WASHINGTON, DC, December 21, 2004 - Murray Moorhatch had contemplated the moment for nearly 60 years, so he savored every second assembling and dressing in his paratrooper uniform.
The 80-year-old soldier allowed himself a grin at the feat of fitting into his military clothing from over half a century ago. The pride swelled even more as he checked his airborne wings to make sure they were straight and polished the Screaming Eagle patch on this right shoulder that designated him a combat veteran. One last look at those highly coveted badges prompted Moorhatch to pause and remember what it took to get them.
After joining the Canadian Army before Pearl Harbor and serving for a while in London, Moorhatch eventually joined the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
After Airborne School, he saw his first combat in Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion, followed by Operation Market Garden, the attack on Holland. It was the Ardennes Campaign, better known as the Battle of the Bulge, however, that significantly affected his personal and professional life.
Early in the summer of 1944, Moorhatch and his girlfriend, also in the Army, had applied for permission to marry. About six months later, Moorhatch was notified the request was approved and that his fiancé was waiting in Paris. After getting a pass, Moorhatch left camp and hitchhiked to the French capital. The date was December 16, 1944.
After a few stops and what seemed like endless paperwork, Moorhatch finally married at an American Church on the Champs Elysees. The newlyweds had one night together and the next morning, December 18, Moorhatch received a phone call ordering him "to get his butt" back to camp.
The new bridegroom never realized how grim the situation was until he arrived at Bastogne and saw the retreating Americans. Moorhatch described them as appearing like zombies with their glazed eyes and stumbling, almost like they didn't know what they were doing.
"They look so disheartened. You'd try and talk to them and get no response," added Moorhatch.
Desperate for ammunition and equipment, the 101st paratroopers simply took it from the weary soldiers headed away from the oncoming Germans. A fierce cold also accompanied the German counteroffensive, and because the Screaming Eagles had shipped out "as is," they lacked proper winter clothing.
Moorhatch said the GIs stood together and faced the hardships that had come with war because they had to. "I was a good soldier and if somebody in authority told me to do something I did so, and never questioned it."
The Germans completely surrounded Bastogne by December 21, and on the afternoon of the 22, Moorhatch learned about BG McAuliffe's infamous "Nuts" answer to the German surrender demand.
"Nobody had thought of giving up," Moorhatch said. "Every soldier in the 101st thought he was the best in the world. So we loved that answer. We decided then and there McAuliffe must have 'big ones.' That one four-letter word lifted our spirits and morale and kept us going."
Christmas was spent in a foxhole trying to stay warm. Moorhatch said the GIs knew the holiday had arrived but treated it like just another day.
On December 28, Moorhatch was helping dig a foxhole when a sudden artillery barrage hit. Shrapnel caught him in the leg, and while medics frantically applied bandages to stop the bleeding, he spent another two days in the field before he was shipped to a hospital. The war was over for the young soldier so determined to fight in battle.
Now, 60 years later, Moorhatch stood beside a foxhole in Jacques Woods, Bastogne, the Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division fighting area and found himself overwhelmed as he reflected on his last battle with the Germans.
Earlier that morning Moorhatch strolled about Bastogne, pleased at the restored and thriving town that replaced the desolate and war torn village he marched through so long ago.
Discovering the Nuts Museum, the Nuts Café complete with Nuts Salade, and a bust of McAuliffe in the town square had been truly gratifying.
"I was even presented airborne beer," Moorhatch said while laughing.
The outpour of handshakes, hugs, kisses, and gifts from the townspeople when they recognized the airborne patch and paratrooper wings were particularly heartening.
But reliving his final moments in the Battle of the Bulge troubled and exhausted Moorhatch. Two local Bastogners, Joel Parate and Jean-Marc Damhaut, who had skipped work to escort Moorhatch to the area, quickly offered their support. They represented the future generations to whom the story of the battle for Bastogne had passed. This was a heritage they truly cherished, and they professed it was an honor to be with Moorhatch.
"There is no one from Bastogne who does not have family that was affected in some way by the battle," said Damhaut.
"I intend to teach my daughter English so she can thank the Americans for liberating her ancestors whenever they come back here," added Parate.
Understanding the veteran's desire to preserve that tangible link to the past, Parate and Damhaut presented Moorhatch a bottle of earth gathered from the Easy Company foxhole. "You may not always be in Bastogne," the men said, "but Bastogne will always be with you."
Clutching the bottle closely, Moorhatch declared that in spite of a nagging wound that confined him to the hospital for nearly 10 months, his Army years were the best in his life. And it was the service that made him a better person.
"As a teenager I was a little flighty; I wasn't a good student," Moorhatch said. "I'd goof off if I could. The Army created a man out of a teenager."
Moorhatch also said he'd learned to appreciate life because he still missed all the faces he used to know.
"It's the kind of experience that teaches you to enjoy your life," counseled Moorhatch. "Losing those friends made you want to be a better soldier."
Swearing he'd volunteer today if the Army would take him, Moorhatch described the camaraderie between soldiers as the most sacred bonding he's ever known.
"I never had the need, opportunity or even the privilege of giving my life up for somebody else, but I would have gladly done it," Moorhatch said.