Gen. Troy Middleton, right, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
By George Morris
When Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton awoke on Dec. 16, 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium, he knew something was wrong. His attention turned east. Sunlight had not yet pierced the fog, but Middleton could clearly hear what he couldn’t see. Artillery.
This was a surprise — especially here, certainly now. For seven months, the Allied forces had beaten German forces across France,Belgium and Luxembourg. To the east, Russia troops had taken the Balkans, the Baltic states and pushed their way into Poland.
Now, a bitter winter was gripping Europe. Certainly, Hitler was preparing a desperate, yard-by-yard defense of the Fatherland. That made the most sense. What Middleton heard this morning, however, did not sound like defense.
Instead, it was the start of the last great offensive of the war in Europe — the Battle of the Bulge.
Just a few weeks earlier, Middleton had written to his wife in Baton Rouge. In the letter, he lamented spending a third Thanksgiving away from home and expressed hope this would be his last. At the time, there seemed little reason to believe otherwise.
Now, 24 German divisions that had escaped Allied detection were pouring across an 88-mile front held by only six American divisions. As reports came in from the front, it soon became obvious that U.S. forces were being pushed back or overrun. The Germans were advancing so fast it was difficult to tell how many or where they were.
Middleton was commander of VIII Corps. He called the U.S. First Army commander, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges. Capt. John Cribbet, Middleton’s senior aide with VIII Corps, recalls the conversation.
“I happened to be on the phone extension,” said Cribbet. “Middleton said, ‘What do I do now?’ Hodges said, ‘Make your own decisions. We’ve got enough trouble up here. They’re about to overrun First Army.'”
A combat officer in two world wars, Middleton was used to making decisions. In the Battle of the Bulge, this one would be the biggest.
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Born in Copiah County, Mississippi, on Oct. 12, 1889, Middleton joined the Army upon graduation from Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State University) in 1910 and received a second lieutenant’s commission two years later.
Middleton advanced rapidly. A captain when America entered World War I in 1918, Middleton rose to the rank of colonel. He was the youngest U.S. colonel to fight in the war and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry.
In 1930, Middleton was assigned to command the ROTC program at Louisiana State University. He did not know it at the time, but Baton Rouge would become home for most of the rest of his life.
At the time, LSU required military training for able-bodied men for their first two years. As a result, Middleton became well known on campus, and his former cadets remember him in his wide-brim hat and World War I era puttees.
“There was no doubt who was commandant of cadets,” said Bob Mattox, a cadet under Middleton and later LSU’s public relations director when Middleton was university president. “He made no effort to be imposing at all. He wasn’t trying to be overbearing. … He was a real nice guy.”
Middleton remained with LSU ROTC until 1935. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Philippines. LSU, however, did not want him to go. In 1937, LSU asked him to return as dean of administration. The money was better than he was making in the military, and peacetime Army life offered few opportunities for advancement.
He discussed the offer with two lieutenant colonels. One said to take it. The other –Dwight Eisenhower — said he shouldn’t. Eisenhower was convinced another war in Europe was likely and that Middleton might become a general.
Middleton retired from the Army and returned to LSU. But Eisenhower had been right. After Pearl Harbor, Middleton offered his services and was accepted. He quickly rose to major (two-star) general. That was one star less than he might have had if he’d stayed.
“If he had been one of those people who had stayed in the regular Army, he probably would have had an army from the beginning,” Eisenhower told Middleton’s biographer, Frank James Price, in 1965.
Middleton distinguished himself, anyway. As head of the 45th Division, Middleton fought under Gen. George Patton in the invasions of Sicily and Salerno in the summer and fall of 1943. Alfred Glassell was Middleton’s aide in those operations.
“He inspired people,” said Glassell. “He projected confidence in his commanders … He was very understanding and very knowledgeable of the fragilities of the human being. He worked with those to work things out and to encourage individuals to go on and do their best. He did that very successfully.”
Middleton’s success came despite disagreements with Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Italian campaign. When the Salerno invasion bogged down quickly, Clark considered withdrawing. Middleton refused.
“Clark had said something about putting the troops back on ship,and Middleton said, ‘Put the guns and the ammunition behind us. We’re going to stay.’ There was sort of a fear at Salerno that we were going to be overwhelmed.”
The 45th Division held its ground, and the Salerno beachhead was secured. Middleton’s division began to grind its way north. Middleton, however, would not continue in the campaign. The hilly terrain and muddy conditions aggravated an arthritic left knee. Middleton was in so much pain he left the front in November and was sent to back to the United States.
Doctors at Walter Reed Army Hospital examined Middleton’s knee, and Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, offered Middleton the option of retirement or a stateside command. Neither appealed to him. As it turned out, other plans were already in the works.
Cribbet was in England when Patton took command of Third Army. VIII Corps, then led by Gen. Emil Reinhardt, was part of Third Army. Cribbet said a colonel told him Patton immediately asked about Reinhardt’s combat experience. Reinhardt had none.
“Patton replied, ‘I want a combat general. Get me Troy Middleton. He’s the best there is,'” Cribbet said.
Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander for the European Theater of Operations, wired Marshall and requested Middleton be sent over. Marshall’s reply mentioned Middleton’s knee problem.
“I said, ‘Well, look, I don’t give a damn for his knees,'”Eisenhower told Price. “I said, ‘I want his head and his heart. And I’ll take him into battle in a litter if we have to.'”
While in England, Patton and Middleton inspected the 90th Infantry Division. Mattox was part of the 90th and remembers the two generals vividly.
“The two were completely different people,” Mattox said. “Patton, he had this high-pitched voice and he yelled. Middleton, he never raised his voice. I never heard him raise his voice in all the time I knew him. The contrast was marked.”
“He was genuinely a kindly man,” said Cribbet. “You know, your impression of high-ranking military officers is not always of being kindly, but he was. He was very firm. There was nothing wishy-washy about him, but he was interested in the troops, in enlisted men.”
When the Allies broke out of the Cotentin Peninsula in August 1944, most of Patton’s army headed south and east. Middleton went west to capture the port city of Brest on Sept. 19. By this time, Allies were pushing across France and Belgium. The U.S. 3rd and 7th armies to the south reached the Rhine River; the 1st and 9th armies to the north also reached the German border. In between was the thickly forested Ardennes region.
Middleton’s VIII Corps was moved there. This figured to be a respite after their successful siege of Brest, where Middleton had shown he deserved Patton’s and Eisenhower’s confidence.
“You know, I like that saying attributed to Napoleon — so much is attributed to him — that the genius in war is the man who can do the sensible thing or an average thing when everybody else around him was crazy,” Eisenhower told Price. “Well now, that was Troy Middleton. Troy Middleton never got stampeded. He did what was necessary, and that’s the kind of fellow you want in war.”
That quality was never more in evidence than at the Battle of the Bulge.
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Marion Bahlinger was a 19-year-old soldier with the 106th Infantry Division, which had never seen combat. It had been moved to the front lines in the Ardennes in early December 1944 to replace combat-weary troops.
“We heard noises at night and conveyed the message on back that there seemed to be movement of some sort going on on the other side of the valley,” Bahlinger said. “From the things I’ve read, they figured we were green troops and we were jumpy and weren’t used to night noises on the battle front, and a lot of that was ignored.”
Under the cover of night, Germany had amassed a large force. At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, the Germans struck.
“All hell broke loose,” Cribbet said. “It was foggy and the Germans literally came out of the fog, and people scarcely knew what they were doing.”
With the element of surprise and the overwhelming advantage in numbers, the Germans punched through American defenses and rapidly pushed west. Their ultimate goal was to retake the Belgian port of Antwerp, thus dividing American and British forces. Hitler’s apparent hope was to either buy time for developing the atomic bomb or to demoralize Western Allies into a negotiated peace.
Foul weather worked to the Germans’ advantage. The Allied air forces dominated the skies, but now they were grounded by low-lying clouds. That not only kept fighters and bombers from aiding the defense, but it also prevented observation planes from finding the attackers.
Middleton hit the road to find out what was going on.
“I went with Middleton up to the 106th in the north, which was the brand new division and was practically breaking up,” Cribbet said. “Middleton came back. The Germans were already beginning to shell Bastogne.”
Bastogne was VIII Corps headquarters. More important, it was the intersection of several major highways.
“He said, ‘Bastogne has got to be held at all costs because it is the key to the whole operation. The Germans can’t move very far unless they can take Bastogne,'” Cribbet said.
The 101st Airborne Division was being brought up to help slow the German tide, and Middleton ordered the 101st to Bastogne. Knowing they would likely be surrounded, Middleton instructed them to hold on to the town and the vital road network. Ordered by Hodges to relocate corps headquarters, Middleton and his staff left for Neufchateau on the only road the Germans hadn’t captured.
Middleton’s calm never wavered, Cribbet said.
“Things were falling apart,” Cribbet said. “For all we knew, we were going to be prisoners very shortly. The whole front of our line had collapsed. But you would have thought we were conducting an ROTC exercise.”
As feared, Germans surrounded Bastogne and attacked continuously. At the time, Patton criticized Middleton for putting the 101st in such a position.
Middleton knew he was right. Holding Bastogne slowed Germany’s westward push. The pounding continued. Yet the 101st held, and when skies cleared on Dec. 24, American aircraft began attacking the Germans. U.S. forces finally broke through to relieve Bastogne on Dec. 26. The Germans never got close to Antwerp. It was their last big punch. Patton changed his mind, formally commending Middleton for his decision to hold Bastogne.
The fighting was not over, but the outcome was clear. Once the Bulge was mopped up, VIII Corps charged into Germany, eventually meeting Russian troops at the Elbe River. After Germany’s surrender, Middleton was promoted to lieutenant (three-star) general and offered a chance to stay in the Army. Instead, he retired for the second and last time.
At the end of World War II, Middleton returned to LSU as comptroller. He became university president in late 1950. He retired in 1962 but remained active in LSU and community affairs for years. Middleton died on Oct. 9, 1976.
During his tenure at LSU, Middleton rarely mentioned his fighting days unless someone asked, acquaintances noted. But they were not lost on his military peers.
“I just was impressed always by his complete command of himself and the situation,” Eisenhower told Price. “He was not one of these swashbuckling types. He was always calm and quiet, and I liked that in soldiers because it sort of incites my confidence in them. The swashbuckler sometimes gets away with … shouting around, but it comes more often in reputation than in performance. Not with Troy. Troy performed all the time.
“This fellow was just one of those men that did his duty, did it well and never was looking for the headlines or anything else. He was just looking for success in the job. I just say there was no better soldier in all the ETO than Troy Middleton.”