself like the West Pointer he is. 

“During business hours he’s all business,” said a fellow officer today, “but when the flag is down -- after retreat sounds -- he relaxes. Like the rest of us, he enjoys an occasional snort. 

Offhand, you would not think of this slight man, who weighs 135 pounds, as second in command of one of the world’s toughest fighting outfits. He parts his slightly graying hair in the middle, and takes on something of a professorial appearance when he uses shell-rimmed glasses will poring over maps. 

He parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and landed by glider in the Netherlands. Here he just jumped out of the back of a truck. 

“Parachuting and gliding in combat is something for a general, but that’s what he did,” a private who came down near him in both operations said. 

Ball’s profile of McAuliffe included a scene said to have taken place in a field hospital earlier on the day of the surrender demand. 

As McAuliffe made the rounds to check on wounded men, one GI rose up from his litter and said “Don’t give up on account of us, General Mac!” The general assured him there would be no giving up. 

Hours later, Ball recounted, the German officers arrived with their ultimatum. He quoted Lt. Frederick D. Starrett of Maine, an aide to McAuliffe, on what happened next: 

“Old Crock laughed and scrawled his one-word reply, and with that he became the briefest and best-known note writer in these parts.” 

The Army’s public affairs operation seized the momentum, summoning McAuliffe to Paris for a press conference at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters on Jan. 2. There, McAuliffe recounted the story firsthand to the assembled scribes, who lapped it up.

Every wire-service piece that emerged from the general's briefing played up the notion that McAuliffe and his paratroopers resented the implication they had been "rescued" from Bastogne. As Joseph Willicombe Jr. wrote for INS:

McAuliffe spoke for every individual soldier who survived the hell of Bastogne, lumping all together as a single man. "He never asked for help," the general said. "He screamed about only one thing and that had to do with casualties. They needed surgeons out there."

Willicombe's story later notes the Germans' initial confusion over McAuliffe's response -- an anecdote that prompted short separates from the other wire services. The Associated Press version read in part:

When the officer handed McAuliffe's answer to the German officer waiting just outside the American perimeter of defense, the latter asked: "Is your commander's reply favorable? If it is, I am empowered to continue negotiations of terms."

My commander's reply is 'Nuts,'" the American responded.

"What does that mean?" asked the German.

"It means go to hell," replied the American.

That the German understood. He saluted and marched off.

It wasn't just the Germans who were confused by the American slang. A United Press story said the French couldn't figure it out, either. It noted the Agence France-Presse eventually settled on "Vous n'etes que de vieilles noix," or, "You are nothing but old nuts."

On Jan. 14, the New York Times ran a piece by Maynard Nichols comparing McAuliffe's "Nuts!" to other notable military retorts in U.S. history, invoking everything from the Alamo to Ulysses S. Grant's "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

Just like that, McAuliffe found his brief composition in the American canon. 

Decades later, "Nuts!" remains in that company, somewhat to McAuliffe's chagrin during his lifetime. His Times obit says the general "grew sick of being introduced at lunches, dinners and parties as the man who told the Germans what they could do with their 'ultimatum.'"

Only to a point, though, as McAuliffe turned the tables with a story of his own:

"One evening a dear old Southern lady invited me to dinner," he said. "I had a delightful time talking to her and her charming guests. I was pleased because no mention was made the entire evening of the nuts incident. As I prepared to depart and thanked my hostess for an enjoyable evening, she replied, 'Thank you and good night, General McNut.'"

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