On 6 December 1944, in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Marlene Dietrich’s manager finished planning their USO troupe’s next trip to the front. The German born Hollywood starlet was one of the USO’s most active shows. She had a reputation for going as far forward as possible to visit units, even to places where it wasn’t prudent for Marlene to slip out of her tailored uniform and into her sleek black evening gown to perform her signature song “Lil Marlene”. Her USO troupe planned on visiting the American units in the quiet Ardennes Forest over the next 12 days.
There was one division the blonde bombshell would not visit in the Ardennes because it wasn’t there yet. The US 106th Infantry Division was just getting off the troopships in LeHavre harbor. The 106th was Eisenhower’s newest division both literally and figuratively: America was reaching the bottom of its manpower pool in late 1944, and the 106th was the first division formed from almost all 18 year old draftees, including a young Pvt Kurt Vonnegut who would use his experiences over the next months to write “Slaughterhouse-Five”. Whereas the average age of soldiers in other divisions was 26, it was 19 in the 106th.
The 106th was destined to replace the veteran 2nd Infantry Division on the Schnee Eifel in the Ardennes Forest, where it was said they would be able to get some experience in the quiet sector. The US 2nd Infantry Division was assigned to the Ardennes after a bloody mauling in the vicious street fighting in the German city of Aachen in September and October. After several weeks of receiving replacements, training and planning, the 2nd was destined to move to the northern shoulder of the Ardennes. From there, they would assault east into the teeth of the German Siegfried Line to hopefully capture the Roer River dams. They were just waiting on the 106th to get off the boat and take their positions.
To keep the timetable on track, the US 28th Infantry Division of Pennsylvania Army National Guardsmen extended their line to a ludicrous distance in order to allow the 2nd to make the move before the 106th could take over. Also on 6 December 1944, the US 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One”, arrived to the north of the 28th. Both divisions were chewed to a bloody pulp in the recent campaign around the city of Aachen. The “Red” in the Big Red One and the red keystone of the 28th’s division patch, aka “the Bloody Bucket”, took on a new meaning after the brutal fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Both divisions were looking forward to some quiet recovery, refit and reorganization time in the Ardennes.
The Big Red One moved in to the south of another green division who, like the 106th, had only just arrived in Europe. However the US 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division had been there a week and had taken to digging defensive positions in order to keep warm in the snow and freezing temperatures. The 99th was assigned to protect the 2nd Division in its attack, and to do that it had a front five times the doctrinal length. On its far right the division had a single intelligence and reconnaissance platoon to tie into the battered Big Red One. The 22 men of the 394th Regt’s I&R platoon were solely responsible for six miles of the 99th’s front line.
Once the 106th arrived in a few days, LTG Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps would have four divisions on the line in the Ardennes: the 99th, the 1st, the 106th and the 28th, with the 2nd just to the north preparing to move to their assault positions. From the sleepy Belgian town of Bastogne, Middleton commanded 80,000 men spread out over 90 miles. His lines were impossibly thin but it was thought it was an acceptable risk because he was assured that the Germans would never attack into the broken terrain of the Ardennes in winter. Besides, just about every commander and intelligence officer in the European Theatre of Operations thought the war would be over by Christmas.
Unbeknownst to the Allies, Hitler had assembled in complete secrecy 300,000 men, 1600 tanks and 2500 artillery pieces opposite the VIII Corps’ lines. The Germans planned on attacking ten days later on 16 December, the same day Marlene Dietrich was scheduled to perform at the 99th’s Division Headquarters in the tiny Belgian town of Krinkelt.