By Colonel Wes Martin

"Hit 'em hard, hit 'em fast, hit 'em with the one they don't expect, just keep hitting." These words from the 1920s' heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey were exemplified in the fighting spirit of America's World War II battlefield commanders. Like Jack Dempsey, WWII field commanders such as Patton, Bradley, Collings, McAuliffe, and a young upstart Abrams had a habit of hitting hard, fast, and where they were least expected by their counterparts. By the time they began closing in on the German border, these seasoned battlefield commanders were the in best fighting shape of their careers.

In late summer of 1944, Lieutenant General George Patton's Third Army was brought to a halt as the priority for allied resources was given to British Field Marshall Montgomery's northern offensive. By autumn, Patton's Third Army was resupplied and allowed to continue the offensive. Patton's attack was to begin with a tank offensive led by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams. Unfortunately, the opposing Germans has also been resupplied and allowed time to dig in. In the earliest hours of the attack, just before Abrmas was to be given the green light for jumping off, the ability to overrun the German defense seemed questionable at best. Abrams was asked by his immediate commander for an opinion. Abrams pointed towards Germany and stated, "That's the shortest way home." This tank commander's aggressiveness was to be rewarded with a broken German front. Soon Abram's' fighting spirit and ability to hit hard would be called upon again in a much more critical battle.

In December of 1944, the German Army launched its last major offensive against the American Army. For someone who had once been able to take military control of most of Europe and North Africa, Hitler was a slow learner. In recent years Hitler's success rate for attacking the American Army had not been very good. In 1942, wishing to follow up their North African Kasserine Pass victory, German forces attacked Patton at El Guettar. They paid dearly for that mistake, and set the stage for battles to come that would end Germany's rule south of the Mediterranean. In August of 1944, trying to roll back the Normandy breakout, the German Army attacked Bradley at Mortain. That mistake cost Hitler much of France. Following Mortain, Hilter's commanders had a difficult time fighting without the tanks, artillery, trucks and critical equipment that Bradley's forces had either captured or destroyed. It was even more difficult for German commanders to fight without soldiers who were now either residing in allied prisoner of war camps or buried under French soil. Now, in this final attempt to launch a major offensive against the American Army, Hitler tried his luck with the Ardennes. Five years earlier an attack through this forest had brought him a victory that resulted in the capture of most of Western Europe. Hitler was sure a repeat would be successful. However, five years earlier Hitler had not gained his Ardennes victory while fighting the American Army and enduring unorthodox field commanders.

During the initial days of the offensive success favored the Germans. Commanded by Field Marshall vonRundstedt, German forces were able to push the American Army back sixty miles. Two divisions, the 101st Airborne and what was left of the badly mauled 28th Infantry, were surrounded at Bastogne. It seemed impossible for the Americans to hold the city, but as long as they did, German forces were being denied access to the road network that converged in Bastogne. VonRundstedt sent an ultimatum of surrender to the 101st acting commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. Completely surrounded, low on ammunition, equipment, food, medical support, and having no idea when he would receive reinforcements, McAuliffe replied to the German command with his first thought, "Nuts." To his immediate staff McAuliffe stated, "I'm staying." When a commander of McAuliffe's caliber uses the word "I," his soldiers know that he is speaking for the entire command. Americans dug in and fought an increasingly intensive and bloody fight. While still attacking McAuliffe, vonRundstedt watched a threat coming up from the south. Time was not in the German's favor. Like a machete, Patton's Third Army was coming up hard and fast, slicing through the German forces underbelly. VonRundstedt knew if he could not capture the Bastogne his offensive would be broken.

Receiving everything vonRundstedt could throw at them for several days, McAuliffe's soldiers held on. Hope of survival was diminishing as fast as their ammo. On December 26, 1944 one of McAuliffe's engineer teams was engaging an enemy occupied bunker. Badly outgunned, the Americans were still taking every opportunity to attack the Germans. Without the Americans understanding why, the bunker exploded. Surprised by the blast, the engineer team dove for cover from the flying debris. While still on the ground, the soldiers heard a tank coming straight at them. For the soldiers this fight was getting worse by the second. To their surprise, the tank stopped and an American lieutenant yelled down informed the soldiers that Patton's Third Army had come to join the fight, as evidenced by the bunker they had just shelled.

In five days Patton had turned the 3rd Army ninety degrees to the north and moved one hundred miles through a bitter storm. The Germans were hit hard, fast, and with the blow they did not expect. Commanding the lead tank battalion was 29 year old Abrams. He arrived to find the defending soldiers badly mauled and worn out. Abrams and his soldiers were also battle worn. But like a true field commander, he reminded both groups of soldiers of their mission and built upon their fighting spirit. After jumping down off his armored tank, Abrams stated, "Give me another tank of gas and I'll take Berlin."

The fighting that history remembers as the Battle of Bulge was not conducted only at Bastogne. Throughout the Bulge perimeter Americans were giving it their all. Like Patton, Lieutenant General "Lightning Joe" Collins saw this as an opportunity to allow the Germans to extend themselves to where the Allies could chew them up. As Corps Commander, Collins was assigned to keep the Germans from advancing to the port of Antwerp. Having been temporarily placed under the methodical and conservative British Field Marshal Montgomery, Collins was told by his new senior to "tidy up his line." Applying an American twist to this instruction, Collins stopped the advance of the German war dragon and commenced his own attacks. With Patton's forces carving up the underbelly, Collins' pounding at the head, McAuliffe's holding onto the heart's arteries, and American soldiers on all sides cutting away every piece they could level their sights on, the dragon was fated for an immediate death.

Collins had already proven his aggressiveness while taking Aachen. When the defending German commander elected to force the Americans to an infantry fight for the Citadel, Collins hit him with the one he did not expect. The American general brought up his 155 mm artillery into the city. Each time a German fighting position was identified, Collins had it blasted at a 200-meter range. The German commander sent up a white flag. When asked why he surrendered, the commander responded, "When Americans start using 155s as sniper weapons, it's time to give up."

After the Ardennes offensive Collins continued his push to Germany's industrialized center – the Ruhr. Under the command of Field Marshal Model, the Germans vowed to fight to the last man. Instead of accepting the fight, Collins elected to go around. What American aircraft bombers hadn't already destroyed was going to be need after the war to help rebuild Germany. With the war in its final stages, there was sense to not allow soldiers of both sides and civilians to die unnecessarily. By making sure the German's could not get out, Collins basically turned the Ruhr into the world's largest prisoner of war camp. When the German soldier realized their fate was sealed they exited their perimeter and formally surrendered. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Model elected to commit suicide.

Bradley, Patton, Collins, McAuliffe, and Abrams have all passed on as have most of the soldiers in their commands. Behind them they left a series of victories that often defy logic. Whenever they were knocked down, they got back up and kept hitting. They stood their ground when lesser men would have yielded. They attacked when they were expected to defend. They pushed their men as hard as they pushed themselves. When established doctrine didn't seem appropriate, they used their imagination. They used their own drive to prepare themselves and their soldiers for the future. They used their own extensive knowledge of warfare, and that of their subordinates, to deliver a series of victories never before nor since seen in American history. As American battlefield prizefighters, they hit hard, fast, and with the one that just wasn't expected. They were not alone in their skills. Many other great warriors gave of themselves and achieved spectacular successes in the defense of their nation.

Perhaps it was the time that produced these prizefighters. Collins and McAuliffe were basically the same age as Dempsey. Patton and Bradley were older, Abrams younger. While Dempsey was slugging his way through the mining camps, the generals-to-be were slugging their way through the Army's ranks. As soldiers, their pay was not comparable with their civilian counterparts and certainly not equal to their worth. Denied the training resources and equipment, they learned to succeed with less. They learned how to motivate their soldiers through leadership and by example, not through a better quality of life. They knew self-sacrifice; they lived it. These fighters were used to going without. Only Patton came from a wealthy family and he pushed himself harder than the rest. As in all people, they were a sum total of their backgrounds, experiences, and inner character. Like all championship fighters, what they became is what they were determined to make of themselves. Leaders like Patton also had what it took to mentor soldiers like Abrams, who would complete his military service as Army Chief of Staff.

The major difference between Dempsey and the military warriors were the prizes. Dempsey fought for title and a purse. The prizes for the warriors were the security of their nation and the removal of the Thousand Year Reich from Humanity. American has been able to look into its military ranks to produce leaders during time of war. As in the case of General Marshall's selections for the key positions during World War II, the search has sometimes been rather deep. Just as in past conflicts, future battles will require warriors and leaders who share Jack Dempsey's fighting philosophy, "Hit 'em hard, hit 'em fast, hit 'em with the one they don't expect, and just keep hiiting."

©2021 Wes Martin