On His 21st Birthday he Stopped a Panzer Division

Photo: Stephane Gaudry - CC BY 2.0

Lyle Bouck joined the Missouri National Guard when he was just 14. He had grown up during the Great Depression and joining the National Guard offered pay which his family needed. He eventually began to work in the supply supply room. When the supply sergeant was promoted to the wire communications section, Bouck was the only one left who knew the supply room, so he was made the supply sergeant.

Bouck’s unit was mobilized before the US entered the war. Then, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, their mobilization was extended through the end of the war plus six months. They were sent the Aleutian Islands, which didn’t suit Bouck at all so he applied for officer’s training. He did so well in training that they kept him as an instructor for about two years.

20 year old First Lt. Lyle J. Bouck, Jr., platoon leader of the 394th Infantry Division’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance unit.
20 year old First Lt. Lyle J. Bouck, Jr., platoon leader of the 394th Infantry Division’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance unit.

He was then transferred to the 99th Infantry Division and sent to France in November 1944. He was placed in command of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon in the 394th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers in the regiment had little combat experience but on December 10, 1944, they were called upon anyway to fill a gap in the front lines near Lanzerath, the capital of Belgium. They were facing the Ardennes forest.

December 16, 1941, was Bouck’s 21st birthday. It was also the day that the Germans chose to begin their last offensive operation of the war, “Operation Autumn Fog.”

The area that Bouck’s group was tasked with defending was one where the Allies did not expect the Germans to attack. They thought that the Germans would be unable to move through the forest.

The northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, in which Bouck’s unit held up the German advance through a key intersection near Lanzerath for nearly a full day.
The northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, in which Bouck’s unit held up the German advance through a key intersection near Lanzerath for nearly a full day.

But Bouck took no chances. He ordered his men to dig in and managed to acquire more automatic weapons to increase their firepower.

The German plan was to hit the line hard and quickly before the Allies could summon their superior resources to support the thin defenses at the front line. The 1st SS Panzer Division descended on Bouck’s group intending to open a hole in the Allies defenses that the 6th Panzer Army would be able to move through.

At 5:30 in the morning the Germans attacked with heavy artillery fire. The armored unit that was supporting Bouck’s team withdrew under the blistering attack. When the German army advanced at 8:00 in the morning, the 550 men in the 1st Panzer Division were met by the 18 men in Bouck’s team plus four infantry observers. Three of Bouck’s men were captured almost immediately leaving just 19 men to defend the front.

Bouck had no armored support and his radios were destroyed – though the person receiving his messages hadn’t even believed him when he described the number of Germans heading his way.

This Tiger II from the 1st SS Panzer Division was abandoned a week later La Gleize, Belgium.
This Tiger II from the 1st SS Panzer Division was abandoned a week later La Gleize, Belgium.

So Bouck’s men settled in their fox holes and watched the Germans advance. Bouck’s plan was to let them get close and then take them by surprise. When he saw a local woman pointing towards the American’s position, he knew the surprise was over and ordered his men to fire.

For a full day, the small group of Americans held the Germans at bay and prevented them from advancing through the lines. Some of the Americans had been wounded but the ground was covered with German casualties.

As daylight faded and ammunition was running low, Bouck determined that his team needed to retreat. But it was too late. Fifty German soldiers had flanked their position and there was nowhere to retreat to.

A camouflaged forest pillbox like those built by the I&R platoon
A camouflaged forest pillbox like those built by the I&R platoon

Bouck wound up spending his 21st birthday and the next six months as a POW.

Of the 18 men in Bouck’s group, 14 were injured but none were killed. One of the artillery observers died. But the Germans lost 16 men and had 63 wounded with 13 missing in action.

Because they had no communication, no one was fully aware of what Bouck’s team had accomplished. Years later, Bouck realized that their actions were crucial to the success of the Allies because they disrupted the Germans plan for a full day.

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In October 1981, every member of Bouck’s unit were honored for their heroic actions. This made them the most decorated unit in the war. Bouck himself received the Distinguished Service Cross.