Many people who never knew John Hanlon personally may remember him as that paratrooper who took the sheets back to Bastogne. His act of gratitude received national media coverage. The story of the sheets began during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Hanlon was a major in the 101st Airborne Division, commanding the 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Brought to Bastogne in southeast Belgium by trucks because of the poor weather, the 101st was assigned to hold that area. Soon surrounded, they were prime targets in their khaki overcoats against the snow. Villagers gave Hanlon their white bedsheets to cover his men, making them less visible to the enemy. By the time the 101st was relieved by elements of General George S. Patton Jr.'s Third Army, the sheets were in tatters, having been caught on branches, jeeps, and rifles, and many showed bullet holes.