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Service members stand in formation as dignitaries prepare to enter at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
Service members stand in formation as dignitaries prepare to enter at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
Service members stand in formation as dignitaries prepare to enter at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
Service members stand in formation as dignitaries prepare to enter at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper talks to Battle of the Bulge veterans after laying a wreath at the commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge at Luxembourg American Cemetery  Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper talks to Battle of the Bulge veterans after laying a wreath at the commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge at Luxembourg American Cemetery Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
Battle of the Bulge veteran Robert Izumi talks to an attendee of the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. After the war Izumi enlisted in the Air Force and fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Battle of the Bulge veteran Robert Izumi talks to an attendee of the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. After the war Izumi enlisted in the Air Force and fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
Battle of the Bulge veterans wait for the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the battle, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
Battle of the Bulge veterans wait for the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the battle, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
Helen Patton, granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, talks to Battle of the Bulge veterans before the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the battle, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. The general is buried at the cemetery.
Helen Patton, granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, talks to Battle of the Bulge veterans before the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the battle, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. The general is buried at the cemetery. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
Rows of crosses and Stars of David at the Luxembourg American Cemetery, Monday Dec. 16, 2019. There are 5,073 service members buried at the theater.
Rows of crosses and Stars of David at the Luxembourg American Cemetery, Monday Dec. 16, 2019. There are 5,073 service members buried at the theater. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)
A U.S. Army brass quintet along with a military band from Luxembourg played at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
A U.S. Army brass quintet along with a military band from Luxembourg played at the commemorations at the Luxembourg American Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and European leaders gathered Monday at the Luxembourg American Cemetery to honor those killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and to thank veterans on hand to mark the 75th anniversary of the pivotal battle.

Before approaching the vets to shake hands, Esper addressed the crowd and the men.

“For a moment in history, the fate of the free world rested on their shoulders — rested on your shoulders,” Esper said.

The winter battle was the largest and costliest of the war for the United States, fought over six weeks in the forests and towns of Belgium and Luxembourg, where allies were outnumbered in a surprise offensive by German forces.

The American soldiers held the line, buying time for reinforcements. More than 19,000 U.S. troops died in the fighting and more than 5,000 of the war dead are buried at the cemetery in Luxembourg. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, who commanded the 3rd Army during the Bulge campaign, is also buried there.

“Your stories are remarkable and we will forever be grateful for the sacrifices you made,” Esper said. The U.S. soldiers took a “gallant stand against tyranny” as they fought Germany’s last major offensive on the Western front, he said.

The soldiers fought through setbacks and the bitter cold, despite being low on supplies and poorly equipped for freezing conditions. The men knew hardship, having lived through the Great Depression, and brought that grit to the battlefield, Esper said.

“The real story of the Battle of the Bulge are the soldiers who banded together,” Esper said.

Included in the U.S. delegation attending the ceremony in Luxembourg were House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Events in Luxembourg capped four days of international commemorations of the battle. On Sunday, veterans gathered in the eastern Belgian town of St. Vith and helped dedicate a monument to prisoners of war captured during the battle. On Saturday, WWII veterans were lauded while U.S. service members and others marched through the Belgian town of Bastogne.

In Luxembourg, U.S. F-16s flew over the cemetery grounds in honor of the air power that helped turn the tide in the battle and paved the way for victory.

Henri, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, said the soldiers’ “exceptional bravery” ensured the “freedom of our countries, democracy and the rule of law.”

“We are indebted and eternally grateful to them,” he said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com Twitter: @john_vandiver

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