His message to the Germans: 'NUTS!'
By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
DUNEDIN -- Sitting at a round glass table in his Florida room, Ernie Premetz slowly turns the pages of a spiral-bound book. The photographs are old and faded, but the faces in them are young, excited, fresh. Moments frozen on film nearly 60 years ago, as a great war raged across Europe.
"I was in that truck somewhere," Premetz says, pointing to a picture of a flatbed packed with soldiers rumbling toward Belgium.
It was December 1944. Cold. Heavy snow in the pine forests of Ardennes. Even as Hitler's grasp was loosening, the fighting grew fiercer. The truck delivered Premetz and his buddies in the 327th Glider Infantry to a bloody horror called the Battle of the Bulge. There, in the bombed-out town of Bastogne, where Allied troops were surrounded by the Germans, Premetz played a cameo role in one of the best known dramas of World War II.
All he had to do: Translate the word "nuts."
* * *
Premetz isn't the type to buttonhole you and make you listen to war stories. But if you ask -- if you've heard the famous story of "Nuts!" and want to know more -- well, Premetz will tell you what happened.
He is 80. His white hair is combed in neat waves, the silver mustache precisely trimmed. Near the tip of his left index finger, a dark lump bulges underneath the flesh -- shrapnel he took during the siege of Holland, after he survived Normandy.
As Premetz tells it, American troops had been dug in at Bastogne for several days. It was just before Christmas. The Germans were all around.
"We were the hole in the doughnut," Premetz says.
An Army medic, he was caring for wounded soldiers in the potato cellar of a Belgian house. The troops were running out of supplies. Frostbite was a constant threat to the men in the foxholes.
"I had more frozen feet to take care of than you could imagine," Premetz says, shaking his head.
On Dec. 22, just before noon, Premetz was astonished to see four Germans approaching the American line. They carried a white flag.
Because he spoke German, he often helped translate for officers. He and a sergeant walked out to meet the Germans, two officers and two enlisted men. One of the officers spoke some English. They had a note to deliver.
"To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne," it read, in typed English. "There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. . . . If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. . . . All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity."
The ultimatum was signed by the German commander. It gave the Americans two hours.
Premetz and the sergeant blindfolded the Germans and led them to their command post. Then an officer was dispatched to carry the note to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
When McAuliffe read the Germans' demand, he snorted and said, "Aw, nuts!" Then he sat down to compose a reply. Several minutes later, as he struggled with what to say, one of the other officers suggested he use his original sentiment.
McAuliffe agreed. On a piece of paper, he wrote one word: "NUTS!"
Premetz's commanding officer, Col. Joseph Harper, brought back the note. He and Premetz went to deliver it to the Germans, who were standing outside the command post, no longer blindfolded.
I have the commander's reply, Harper said. He handed it to one of the German officers, who unfolded and read it. He looked up, puzzled.
"What does that mean?" he asked. "Is this affirmative or negative?"
"Definitely not affirmative," Harper said.
The Germans were confused. They didn't understand this American slang.
Harper and Premetz discussed how else to convey the message.
"You can tell them to take a flying s---," Harper said to Premetz.
Premetz thought a minute. He knew he had to be clear.
He straightened up and faced the Germans.
"Du kannst zum Teufel gehen," he said.
You can go to hell.
The Germans' faces darkened.
"We will kill many Americans," one of the officers said in English.
"We will kill many Germans," Harper responded.
The moment is recorded in dozens of books about World War II, from The Battered Bastards of Bastogne to A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge.
Sometimes Ernie Premetz' name is mentioned. Sometimes it's not.
* * *
Eventually, Gen. George Patton's troops broke through enemy lines and liberated Bastogne. The war ended a few months later. Premetz came home, finished college and became a marine biologist for the federal government.
He and Gwynneth, a native of Wales, had two children, a son and a daughter. They're grandparents. They've lived all over the country, moving from one marine research facility to another. In 1980 they retired to the Tampa Bay area. Premetz helped form a local chapter of veterans of the 101st Airborne Division, which is known as the "Screaming Eagles." They meet quarterly.
"You go to these reunions and they start swapping memories, and the tales get longer and longer," Gwynneth says.
A lot of old soldiers still tell stories about the "Nuts!" episode. In some versions, you might say, something gets lost in the translation.
"But I know what happened," Premetz says. "I was there."
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