The man who said "Nuts!"

General Anthony McAuliffe

General Anthony McAuliffe sometime in or after 1955
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Military commanders have provided us with many quotable lines over the centuries and millennia of warfare, but it's still hard to find men among them who are intrinsically connected to a single, widely and immediately recognized pithy phrase. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" by Admiral David Farragut; "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard dies for his" by General George Patton; these phrases capture the martial spirit of the men who uttered them, but even they pale in comparison to single most laconic and defiant quote of World War II: General Anthony McAuliffe's "Nuts!" Today’s article is about the career of Anthony McAuliffe, who led the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Anthony Clement McAuliffe (1898-1975) was born in Washington, D.C. to a government employee father and quickly turned toward a career in service of his country. He was admitted to West Virginia University in 1916, but America's entry into World War I on April 1, 1917, prompted him to switch over to the War Emergency Course offered at West Point. He finished the accelerated program in November 1918, just after the war ended. He managed to stay in the Army despite the large downsizing that followed the war, graduating as a field artillery officer in 1920, and spending the next 16 years at various peacetime postings, including two stints on Oahu in Hawaii. His background placed him on tracks toward artillery operations and staff work, but McAuliffe really wanted to command combat troops, so he attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

McAuliffe as a West Point cadet
(Photo: The Howitzer)

For the time being, however, he had to stay in staff positions, and he was appointed to a study group examining race relations in the Army. The group recommended racial integration within the Army, a position McAuliffe continued to hold throughout his career, and would later be in a position to do something about.

In 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, McAuliffe was posted to the Supply Division of the War Department General Staff as a temporary lieutenant colonel. At this post, he supervised the development of various pieces of military equipment, including the bazooka (Read our earlier article) and the jeep (Read our earlier article). McAuliffe finally got his chance for a combat posting in 1942, when he was promoted to colonel and placed in command of the artillery elements of a newly formed unit, the 101st Airborne Division. (Read our earlier article)

General William C. Lee, the first commander of the 101st Airborne, reviewing the unit in 1942
(Photo: Roberston Collection)

The 101st was specifically created to participate in the Normandy landings, but the long buildup for Operation Overlord meant they only got to see action for the first time in the summer of 1944. McAuliffe, a brigadier general by the time, jumped with his men into German-held territory on the chaotic night of June 6. (Read our earlier article) Confident in the ability of the 101st to achieve victory, he handed out signed 100-franc notes before boarding the planes in England so that the men could invite each other to celebratory drinks later.

A soldier of the 101st Airborne Division boarding a C-47 for the flight to Normandy
(Photo: U.S. Army)

His optimism initially seemed somewhat unfounded, as he landed three miles from the intended drop zone. To make things worse, McAuliffe's direct superior, General Don F. Pratt, died on D-Day as he was coming in aboard a glider. The glider made contact with the ground, but landed on wet tall grass which caused it to skid out of the landing zone and into a hedgerow of poplar trees. Pratt, sitting in his jeep tethered inside the glider, died from a broken neck caused by whiplash; the copilot was impaled and killed by a branch, and the pilot suffered severe injuries with both legs broken. McAuliffe quickly assumed Pratt's position and organized the capture and defense of two strategically important locations: a bridge over the Vire River, and the village of Pouppeville; in the following days, he also led a successful attack on Carentan.

McAuliffe next led his men into battle in September 1944, in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, (Read our earlier article) where he landed alongside his troops in a glider. The operation was a failure (euphemistically dubbed "a 90% success" at the time), but the 101st, led by General Maxwell Taylor (Read our earlier article), managed to make it back to friendly lines.

McAuliffe giving last-minute instructions to his men before departing from England on D-Day+1 day during Operation Market Garden
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

McAuliffe's finest hour came in the winter of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st was posted to the Ardennes Forest to rest and recover after taking heavy losses in Market Garden. The area was believed to be quiet and safe, as the poor road network in the heavily forest region was believed unsuitable for armored advances, and thus safe form any German counterattacks. Naturally, this belief turned out to be entirely wrong when Hitler launched Operation Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine"), his last major counterattack on the Western Front, directly through the Ardennes. The road and railway hub town of Bastogne suddenly became a vital point in the war: if the Germans managed to capture it, they could use it to move their troops through the forests much more quickly. Elements from the 101st Airborne, the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and 755th Field Artillery Battalion were rushed to Bastogne to defend it. Maxwell Taylor, the commanding officer of the 101st, was in the United States on a conference, so McAuliffe, normally only in charge of the division's artillery, had to step up to the plate and command the defense effort.

McAuliffe (center) and two other officers holding Bastogne’s town sign
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The details of the desperate battle for Bastogne, and its importance in the larger Battle of the Bulge unfolding around it, are beyond the scope of this article. It should suffice to say that McAuliffe achieved historic greatness in the besieged Belgian town, not only with his tenacious defense, but also with his spirited, now iconic reply to a German demand for surrender with a single word: NUTS! (A detailed description of the event can be read in one of our earlier articles here) One little-known detail of the event was that McAuliffe was checking on his wounded men earlier in the day, before the German messengers showed up. One man rose from his litter, saying "Don’t give up on account of us, General Mac!" McAuliffe quickly assured him that he wouldn’t – and kept his word a few hours later.

McAuliffe and his staff having Christmas dinner in Bastogne during the battle
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The famous reply was first uttered, then put in writing, on December 22, and it didn't take long for the story to take wing. A news dispatch sent on the same day and appearing in American newspapers on the 26th reported: "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."

The actual word used instead of "no" became publicly know two days later with another news item: "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." McAuliffe's identity as the commander who sent the message only became known another two days later.

Interestingly, the German messengers weren’t the only people confused by the meaning of the famous reply. The French press agency also had a problem interpreting the slang phrase, and eventually (and incorrectly) settled on it being short for "Vous n'etes que de vieilles noix” – “You are nothing but old nuts.”

A humorous postcard commemorating McAuliffe’s famous reply
(Image: contemporary postcard)

Once the defenders of Bastogne were relieved, McAuliffe was quickly awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Patton (Read our earlier article), and was promoted to major general and given command of the 103rd Infantry Division. The division and McAuliffe spent the rest of the war mopping up German resistance along the west shore of the Rhine, advancing into Germany and Austria, and capturing the Brenner Pass across the Alps, finally allowing Allied troops in Italy and the rest of Europe to link up.

Patton decorating McAuliffe with the Distinguished Service Cross
(Photo: U.S. Army)

McAuliffe held many positions in the decade after World War II, and was promoted to four-star general in 1955. In that decade, he was, among other things, the Chief Chemical Officer of the Army Chemical Corps, Head of Army Personnel, and Army Secretary of the Joint Research and Development Board.  In 1946, he was also the Army Ground Forces advisor to Operation Crossroads, the above-ground atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. From 1949 onward, he returned to field commands, first in occupied Japan, and later in Europe.

The Baker event during Operation Crossroads
(Photo: U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps)

At the beginning of the 50s, McAuliffe returned to a cause he had already served once earlier in his career, and which would become the achievement he was the proudest of: the desegregation of the Army. Most African-American soldiers were in transport and service units during World War II; African-American combat units did exist, but were segregated from white units. This segregation remained into the Korean War. During a 1950 review of the policy, McAuliffe recommended that black soldiers remain in segregated units, not because of any lack of combat capability, but because of the racist attitudes in the rest of the Army. Instead, he proposed the creation of more black units, as the already existing ones were overstaffed.

By 1951, however, the changing situation in Korea already forced the racial integration of several combat units to solve manpower shortages. These units suffered no serious morale problems or loss of combat capability, so McAuliffe revised his previous opinion and recommended full integration throughout the Army. By the end of 1951, he ordered all Far East commands to prepare and submit integration plans, and did the same to European commands the next year. The Army's desegregation ended up taking some time, but it did manage to become one of the most integrated organization in 1970s American society.

A desegregated unit in Korea
(Photo: National Archives)

McAuliffe retired from the Army in 1956. He put his knowledge of chemical warfare to good use in civilian life and took a position on the board of directors of a chemicals company. He also acted as chairman of the New York State Civil Defense Commission from 1960 to 1963. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The central square of the town of Bastogne is now called Place Général McAuliffe and has a bust of McAuliffe and a Sherman tank pierced by a German 88mm shell standing in one of its corners.

The bust of McAuliffe and the damaged Sherman tank at McAuliffe Square in Bastogne (Photo: Author’s own)

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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