in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: December 27, 2023

Podcast #953: Duty, Honor, and the Unlikely Heroes Who Helped Win the Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge commenced on the morning of December 16, 1944. The Allies were ill-prepared for this last, desperate offensive from the Germans, and the campaign might have succeeded if a few things hadn’t gotten in their way, including a single, green, 18-man platoon who refused to give up their ground to the Nazis.

Alex Kershaw shares the story of these men in his book, The Longest Winter, and with us today on the show. He first explains the background of the Battle of the Bulge and how an Intelligence and Reconnaissance unit that had never seen combat ended up in the thick of it. And he describes the platoon’s 20-year-old leader, Lyle Bouk, who was determined to carry out his orders and hold their position despite being massively outmanned and outgunned, and how his men fought until they were down to their last rounds. Alex then shares how what Bouk thought was a total failure — being captured as POWs after just a day of combat — turned out to have been an effort that significantly influenced the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge, and how an unlikely platoon of heroes who initially went unrecognized for their valor became the most decorated American platoon of WWII. You’ll find such an inspiring lesson in this show about living up to your duty and holding the line.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The Battle of the Bulge commenced on the morning of December 16th, 1944. The allies were ill-prepared for this last desperate offensive from the Germans, and the campaign might have succeeded, if a few things hadn’t gotten in their way, including a single green 18-man platoon, who refused to give up their ground to the Nazis. Alex Kershaw shares the story of these men in his book “The Longest Winter,” and with us today on the show. He first explains the background of the Battle of the Bulge, and how an intelligence and reconnaissance unit that had never seen combat ended up in the thick of it. And he describes the platoon’s 20-year-old leader, Lyle Bouck, who was determined to carry out his orders and hold the position despite being massively outmanned and outgunned and how his men fought until they were down to the last rounds.

Alex then shares how what Bouck thought was a total failure, being captured as POWs after just a day of combat, turned out to have been an effort that significantly influenced the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge. And how an unlikely platoon of heroes who initially went unrecognized for their valor, became the most decorated American platoon of World War II. You’ll find such an inspiring lesson in the show about living up to your duty and holding the line. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Alex Kershaw, welcome back to the show.

Alex Kershaw: Hey, great to be with you.

Brett McKay: So, we’re coming up on the 80th Anniversary of The Battle of the Bulge, that’ll be next year, and you wrote a book two decades ago about the Battle of the Bulge. It’s called “The Longest Winter.” And what I love with your books that you do about World War II, is you always find a small story. You find an individual soldier, a unit that you can talk about the stories of these individual people in the broader context of this epic conflict that happened with World War II. And in this story, you follow an 18-man platoon from the US Army. They are facing the main thrust of the entire German assault at the Battle of the Bulge. How did you come across this story?

Alex Kershaw: Well, I’d written a book called “The Bedford Boys” that appeared in 2003 and did fairly well. That was about D-Day, focusing on a company that had been activated, first of all, as a National Guard unit from one small town in Virginia, Bedford. And anyway, my editor said to me, can you pick another small group of guys and thrust them into the middle of a very big battle in World War II? And the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge is coming up, maybe you could find a unit that accomplished amazing things during the Battle of the Bulge? And I just put a phone call through to a friend of mine who worked at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans, University of New Orleans. And I said, “I’m looking for a small group of guys, like, the size of a football team, maybe, ideally, and I’m looking at the Battle of the Bulge. Can you make any recommendations about any unit that I could look at?” And he’s like, immediately he said, “I&R Platoon, in the 99th Division, commanded by a 20-year-old called Lyle Bouck, and here’s his telephone number.” And I literally a few hours later called up, Lyle Bouck.

Alex Kershaw: This is over 20 years ago, now almost 20 years ago now. And he answered the phone. He was in St. Louis, and he answered the phone and I said, “Look, I really don’t wanna disturb you, but I’m really keen on writing about you and your platoon.” And he was okay with it. I was like, amazed that he was very polite and agreed to me writing about him and his platoon. But he had one condition, which was that, I had to write about every single member of the platoon that was there that day on the 16th of December 1944, first day of the German attack during the Battle of the Bulge. And to cut long story short, that platoon became the most decorated of World War II, most decorated US platoon, I should add. And I gave him my word. I said, “Yeah. Okay, I’ll do my very best to write about every guy in the platoon.” And of the 18 that served in the Battle of the Bulge, I think there were 11 still alive when I began my research, and I managed to interview all 11, amazingly. And not one of them is breathing today as I speak to you.

Brett McKay: I mean, I imagine that’s one of the hard things with your jobs, even you started writing about World War II right when a lot of these guys were… They were still alive, but those numbers have been dwindling every year.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. I started interviewing seriously, World War II veterans in the late ’90s, and 16 million Americans served in uniform in World War II, and there are less than 120,000 alive today. So, you’d have to be 98, 99 to have served in World War II. I mean, some people lied about their age. I met a guy just a few days ago, who was actually 16 during the Battle of the Bulge. He’s a guy called Harry Miller, but he lied about his age. But you’d have to be 98, 99, and there aren’t many 98, 99 year olds around. [chuckle] But that’s the youngest you could be, you know? So, yeah, there are very few of the dozens and dozens of World War II veterans that I interviewed who are still with us, you know?

Brett McKay: So we’re gonna talk about the story. Lyle Bouck, he’s an amazing character, amazing person, and we’re gonna talk about his story and what he did with his unit at the Battle of the Bulge. But what’s interesting about your book, your book doesn’t start at the Battle of the Bulge, it actually starts in July of that same year of 1944 in the Wolf’s Layer, and this was Hitler’s Prussian Headquarters. Why start the story of the Battle of the Bulge here?

Alex Kershaw: Well, I wanted to start with a really dramatic scene, and that was the planting of a bomb by Count von Stauffenberg. It was what ended up being a failed assassination attempt of Hitler, one of many, but it really shook Hitler up. It wounded him badly. He was injured, almost killed by the blast. It was in a conference room that actually had open windows. So, if the windows had been closed and it hadn’t been… Things could have been otherwise, Hitler could have been easily killed. But anyway, after that, he started to think about how he might change the course of the war. And in the following months, couple of months after that July assassination attempt, he developed what became known as Wacht am Rhein, the code word for an attack through the Ardennes in December of 1944. So I wanted to start with this very dramatic moment when a Prussian aristocrat leaves a bomb in a suitcase and almost kills Hitler, and then examine how Hitler, after that near death event in desperation, developed a plan that he hoped would end the war on his terms in the West. That would change the outcome of World War II, so.

I also wanted to meet my platoon members before they shipped out from the US. So I switch from Hitler’s near death to Camp Maxey in Texas where the I&R Platoon were being trained under the leadership of Lyle Bouck, who was then just 20 years old. So that’s how I started. And then they get shipped out to the UK in, I believe the early fall of 1944, and then arrive in Belgium in November of 1944. And they were literally on the line for just a couple of weeks before the battle erupted. I mean, a totally green troops. Supposed to be an elite unit. An I&R unit is an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. They’re not supposed to be engaged in heavy combat, quite the opposite.

They’re supposed to be the eyes and ears of a infantry regiment. You know, if they’re spotted and they end up in a firefight, that’s bad news, because they’re supposed to be patrolling secretly, unobserved behind enemy lines and feeding intelligence back to regimental headquarters. So, when they were attacked on the 16th of December, they were not a standard infantry unit, and it was only because they had great leadership and they brought in a couple of extra 50 cal machine guns and mounted them on jeeps that they had any real firepower. So yeah, that’s how I started with Hitler, and then following these guys to the front lines in the Ardennes.

Brett McKay: Okay. I see, yeah, put this in the [0:09:00.4] ____ context. Hitler at this point, the Nazis, their backs were against the wall. This is after D-Day…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The Allies were making progress in France, and then were heading to Germany. And as you… You talk about in the book this assassination attempt, it wounded him, it kinda shook him up, but it also in a weird way enlivened Hitler. He kind of started liking his own supply. He’s like, “I am awesome. Look, they didn’t kill me. I’m invincible.”

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: “So maybe I can do this.” And he started looking at portraits of Frederick the Great, and…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Kind of talking with Frederick the great saying, “I can do what you did.” And that’s how he came with this final attack.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. And basically, he hadn’t been killed and therefore he thought that Providence or God had saved him for greater things, and that fortune was on his side. So, yeah, that’s how he developed his, actually very daring and really quite audacious plan, what became known as his last great gamble, you know, in the West.

Brett McKay: So, yeah. Then after that, you switch over to Camp Maxey, to this unit, this platoon. You said they’re a reconnaissance platoon, and you talk about how the guys who were selected for this unit, they were handpicked. What were the characteristics that the leaders were looking for, for this I&R Platoon?

Alex Kershaw: Well, it’s interesting that you asked that question, because fair few of the guys had never expected to be in combat. They been in a special training program for college kids, what were called Whiz Kids, whether they were heading towards positions in intelligence units or some kind of duty that was not in a Foxhole on the front lines. But because of the manpower shortage in the fall of 1944, the ASTP program, as it was called, was canceled. And all these guys that were very smart, highly educated guys were sent into infantry units, and much to their dismay and disappointment. And so, several of the guys in Bouck’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon were very smart, highly educated and didn’t wanna be there, but hadn’t had much choice. So, they were a formidable bunch. They came from all over the United States. They came from different backgrounds. They were a diverse group, different ethnicities. They were truly an all American unit in that sense.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, you had one Vernon Leopold, he was a German-Jewish refugee…

Alex Kershaw: Yep.

Brett McKay: Part of this unit. You had, I think, it’s Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant in there as well. Yeah, from all over.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. There was a guy called Milosevic, who… For those who remember the Bosnian war, his distant relative was Milošević in recent times. So, he was a Serbian, the son of Serbian immigrants. So Hernandez, the guy you mentioned, he was… He had grown up in Texas. I actually managed to interview his widow in El Paso when I was researching the book. Guys from the Midwest, from cities, from rural America, couple of really good athletes. So it was a real mixed bunch, real… A really interesting range of Americans that Lyle Bouck was commanding. He was the second youngest in the platoon. There was a guy called Bill James, who was 19 years old, who was his runner. But imagine that, you’ve got 18 guys that you’re in command of, and you are the second youngest. So, you haven’t seen combat before and you look like a kid. I mean, Lyle Bouck looked very young. So, question is, why should any of these guys pay you any respect or carry out your orders when you’ve never been at war and you look like a boy?

Brett McKay: Right. And Bouck has an interesting background. I wanna talk about him, ’cause he’s a big part of the story.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So he was young, he was 20 years old, but he actually, like, he got involved in the military when he was 14, I think, with the National Guard?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. He joined the National Guard when he was 14. I actually have… I think I have a photograph in the book or somewhere else, where I show a picture of him when he was just 14 in a whole group of other guys in the National Guard. So, he was very patriotic and it wasn’t just because he received some pay when he turned up for drills, etcetera. He was from the start, he wanted to serve his country. And by the time he got to Europe, to the Ardennes in the fall of 1944, he’d actually been wearing the uniforms for almost six years. So, it wasn’t like he just came out of high school and ended up as a lieutenant. He went through officer training school. He was seen as having great potential by his commanding officer, a guy called Major Kriz, and felt really proud that he’d been sort of singled out for leadership potential and given command of this I&R Platoon. It was a big deal to Lyle Bouck, he felt very honored by that.

Brett McKay: Did he show potential for… Like a capacity for leadership?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, he did. Definitely. Yeah. I mean, you go through officer training school, they can work out pretty quickly whether you have what it takes to lead guys. Well, you never know though. I mean, this is the big issue, which is that, it doesn’t matter how well trained you are, when the bullets start whizzing by, only then do you know whether you’ve got it or you haven’t. And that’s something that every combat veteran will tell you, that it’s not until you actually get into combat that you realize who you are or what you can do, or whether your leaders are any good or not. That’s always a big question mark, you know? So you’ve got 18 guys into this young man’s command. None of them know either what will happen in combat, ’cause none of them have been in combat before either. So, lots of questions, you know? When people start to try to kill you, how do you react? And they all found out on the 16th of December.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, this unit, they get shipped to Europe. And when they were in Camp Maxey, they didn’t know where they were going yet. They were… I think you see this a lot in a lot of these World War II stories. These guys are at camp and then they get the order to load up in a train, and they’re on the train and they’re like, “All right, is this gonna go east or is this gonna go west?”

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: ‘Cause if it goes east, we’re gonna go to Europe. If it goes west, we’re getting shipped off to the Pacific Theater. And the same thing happened with these guys. They didn’t know until they got on the train and it started heading east.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. And I would say that by that stage of the war, by the fall of 1944, most GIs would much rather go to Europe than the Pacific, because the Pacific was just a… It was a different kind of war. It was much darker, much more brutal. Japanese refusing to surrender. Just a really atrocious, barbaric series of islands. You have to hop from one to another. And I think most GIs thought that, if they were fighting against the Wehrmacht, if they’re fighting against even the SS Hitler’s most devout followers, that they stood a good chance of being taken prisoner, that they might not be beheaded. That if the worst came to the worst, and they did end up as POWs, that they could survive the war. Whereas, the idea of being taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Pacific was almost as horrific as fighting them.

Brett McKay: Okay. So they end up in Europe and they end up in Belgium in the Ardennes Forest. And this is late November, early December. Give us an idea, ’cause I think maybe people have seen Band of Brothers, the Battle of the Bulge scene. Like it was cold… What I mean… Give us an idea. What were the elements like in this area? What were they up against?

Alex Kershaw: Well. They were in kinda very hilly terrain in the Ardennes. Very thickly forested areas, and then some pasture. But it was the coldest winter in living memory. So, people always look at movies like, The Battle of the Bulge and Patton. And you see those beautiful couple of episodes from Band of Brothers. I think, they’re my favorite. And it does look extremely cold. In fact, it was colder than usual. So, people weren’t kidding when they said it was, literally people were freezing to death. In foxholes, unless you hugged your foxhole buddy to share their body warmth, or you took really serious precautions, you did stand a good chance of not waking up, of being frozen in your foxhole. So very cold. For the first few days of the Battle of the Bulge, the skies were overcast, it snowed in different areas. And then finally the sky’s cleared at the 23rd of December, after about a week. But the conditions were miserable. You were out there not getting hot food, subsisting on K-rations, having to spend every night in a foxhole. Maybe you had a blanket over you and if you were lucky to cover the foxhole and you wake up and it would be like stiff as wood in the morning, and you did that night after night after night.

And it was extremely exhausting. It was very, very, very harsh indeed. And you were constantly worried about getting trenched foot. It was mud slush. Just a very, very difficult fighting conditions. In fact, probably some of the most difficult of World War II. In the Pacific, there were horrendous conditions. But I think, the Battle of the Bulge, every veteran will tell you that the thing they remember most is, just how goddamn cold it was, you know?

Brett McKay: Yeah. And in addition to the harsh weather conditions, the troops were just… They were inadequately supplied and they were just generally unprepared in a lot of ways for a big attack.

Alex Kershaw: We were running out of men in the fall of 1944. So, because of the broad front strategy pursued by the allies, which meant that we had a frontline running from the Dutch border right through to Italy, was thinly manned. We didn’t have enough divisions to put on that very long front line, and the Ardennes was the most thinly manned part of that broad front. The divisions that were there were green, they hadn’t seen combat before, or they were being rested after the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, which was a real meat grinder. So, thinly manned, not seen combat before, harsh conditions, and not expecting an attack. The position of the allies in late fall of 1944 was that they were gonna man this line and then gather new infantry regiments, material and other supplies, and then launch a spring attack into the heart of the Third Reich.

They had no idea, absolutely no idea, the average soldier that is, that the Germans were capable of launching such a massive surprise attack. And in fact, although intelligence suggested that some kind of attack could occur at the very highest levels of the allied command, the attack took them completely by surprise. I mean, it was stunning. It caused panic and chaos. Over 200,000 Germans suddenly attacking you in a place that you least expected, in really difficult terrain. They did not expect that at all, quite the opposite.

Brett McKay: How were they able to hide that? I mean, at this point, hadn’t we cracked the Enigma, and so, we were able to decipher codes and things like that?

Alex Kershaw: Very good point. And that goes to a broader issue, which is that we over relied on having broken the German codes and the Enigma information. We kind of got lazy. We thought we knew everything the Germans were up to. But before the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler had stated that there should be no radio communication, that orders should be written by hand, that those who knew about the plans for the battle were to keep it within a very tight circle. Anybody found relaying information about the forthcoming plans was to be executed. The way that the Germans actually gathered those 200,000 soldiers and over 500 tanks, over 1,000 artillery pieces, how they gathered them along the front line in the Ardennes is one of the great achievements of Hitler’s forces in World War II. It was miraculous almost. The Germans strafed Allied positions to cause distraction while tanks and other men moved to the front lines. They did so after dark, ’cause they could be spotted by Allied air forces during the day. They muffled the tank tracks. They had vehicles go over straw that had been laying on roads.

They made sure that the ammunition, in many cases, was carried to the front by hand, again, trying to avoid being spotted in vehicles. They even went so far as to ban soldiers from having fires with wood. They used charcoal instead, so that it wouldn’t create smoke, so that we couldn’t spot them. Everything was done in utmost secrecy and to avoid detection. So, yeah, they did a superb job of gathering those forces. In all three armies, well over 200,000 troops gathered, and when they attacked at 5:30, that was null hour, zero hour, 5:30 AM on the 16th of December, they took everybody by surprise. I should add to that, that there were intelligence reports coming back to the Allies that strongly suggested that some kind of attack was in the making. The I&R platoon itself, Lyle Bouck’s platoon, had detected strange noises and had reported back that something was going on. But at high levels, there was a really serious complacency. They just thought the Germans were incapable of launching this kind of scale of attack, that they were really a spent force in the West, and didn’t see it coming and didn’t expect it.

Brett McKay: Who was leading the attack on the German side?

Alex Kershaw: The overall commander was von Rundstedt. He was the overall German commander, and then you had various Wehrmacht divisions and then SS divisions. The main strike force, or rather the spearhead of the German attack, was to be entirely SS. So, SS stands for Schutzstaffel, that’s Hitler’s private army. They’re above the law. They are responsible for carrying out many of the atrocities of the Second World War committed by the Germans. They ran the concentration camps, and within the Waffen-SS, which is the army SS, if you like, they were the troops that Hitler trusted most toward the end of the war, especially after a Wehrmacht general, von Stauffenberg, had tried to kill him. So Hitler didn’t trust his Wehrmacht generals, the standard army officers and generals, didn’t trust them. And therefore, the main responsibility for success in Wacht am Rein, in the attack, in the Ardennes, that rested on the shoulders of SS officers and generals. And in particular, a guy called Joachim Peiper, who was in command of what was called Kampfgruppe Peiper, that was a task force, special task force that went ahead of an SS Panzer Army and was tasked with breaking through American lines and reaching the Meuse River within 48 hours.

So, really the success of the campaign, of the battle, rested just on one guy’s shoulders. And that was Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper, who led that spearhead of SS troops that attacked on the 16th of December. He was told, you’ve got to get here by this time. Don’t mess around. Don’t take prisoners. If you get there, then we’ve got a chance. If you don’t, the war’s lost. So, huge responsibility for anybody to be carrying on their shoulders. And without jumping too far ahead, Joachim Peiper almost managed it. It was mission impossible, but he almost got there.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our Sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So let’s talk about the Battle of the Bulge. So it started December 16th, 5:30 in the morning. How did it start? When did Bouck realize… ‘Cause again, Bouck is in the middle of this, like, he’s at the front line, him and his unit, they’re there, they had seen some German soldiers in the area, but they didn’t know there was a big attack coming. When did they realize, “Oh my gosh, this is a big giant attack?”

Alex Kershaw: Well, the barrage that preceded the attack that began at like, 5:30 was one of the biggest barrages of the Second World War. The Germans just shelled the hell out of all the American positions along, the front line would’ve been around about 50 miles long. The northern shoulder of what became the Battle of the Bulge was manned by the 99th Infantry Division, in the center you had the 106th Infantry Division, and then the 28th Infantry Division. And to the South you had other American forces that both of those shoulders on the north and the south, they performed pretty well, they withstood incredible pressure. But at the south, the center of the line folded pretty quickly.

So the first time that Bouck knew what was going on was when the skies lit up at 5:30 and he and his platoon all jumped into their foxholes and took shelter. It was a very, very powerful barrage and that was the same all along the line. So that the barrage was the first, it was the wake up call, the signal and then after that ended around about 8 o’clock in the morning, the front lines of the German attack, the advanced troops started to break through American positions. And it was around about that time in the morning that the I&R Platoon spotted their first Germans who were paratroopers that had been sent ahead of Joachim Peiper’s SS troops. The paratroopers were there to sort of, it was believed, mop up, very light American resistance, because the barrage would have done its work. The lines were thinly held, there was hope that there would be so much chaos and confusion and panic that there would be very insignificant American resistance. And that actually was in many cases, the… That happened to be true, but they didn’t count on Lyle Bouck’s platoon carrying out their orders, which were to hold their positions at all costs.

Brett McKay: And that’s what they did, they did… And again, they just had their…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Their rifles and they had that 150 caliber on a Jeep.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, they actually had… I think they had two.

Brett McKay: Two, right.

Alex Kershaw: 250 calibers and then M1 rifles and Bouck could’ve had a carbine, which was the standard issue for an officer. So yeah, they manned positions above a small village called Lanzerath, which was right in the middle of the northern part of the shoulder. But more importantly, it was overlooking a road which the Germans had labeled Roll Barn B, that means Route B. And that was the route that Joachim Peiper was going to take to break through American lines and hit his objectives. So, they happened to be in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, just 18 of them in the platoon. And they were confronting a force of several hundred paratroopers, and then behind those paratroopers were Joachim Peiper’s SS troops and dozens and dozens of Tiger and Panther tanks.

Brett McKay: What’s really amazing about this story is that, under that kind of pressure, right? Being so outnumbered, so outgunned, Bouck and his men, they would’ve been really tempted to run, to retreat. But they didn’t. They stood their ground.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. When he got the orders, he decided to carry out his orders, but there were several guys in the platoon that weren’t quite so happy about that, because they thought they didn’t stand a chance. They were up against this massive force and what difference did it make if they went down fighting and took a few dozen or whatever with them. Some of them thought, maybe it would be a better idea to pull back and regroup and form a better line of defense, why sacrifice their lives for really no good reason. They were massively outnumbered after all. But Lyle Bouck was a good officer and an order was an order and he told his men that, “We’re staying and no one’s gonna leave.” Later in the day, when they got into really serious combat, they were attacked actually four times by the Germans and held their positions. But later in the day, as the situation became increasingly hopeless, he did say, “If you wanna go, you can go, I’m staying, but if any of you guys wanna go, you can go and try and escape the German penetration and join other Americans and fight another day.” But none of the platoon actually did that, they all stayed put.

There were many cases in the first hours, the first couple of days in fact of the Battle of the Bulge, where the Americans did turn and run, that was understandable. They were petrified, they were up against a much greater force and they turned tail. And that may have been a lack of courage or it may have been very sensible, ’cause they wanted to carry on fighting and they thought by retreating they might stand a better chance of putting up a good fight. But that was not the case with the I&R Platoon, they stayed where they stood and they fought extremely well.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you wrote about Bouck, he returned to this place in 1969, and he… You said that he realized perhaps the one factor above all, their youth had explained why he and his men had stood and held. He said, older men, fathers, wiser, more cautious adults would surely have retreated as soon as the Germans appeared in such superior numbers. So, his youth probably played a role in that.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. And I think he was… This is the first day of real combat, they’d been patrolling behind enemy lines, and had a few close shaves, but they actually hadn’t engaged with the enemy before. So this was the first true test and I think Lyle Bouck, wanted to prove himself, you know? He was young, everyone was watching him, looking at him thinking, “Well, what’s this guy got?” And he wanted to show that he had the right stuff, and he did. Yeah, they were attacked frontally. They were on a hillside near a tree line. Foxholes are still there. You can actually go. I was back there in May. I went to… I actually went to Lyle Bouck’s foxhole. So they were along the tree line, well placed, and they’d… Bouck had done his best to reinforce the positions.

He’d done what he could. And the paratroopers that attacked them were badly led, and they ran at them across an open field, open slope. It was a barbed wire fence that bisected the field. And as they were trying to climb over the fence, the 50 cals literally just mowed them down. I mean, some people say that, you know, there were 500 Germans that were killed or wounded. Some people say, it’s more like, three or four dozen. It doesn’t matter. What did happen was that four times the Germans attacked up this hillside near the village of Lanzerath. And these 18 guys in the I&R platoon repulsed them every time.

They were running out of ammunition by the time it was all over. It was sort of getting dark around about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. People forget just how long darkness lasted in that part of the world in December 1944. You almost have 16 hours of darkness. So, got light around about 8:00, 8:30 in the morning, got dark around 4:00, 4:30 in the afternoon. And by around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, many of the platoon were literally down to their last rounds. They’d been firing in firefight for most of the day. A couple of them were seriously wounded and… Miraculously only just a couple, but literally they… With a few more minutes, half an hour maybe, it would’ve been dark and they had nothing left to fight with. And so, it was at that point that Bouck said, “If you want to try and get away, now’s the time to do so, undercover darkness.” He still was gonna stay. And then finally the paratroopers got smart and realized that these full frontal assaults at this hillside were disastrous, and they decided to try and outflank the platoon’s positions.

And so, they came in from the flanks through woods and started to seize each of the foxholes. And the way they did that was that they fired at them, they threw grenades, and then when they got close enough, they would shout out in German, “Get out, get out” or “raus, raus,” is what they actually said. “Get out.” And they literally pulled several of the platoon members out of the foxholes by hand. And these guys didn’t give up easily, they in a couple of cases, they literally had fired their last rounds.

Brett McKay: And what role did this stand, that Bouck and his unit, that they made that day, what role did it play in the Battle of the Bulge for the allies?

Alex Kershaw: Well, with Bouck what happened was that he was beside Bill James, his runner in his foxhole, and suddenly the barrel of a machine pistol was thrust through a slit at the front of the… They created a really good well-defended command post and covered it with logs. And so, there was a slit about two or three feet wide by maybe six inches high. And suddenly the barrel of a German machine pistol came through and it was pointed right at Bouck and instinctively, I mean, he didn’t have time to think about it, instinctively he pushed it to the side and the German opened fire and fired, unfortunately, right into Bill James’ face. So unbelievably, Bill James wasn’t killed, but he took a lot of rounds in his face. Later on, I think he had to have over 20 plastic surgery operations to try and repair his face. Really badly disfigured and bleeding everywhere at the time. Bouck thought he was gonna die very quickly.

So, Bouck was pulled out with James. James is like, in and out of consciousness. Bouck doesn’t surrender quickly enough with his… Put his hands in the air, rather after he’s been pulled out of his hole and he’s shot in the leg. And then he has to try and prop up his buddy. But Bill James, who was a good friend of his too, and is marched down the hillside towards a cafe in Lanzerath. And he passes German corpses that they… The barbed wire fence is sort of piled high with dead or dying Germans, or bleeding Germans. And as he’s staggering down this hillside after dark with a German pointing a gun in his back, he hears this click and he thinks to himself, “Oh, the guy has shot me. I’m dead. This is what happens when you’re dead. I’m dead, but I’m still on this hillside.” [chuckle] But in fact, it was just the German messing with him, trying to scare him by pressing the trigger on his empty barrel. At least that’s what our theory is today.

So, to cut the long story short, none of the platoon were killed. There was a forward artillery observer that was attached to the platoon. There were three guys, I think, they were forward artillery observers that found themselves in the position that day. And a guy called Gacki was killed. So he was the only fatality. But none of the actual platoon were killed. A couple of them seriously wounded. Obviously, Bill James really had his face almost blown off. And they’re put in the cafe, Café Scholzen, which is… The building’s still there after dark. And Bouck is sitting there with his buddy bleeding out, his uniform soaked in his blood. And he is thinking to himself, “Okay, I’ve had one day in combat. It was a complete and utter disaster. I carried out my orders, but I’ve got two of my platoons shut up and we’re all gonna be prisoners of war. What a great achievement I did, [chuckle] less than 24 hours of my first day of real war. And I messed it up completely.”

And so, he was very… They were sent into POW camps. A very bad time to be sent into POW camps in the Third Reich, when there was very little food, and the Third Reich was collapsing, they weren’t treated particularly well, they lost a lot of weight. And all throughout that winter and the spring of… Winter 1945 and spring of 1945, Bouck was haunted by what had happened in Lanzerath. He felt like a complete failure. He felt like the one thing he’d wanted in his life since he was 14 was to serve as an Army officer and to win honor and maybe not glory, but to do his duty. And he felt like he completely failed and was very depressed. It’s depressing being a POW anyway, it wrecks your mental health, but he just, he felt like he’d really had achieved nothing and had failed miserably. And so, it was only many years after the war, in the ’60s, when Bill James, who did survive the war, even though his face had been almost blown off, he went into surgery in the Third Reich and was operated on without anesthetic, etcetera. And German doctors managed to save his life.

But in the ’60s, Bill James read a book by John Eisenhower, who was Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower’s son. And John Eisenhower wrote a book called “The Bitter Woods,” which was about the Battle of the Bulge. I think it was published in 1965. And it was a really good in-depth study of what had happened during the Battle of the Bulge. And in it, he recounted the actions of the platoon, he interviewed Bill James and others that were in the vicinity. And Bill James read the book and he called up Lyle Bouck out of the blue. And he said, “You know what? I know that you’ve always felt that we shouldn’t talk about this, we shouldn’t revisit that terrible time. But in fact, what we did was amazing, because we actually held up the main strike force, the spearhead of the German attack during the Battle of the Bulge. And by holding our positions, carrying out the orders, doing our duty, even though it seemed insane and pointless at the time, we delayed Peiper’s strike force by maybe 24 hours. And that 24 hours, that was a very critical time that we threw the SS off their timetable.”

“And if you’ve only got 48 hours to get somewhere and you lose 24 hours, then you’ve got real problems.” And that’s exactly what happened. Peiper was delayed by the I&R Platoon, by other units too, but predominantly by the I&R Platoon’s actions that day. And that totally messed up the critical German schedule and made a big difference to the outcome Eisenhower argued and others would argue to the outcome of what happened on the first and second day of the Battle of the Bulge, which was the really important point of that battle. There were objectives that had to be reached. If they weren’t reached, the battle, yes, it would continue, but ultimately it would fail. It was all about getting somewhere quickly in the first 48 hours. And so, James said that we… What we did was amazing. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but boy, by carrying out our orders, we actually made a big, big difference to that vast battle. And it is the biggest battle ever fought by the US, fought by the US army in World War II, almost 800,000 Americans involved in some way. I think the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the First World War may have come close or historians can argue about which was the larger number of men involved, but it was certainly the most lethal battle for the US in World War II.

More Americans were killed in the Battle of the Bulge than any other single battle in World War II. I think some 19,000 lost their lives. It lasted from the 16th of December, through until officially the 16th of January. The bulge in the Allied lines was erased at Houffalize. So it’s a month long slugfest and very high casualties, 19,000 deaths, a very bloody difficult battle indeed. So yeah, they made a big difference. They made a really big difference to that last great battle on the Western Front in World War II.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned John Eisenhower wrote a history and he concluded that Bouck and his platoon, they played a big role in giving the Allies time to regroup…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: From the surprise attack. But the thing is, these guys, they didn’t get any recognition, they didn’t receive awards immediately for their efforts on December 16th. Why is that? Why didn’t they get any awards?

Alex Kershaw: It was because the importance of their actions weren’t recognized until Eisenhower wrote his book that came out in ’65. And then, Bill James called up Bouck and said we did something quite extraordinary. It was very important and persuaded Bouck to try and get some kind of recognition for the platoon. That was a long, long process. It was a very difficult process to award medals after an action, long after an action, it’s very difficult. You have to pass legislation through Congress, you have to have affidavits, it has to be very, very well documented. To his credit, Lyle Bouck led that campaign, because he wanted his men to be recognized. He wasn’t in it for himself at all, but he wanted his men to be recognized. And I think that was a way of him coming to terms with that sense of failure that he’d felt. And a public recognition of what his men had actually done would have erased that sense of regret and failure.

And so in the late ’70s, the efforts to get the platoon recognized succeeded. The platoon were awarded medals. And when you add up all the bronze stars with valor, the silver stars, the DSCs, for the 18-man platoon, they actually became, for a single action, the most decorated US platoon in World War II. So, a long campaign, but ultimately successful, and Lyle Bouck was very proud. Most of the platoon was still alive when they received their awards in Washington, DC. And I think it was 1978, before the first game of the season, they appeared at Yankee Stadium on the mound, and Lyle Bouck threw out the first pitch. And their names appeared in lights at Yankee Stadium, then it was sort of Hollywood ending. These guys had done their duty, had suffered greatly, had survived the war as POWs, had come back, started families, worked really hard. And then, more than 30 years later, were finally recognized and had their names in lights and had this wonderful, absolutely a Hollywood ending to this very unlikely story.

Brett McKay: So as you took a deep dive into the lives of these men, did you get any life lessons from them?

Alex Kershaw: I think same kind of life lessons you get from talking to anybody that has been in combat, whether it’s World War II or not, that the route to contentment lies through service to others. So I think that they all felt incredibly… All of the World War II veterans I’ve ever interviewed, obviously were proud of their service. Did not boast about it, did not think they’d done anything particularly special. They did their duty, they served their country and were just lucky to come home, felt blessed that they did get to come home and have long lives. And I think they also felt very fortunate that they had got to survive, but they’d also been at a moment in world history when their actions had counted, and counted a great deal in terms of the platoon, that was absolutely the case. They were only in combat for maybe from 8 o’clock in the morning till 4:00 in the afternoon, but those 18 men, what they did in those hours really made a huge difference in terms of us being able to vote today, us being able to live in democracies in terms of defeating the Third Reich. But those were vital hours.

So, the life lessons I should have learned by now and I haven’t learned enough are the, helping other people, being unified, putting aside your differences, working for others, serving others. That’s where you get real contentment from. And I think the older you get, the more you realize that you gotta find some kind of cause in life that’s bigger than your own ego, bigger than yourself. And the best way to do that is to help other people, you know?

Brett McKay: Well, Alex, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Alex Kershaw: At my website,, that’s the best place to go, or you can go on Amazon and buy my books, Alex Kershaw, plug it into the search engine. But yeah, just Google me.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Alex Kershaw, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alex Kershaw: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much, yeah, again for having me on your wonderful… You got an amazing podcast there. Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: Thank you. My guest today was Alex Kershaw, he’s the author of the book, “The Longest Winter.” It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check at our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition and another year of the AoM Podcast. Thank you all so much for listening to the show. We know there are thousands of podcasts that you can listen to out there, so it really means a lot that you choose to spend some time with us. Thank you for listening, thank you for your continued support. We really do appreciate it. Also, wanna take some time to thank some people who work behind the scenes here at the show. First, Kate McKay, she’s my wife and the producer and editor of the podcast. Kate works really hard to make sure that the final episode that you all listen to is the best it can be. And beyond producing the podcast, Kate’s also contributed a lot of great articles at So thank you Kate, for all that you do for Art of Manliness.

 Also, I wanna thank Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, they’re are our sound engineers, they make sure the sound quality of our podcast are the best they can be. So thank you to Dylan and John for all that you do for the podcast. We’re taking a break for the rest of the year to celebrate the holidays with our family, we’ll be running some rerun episodes. From all of us here at Art of Manliness, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, we’ll see you in 2024.

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