Skip to main content

The Grimmest Thanksgiving

July 2024
2min read

An attempt at modest celebration during the longest battle on German territory during World War II ended badly.

After reading an interview with General Gavin in a newspaper, a major who had fought in the Huertgen Forest wrote the general the following letter:


GIs line up for chow in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.
GIs line up for chow in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.

December 26, 1978

Dear General Gavin ,

I was S-3, 2nd. Bn. 121 Inf., 8th. Div., and my outfit was the only one to secure the village of Huertgen, and hold on to it .

Your remark that the generals had no idea of what the men were up against really hit home. It started out with att the making of a debacle. Someone seemed to think this was a Ft. Benning exercise, instead of a penetration of a thickly mined, well fortified, dense forest where you were lucky if you could see twenty feet. Our introduction to this hell hole was to be dumped off our trucks, and before the advance party could do a thing we were to make a “passage of lines” through the holding troops and continue on to attack. It was a mess that took days to straighten out!

The generals back in headquarters had no idea what the men were up against. Jerry turned all hell loose.

To emphasize your point about not knowing what the men were up against I would like to cite one incident that still haunts me. On Thanksgiving day we were not in Huertgen, but still strung out in the dense forest outside the town. Any slight activity brought down a rain of mortars and artillery, and I’m sure you know the devastating effects of tree bursts. I was in theforeward O.P. [command post] when I was informed the cooks would bring up cannisters of a hot turkey dinner and serve it to the men in the lines. I called the Bn. commander and told him that in our present position this would be murder—plain and simple—that as soon as the men got around the cannisters Jerry would turn all hell loose. I was told this was a Regimental order and I got permission to talk to the Regimental commander. I was told this was a Division order and somehow or other talked him into letting me talk to the Division commander. I tried to explain the conditions, and requested a delay of a day or two until we could get out of this position, but was told in no uncertain terms that the men would be fed to-day!

Hindsight says I could have stalled off the dinner and I doubt that the higher echelons would have known about it—but I didn’t. Granted that greater control could have been used all down the line… but dangle hot turkey to men in a cold, wet forest, that have had nothing but K rations, and it’s not that easy to keep them from bunching.

Jerry turned all hell loose! Branded in my mind is position after position with men torn to shreds around busted up turkey cannisters—as many as ten in one place.

For many, many years after the war I would go to one of my relations for Thanksgiving dinner, and before I could touch a bite I would get up and go to the back yard and cry like a baby, I passed up a helluva lot of turkey dinners.

Don’t really know why I have told you this, but somehow it seems to have helped .…

Respectfully yours, Wm. S. Freeman Jr. Ex-Major, Inf.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.