BASTOGNE, Belgium -- Amid snow flurries and a chilling wind, Belgium's King Albert II honored US soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany 60 years ago in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle for American forces in war.
Veterans from across the United States returned to Bastogne, a market town that was at the center of the fighting. Yesterday's cold was as bitter as in December 1944.
The old soldiers, wearing military berets and caps, were greeted with warm applause, hugs, and kisses from a grateful crowd that lined the streets.
"I'm very happy to see so many people come out for this event," said Miasy Dumont, 68, of Ludelange, Luxembourg. "This is the last time, I'm sure. In 10 years, there will be no more veterans."
The king, joined by Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, led a commemoration and laid wreaths at the vast Mardasson memorial on the edge of town. The ceremony paid homage to the 19,000 American soldiers killed and about 61,000 wounded. The fighting also claimed 120,000 German lives.
"All soldiers memorialized at this monument are part of the greatest generation," said US General James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
After the half-hour ceremony that included an honor guard from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., veterans were driven by bus from the towering memorial back to the center of town. Once there, they again enjoyed applause from crowds lining the main street to the town square and attended a sound and light show and a parade of World War II vehicles.
The day began with a parade of veterans, marching bands, war-era jeeps, trucks, and ambulances through Bastogne. The vehicles rumbled past the town's central square, named for Anthony MacAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne division, whose paratroopers beat back repeated attacks.
On Dec. 22, 1944, MacAuliffe was given two hours to surrender by the Germans or face "total annihilation." His famous reply: "Nuts!"
A commemorative throwing of nuts was also to take place at the square.
There were guided walks along the defensive perimeter south of Bastogne that was relieved by General George S. Patton's Third Army, which rushed north from France to help defeat the Germans.
The battle raged for six weeks across southern Belgium and Luxembourg, but the market town of 14,000 bore the brunt of the fighting.
"The American veterans who have returned 60 years later to the battle site represent those who gave their lives on our soil so that today we can live free," Bastogne Mayor Philippe Collard said in French at a memorial honoring Patton.
He added in English: "We will never forget. You are home here."
Rising out of the Champagne fields of northern France, the Ardennes highlands sweep across southeastern Belgium, cover much of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, then flow into western Germany's Eiffel range.
Sixty years ago, their valleys, trout streams, and rolling hills were the scene of Adolf Hitler's last gamble. His panzer divisions smashed through the forests, catching the Allies by surprise and driving the front westward in a "bulge" that ran deep into Belgian territory.
There was so much destruction that it is impossible to know exactly how many people were killed in action, how many went missing, and how many were wounded.
The battle drew in more than a million troops -- 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 Britons -- who fought in chilling temperatures from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945.
The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in Arlington, Va., says 19,000 US troops died in the battle.
The Mardasson Memorial on the edge of Bastogne is built on the spot where German artillery bombarded the Americans in the town below, honoring the US forces killed and wounded during the Ardennes offensive.
The memorial bears the names of US Army units that participated in the action. And a plaque reads, "The Belgian People Remember Their American Lberators."