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World War II veteran Steven Weiss waves to the crowd as he and other veterans prepare to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
World War II veteran Steven Weiss waves to the crowd as he and other veterans prepare to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
World War II veteran Steven Weiss waves to the crowd as he and other veterans prepare to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
World War II veteran Steven Weiss waves to the crowd as he and other veterans prepare to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
King Philippe of Belgium lays a wreath on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
King Philippe of Belgium lays a wreath on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Belgian and American soldiers march up a Bastogne, Belgium, street during a ceremony that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Belgian and American soldiers march up a Bastogne, Belgium, street during a ceremony that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
World War II veterans Jack Foy, left, and Bob Izumy talk before a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
World War II veterans Jack Foy, left, and Bob Izumy talk before a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
American soldiers stand in formation at a wreath-laying ceremony on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
American soldiers stand in formation at a wreath-laying ceremony on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
American World War II veterans salute during a wreath-laying ceremony on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. The statue of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe is in the foreground at right.
American World War II veterans salute during a wreath-laying ceremony on McAuliffe square in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The ceremony was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. The statue of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe is in the foreground at right. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Dressed for the occasion, a group of girls waits for King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium to pass by following a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, on Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Dressed for the occasion, a group of girls waits for King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium to pass by following a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, on Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Queen Mathilde of Belgium talks to a boy wearing World War II-style garb following a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Queen Mathilde of Belgium talks to a boy wearing World War II-style garb following a wreath-laying ceremony in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 13, 2014, that was part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
The mayor of Bastogne Benoit Lutgen, left, Queen Mathilde and King Philippe of Belgium, Thomas Nides, the head of the U.S. presidential delegation, and Denise Campbell Bauer, the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, throw nuts from the city hall balcony as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Responding to the Germans' request for the Americans to surrender, Brig Gen Anthony McAuliffe famously replied with a single word: "Nuts," which an officer explained to the Germans meant they could go to hell.
The mayor of Bastogne Benoit Lutgen, left, Queen Mathilde and King Philippe of Belgium, Thomas Nides, the head of the U.S. presidential delegation, and Denise Campbell Bauer, the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, throw nuts from the city hall balcony as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Responding to the Germans' request for the Americans to surrender, Brig Gen Anthony McAuliffe famously replied with a single word: "Nuts," which an officer explained to the Germans meant they could go to hell. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
King Philippe of Belgium, right, talks to World War II veteran Carl Wiggs, left, as fellow vet Robert Thompson, center, listens at a reception during commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014.
King Philippe of Belgium, right, talks to World War II veteran Carl Wiggs, left, as fellow vet Robert Thompson, center, listens at a reception during commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Former TV anchorman and ''The Greatest Generation'' author Tom Brokaw talks with World War II veteran James Morgia at a reception during commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Brokaw was part of the U.S. presidential delegation.
Former TV anchorman and ''The Greatest Generation'' author Tom Brokaw talks with World War II veteran James Morgia at a reception during commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Brokaw was part of the U.S. presidential delegation. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
American soldiers and World War II re-enactors discuss equipment before the start of the annual commemorative walk in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 14, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
American soldiers and World War II re-enactors discuss equipment before the start of the annual commemorative walk in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 14, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Participants in the annual commemorative march in Bastogne, Belgium, walk through the snow along a road on the outskirts of the city, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Participants in the annual commemorative march in Bastogne, Belgium, walk through the snow along a road on the outskirts of the city, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
People taking part in the annual commemorative march in Bastogne, Belgium, watch a World War II-era vehicle driven by re-enactors pass along a muddy road outside of town, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
People taking part in the annual commemorative march in Bastogne, Belgium, watch a World War II-era vehicle driven by re-enactors pass along a muddy road outside of town, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. The march was one of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
World War II re-enactors sit in a snowy field outside Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Scores of re-enactors were in town as it marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
World War II re-enactors sit in a snowy field outside Bastogne, Belgium, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Scores of re-enactors were in town as it marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Battle of the Bulge veteran Vincent Speranza autographs a book in Le Nut's Cafe in Bastogne, Belgium, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. The 501st Infantry Regiment vet was in town for the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the battle.
Battle of the Bulge veteran Vincent Speranza autographs a book in Le Nut's Cafe in Bastogne, Belgium, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. The 501st Infantry Regiment vet was in town for the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the battle. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

BASTOGNE, Belgium — The weather was the same, as were some of the people present. But the atmosphere here Saturday couldn’t have been more different from 70 years ago when German forces threatened to seize this town in the Battle of the Bulge.

Thousands of local residents and people from around Europe and the United States crammed the streets of this small Belgian town to pay tribute to the American forces who held off the German attackers. Braving nonstop snow and biting cold, they waved American and Belgian flags in what is one of the largest annual freedom parties on the Continent.

“I’m impressed. I just wouldn’t have missed it,” said Fred Chapal, who fought here 70 years ago as a mortarman in the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion.

Restored vintage American war machines rolled up and down the streets under strings of Christmas lights. The mellow sounds of the Glenn Miller Orchestra belted out of a sound system in the town’s McAuliffe Square.

The square was named for Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, who refused the Germans’ request to surrender here after they’d surrounded the town, famously responding “Nuts,” which an officer explained to the Germans meant they could go to hell.

In the besieged town, along with the villagers, were the bulk of the forces of the 101st Airborne Division and the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion.

The siege of Bastogne is among the most remembered battles of the war and for many in Belgium a symbol of the American sacrifice for the country’s freedom.

A disabled U.S. Sherman tank, a shell hole bitten cleanly into its left flank, sits on a corner of McAullife Square to remind people what the Americans sacrificed to ensure Belgium’s freedom.

But the scene today looks nothing like it did 70 years ago, said Thomas Rice, 93, who fought here with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st.

“I don’t recognize anything here at all,” he said, surveying the beaming crowd clapping and hollering toward him and dozens of other veterans. “You’ve really got something here in the commemoration. This will go on and on forever as long as we’re still standing.”

Rice was shot three times by a sniper in an area east of Bastogne and was pinned down in place, bleeding, for more than two hours before anybody could reach him, he said.

His unit was outside of the siege ring the Germans had established, but the fighting there was just as perilous.

Coming back to Bastogne after all those years, he said, “this is closure if you can believe it. The scars are there, the wounds are healed, but we’re closing it.”

Decked out in a uniform similar to what Rice wore during the battle, 25-year-old Bert Mnnaerd of Flanders, Belgium, said he came here to feel what it was like to have been there.

He became a die-hard fan of the 101st after watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” and has been to Normandy, too, where the 101st jumped into combat on D-Day. For him, both battles hold the same significance, he said.

“It’s liberation in Normandy, it’s liberation here. It’s all the same for me.”

As celebrated as it is, the Battle of the Bulge was nearly a disaster for the U.S. The Americans hadn’t expected the Germans to launch the battle here when they did and were largely unprepared for the roughly 200,000 Nazi troops that assaulted on a broad front from Belgium to Luxembourg. Taking Bastogne, a major crossroads in the region, was a key goal of the German plan.

“In the area of Bastogne, families were about to celebrate the first free Christmas in five years,” after American forces had earlier liberated the region from the Germans, said Benoît Lutgen, Bastogne’s mayor.

For weeks before the attack on Dec. 16, 1944, “It was so quiet, the Germans weren’t firing and we weren’t firing,” Chapal said. “So my sarge came over to me and he says, ‘Fred there’s nothing going on here. We’re going to give you a pass to Paris.’”

That was about Dec. 12, 1944, he said.

On Dec. 15, “I got to Paris, saw the Folies Bergère. The next morning, all hell broke loose. The Battle of the Bulge started and they had to come get me back out of Paris.”

“It was bad, but we got through it,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”

The battle was the most costly of the war for the U.S., with more than 80,000 casualties, among them at least 10,276 dead, more than 47,000 wounded and more than 23,000 missing.

“One of your comrades told me recently that each survivor had lost at least a brother in arms and that this memory would haunt them till the rest of their own lives,” Lutgen said at a ceremony here, addressing roughly 40 American veterans who fought in and around Bastogne. “Bastogne will never forget your sacrifice.”

Denise Campbell Bauer, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, said she’d spoken to many locals and veterans over the last few days, and their stories “remind us that ordinary people, Americans and Belgians, can do extraordinary things.”

millham.matthew@stripes.com Twitter: @mattmillham

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