Revisit to the Battlefield
RETURN TO THE BATTLEGROUND - 2004
May 12, 2004 Wednesday
Depart Ford’s house 12:30 PM Shuttle van to Dulles International Airport.
“I’m traveling with three veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. They are going to the Ardennes to re-visit the places they were in action during WW II. Their battalion was wiped out. One was taken prisoner, but the other two escaped to carry on……….” Whatever else Dave Ford told the airline employee, as we waited for our departure time, I don’t know. But it surely worked. Only a few moments had elapsed when he beckoned to us to follow. He escorted us to the first-class waiting Lounge and said, “Make yourself comfortable and help yourself at the buffet.” He also said, “The first class Section is full on your flight, or I would bump you up, enjoy.” Then he disappeared into the maze of the departure area of Dulles International Airport. What a nice treat this was, and it was to be an omen of things to come for the next three weeks. One never knows what will happen when he travels to Europe with Dave Ford.
Here we are, nearly sixty years later, and motivated to return to the places where we could have very well lost our lives. That is hard to explain, especially to someone else who was there and has the feeling, “I don’t care if I never see that place again.” This makes the fifth return to the battlefield for me. John Gatens has been back six times. This is the first time for Barney Alford, but Dave Ford has visited Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Germany more times than the average tourist, and knows Europe like a tour guide.
May 13, 2004 Thursday Arrived Brussels Airport 7:10 AM
On our arrival at the Brussels Airport, we met our good friend, Henri Rogister, waiting in the terminal. Henri is a member of the CRIBA organization (Centre de Recherches et d’Informations sur la Bataille des Ardennes) and someone whom we have known long enough to consider “part of the family.” Henri speaks English of course, and has always been helpful to us when we plan our visit(s.)
We picked up our rental car, loaded our baggage, and traveled (with Henri leading the way) to the home of Albert and Annie Fosty at Fleron, near Liege. They were expecting us and it was like coming home, with warm hugs and kisses (three on the cheek) all around. Annie and Renee (Rogister) had a very nice lunch set out for us, and we temporarily forgot about our jet lag. The early afternoon was spent catching up on family matters and personal “stuff.” You know how that is.
From Fleron we drove to the Auberge du Carrefour at Baraque de Fraiture, where we would be staying for the next three nights. Again it was like returning home. We were greeted by Maria Lehaire, former manager of the Auberge, Bernadette and Claude Lejeune-Lengler, current managers, and their Daughter, Esmeralda, future manager of the Auberge. This place has been passed down in the same family since 1880. Since 1944-45 it has also become known as “Parker’s Crossroads,” named for Major Arthur C. Parker III, who commanded the 589th Field Artillery Battalion there 19-23 Dec.1944. Gatens, Alford, and I were participants in that event and the local people treat us like it is hard to describe.
After settling in to our accommodations, we again had more people coming in to greet us. The rest of the day was spent circulating, shaking hands, smiling a lot with those who didn’t understand English, and absorbing the warmth of their friendship.
Here I should mention that the “crossroads” is still a busy traffic intersection. Although a modern divided highway parallels the old road, there is a great deal of commercial and auto traffic using these routes to connect the many small villages in the area. There is a modern logging operation going on near by, and “pole-trucks” drive through off and on all day.
May 14, 2004 Friday
Lodge at Baraque de Fraiture
I woke about 6 AM, suffering from the time difference, and looked out the window. The weather was foggy with visibility down to about a hundred yards. Except for the warmer weather this is what we remember about December ’44 at this place. I almost expected to hear the sound of a tank moving up the road. (Just “almost,” I have gotten over that.) The sun soon burned away the fog.
We met with two Belgian gentlemen, Florent Lambert and Gilbert Sion, at the Auberge this morning. They were there to escort us to an area of the battlefield that we were not familiar with. Both are English speaking so we had no language problem. We traveled first to Manhay, then Grand Menil where a German Panther tank sits on a concrete pad, still leaking oil from the engine compartment. Then on to Sadzot, the scene of bitter fighting between the Germans and the 509th PIB and other American troops. We visited Soy where the 3rd AD fought, and Erezee. Here I have to tell you a little bit about our guide, Florent Lambert. Florent is not only a historian about the battle, but he is also an artist who has illustrated his own books. His latest one is titled, von Rundstedt in the Vallies of the Ourthe and the Aisne. Florent has personally erected monuments in the area in several locations. This one at Melines is dedicated to an American G.I., Cpl. John Shields, (23rd AECB) who was killed here. It is massive, made of stone, cement block and slate. It is enhanced with the likeness of John Shields engraved on slate and fronted by a high stone obelisk.
It was time for a bit of lunch, so we took advantage of a local place out here in the sticks. The building was a one-time barn, but has been made over into a nice restaurant. After eating, the owner showed us his small collection of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, stored in another barn across the road. The most unlikely places sometimes yield the most unusual things.
We drove on to Hotton and LaRoche, both places of bitter fighting and almost totally demolished during the war. Looking down from the wooded hill on LaRoche, with the Ourthe River slowly flowing through, one would never imagine that this was once not a peaceful place.
Well, today is when we were expected to make a showing at the office of the Bourgmestre of Vielsalm, M. Jacques Gennen. We hurried on back to the Auberge and changed into some more decent clothes for the reception. At the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Vielsalm we found more old friends and acquaintances and some new faces. (Claude Orban for one, who we will meet again later.) Greetings were made all around, the M:ayor gave a nice speech welcoming us as returning veterans, and a toast was made to a peaceful future. We were honored indeed to be the subject of such heartfelt attention. Before the reception ended Bourgmestre Gennen presented each of us with a book that he autographed. The book was written by Maurice DeLaval of St. Vith, now deceased, but a friend of more than one 106th veteran who returned to St. Vith. (We try to not forget that we are receiving this attention on behalf of all those Americans who were here to restore freedom to this country. We are the lucky ones.)
Early to bed
May 15, 2004 Saturday
Over the last several years I had been e-mail corresponding with one of our USAF service men, M/Sgt. David Westhausen, who is stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base, near Bitburg, Germany. Dave is a member of a group of Air Force people who are interested in the history of WW II. They are situated in an area that gives them easy access to the sites of many Battle of the Bulge events. Their group, known as the WW II Society, participates in many of the memorial ceremonies honoring U.S. Army units and individuals who fought in that battle. They are serious history buffs.
Dave, along with a group of his comrades, was to meet us at the Auberge this morning for a discussion, and “walk around,” about our experiences here 19-23 Dec 1944. Unfortunately for the WW II Society, the morning hours were occupied by a TV crew from the Belgian Network. This crew tended to monopolize our time until noon when we were to have lunch with our Air Force friends. Media people always tend to create a problem but we managed to see them off.
After lunch we did get to associate with our American friends. We all loaded into cars and drove to the village of Poteau to visit the WW II Museum there. This now peaceful area was once the scene of back and forth fighting involving the 7th AD, The 14th Cav, the 424th IR, and elements of many other units. After reading accounts of the actions here, it is moving to me to be able to stand in this place with the sun in my face, look around at the peaceful country scene, and try to imagine what went on during those dark days of 16-25 December 1944. The owners and curators of the museum, Jacqueline & Rob de Ruyter, welcomed us at the door and escorted us through their collection of vehicles, weapons, personal military gear, and other relics. It was a delightful afternoon getting acquainted with our American and Belgian friends. One of the American WW II buffs, Mike Colman,(USAF) brought out the remains of a Colt M-1911 Pistol that he recently dug out of the ground in the area that the 106th originally occupied on the Schnee Eifle. Although it was in seriously bad condition, it was easily recognizable.
This was only the first of the official museums that we were to visit and I might mention here that all of the WW II Museums in Belgium are open free to American veterans when they visit. One only needs to say that he was there during the war. No questions are asked.
We returned to the Auberge for dinner to find that we were being honored again with a reception by our Belgian friends, along with the Bourgmestre of Vielsalm, Jacque Gennen, Christian Kraft, current President of CRIBA, Andre Hubert, President Emeritus, and many CRIBA members. After the dinner a toast was proposed with the drink in a small glass boot. A cake was brought out with small American and Belgian flags in the corners, our names on the icing, and the one word, “Merci.” Needless to say that we certainly appreciate the attention. It’s like the inscription on the old postcards of years ago, “Having a great time, wish you were here.”
No problem getting to sleep after they all went home.
May 16, 2004 Sunday
We slept in just a little bit late this morning. I believe that we were finally adjusting to the jet lag condition.
After breakfast we met with our friend of many years now, Eddy Monfort, of the village of Malempre. Eddy wanted to accompany us this day and guide us around the places he is most familiar with. Eddy is well known in the CRIBA organization and has published a book on the battles that took place at Baraque de Fraiture, Manhay, and the village of Malempre, his birthplace and current home. It is titled L’Offensive des Ardennes. The book includes memoirs of a few of the soldiers of the 589th FA and others who were there. Unfortunately for us it is printed in French, the local language.
We met Eddy about 10 AM and drove off to the town of LaRoche en Ardennes to visit the museum there. We had met the curator, M. Bouillon Gilles, the day before and he graciously invited us to visit his museum for a personalized tour.
This town is situated on the Ourthe River, nestled between high rising hills, and was a strategic site for both sides during the Battle of the Bulge. Having and holding the bridge was a dire necessity for both sides. As a result, the town was almost totally demolished by bombing and artillery. It has since been rebuilt in the traditional style, and although modern in the technical sense, it retains its serene “old country” atmosphere. It is a popular tourist site, complete with a castle from the 9th century, and I am sure that I could enjoy some relaxing time there. Though one would not suspect at first glance, most of the buildings and houses in these towns are no more than 60 years old, having been re-built after the end of the war.
While there, the curator snapped photos of each of us that he intends to display as “Then and Now.” Yes, we provided him with copies of “Then” photos that we carried with us (not realizing how important they would be.) Of course, finding that you are “museum material” is like getting kicked in the head. Are we really that old?
After leaving LaRoche we drove to Bastogne, the place mentioned in every book that has been published about the Battle of the Bulge. There is a very complete WW II Museum, and an adjacent Memorial known as the Mardasson. This memorial is a massive, star shaped, open structure, built on a prominent site. It contains the names of all of the United States engraved around the top perimeter, and each of the supporting columns displays the names and insignia of all of the combat units that fought in the battle of the Bulge. The inner sides of the columns are engraved with the history of the battle. There is a stairway leading to the top where an observer can be acquainted with the various locations of the battle engagements. Any visit to the museums of Belgium should include this one.
From here we drove to the village of Bizory, just a short distance. A natural monument exists here to American Veterans. A grove of trees has been planted in the design of the UNICEF logo. Each tree will eventually be dedicated to an American soldier. When a veteran visits this place, a tree will be marked by a post beside the tree, with a plaque containing the veteran’s name and unit. Of course, prior notice of the visit must be made. Trees are already marked for several of our 106th vets: Ken Smith, John Swett, John Gatens, Hugh Colbert, me, and probably more that we did not find.
We then drove on to the home of Jean-Francois Noirhomme. JF was expecting us, so he had his latest projects ready to show off. There was a recently acquired Jeep that he located in Sweden, a Kubelwagon that he was currently working on, and many smaller items of battlefield relics laying about. He showed us three 105mm shell casings that he had unearthed at the site of Barney’s gun emplacement at Baraque de Fraiture. What a great surprise it was to see these after almost sixty years. Jean-Francois presented one to Barney for a souvenir. How can you beat that? Yes, Barney packed it in his luggage and brought it home. (I wonder if his wife is going to look kindly on having that thing sitting around in the living room? He could at least polish it and fill it with flowers.)
Not far is the home of Robert Noirhomme (JF’s Dad and Mom.) Robert is a local artist working in several media. We already have several souvenir items, representing the battle that he has presented to us. They welcomed us to their home and set us down to a large helping of Belgian, apple filled, waffles. The Noirhommes have a building on their property dedicated to the storage of their collection of Battle of the Bulge weapons, personal items, uniforms on manikins, and a vast variety of GI and German issue equipment. They have easily enough to stock a respectable size museum. It is their goal to do exactly that, establish a museum. The only piece missing is a building in a logical location that is affordable.
From the Noirhomme’s we drove on back to the Val d’Hebron, a very nice Inn and restaurant where we had supper with Eddy Monfort.
We had rooms for the next four nights at the Hotel Waldblick in Bleialf. We also had an appointment to meet with Josef Reusch at the hotel that evening. You may remember that Josef is the German veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who visited with us at the 106th reunion at Fort Mitchell. Although possibly once an enemy, Josef is now a friend, a good friend, and offers us the hospitality of his heart. You will never meet a nicer gentleman. We talked about our plans for the next few days, and Josef made himself available to be our guide. He knows the area well. He lives in the village of Grosslangenfeld in the family home that was built in the 1700’s.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------May 17, 2004 Monday
After a nice breakfast at the Hotel Waldblick we walked about one city block to the church in Bleialf. I know that when the Germans came through Bleialf they had made prisoners of many Americans. The prisoners were herded into this churchyard and guarded until it was decided to march them east, deeper into Germany. Much suffering, both mental and physical, is attached to this churchyard. It is now very peaceful there.
About noon we traveled the short distance from Bleialf to Grosslangenfeld to meet with Josef and his family and to have lunch with them. Josef’s wife, sister, brother, daughter Anita, and son-in-law, Doug Mitchell, were all there. We had much conversation as Doug is an American and Anita had spent the last twenty years in America. Josef also can converse in English so there was a lot that we could talk about.
Josef offered to drive us in his car to the places we wanted to visit. Our first stop was at the cemetery in Auw, where we saw the graves of many young German men. We stopped at “88 corner” on the road between Auw and Schoenberg, and felt a bit exposed there, but there was no sign of an “88” on this sunny day. We also slowed down, but didn’t stop, in the area along the road to Schoenberg where the 589th went into its second position. Looking at the place today it is hard to figure the logic of that decision in December 1944. Obviously it was not a good idea since “B” Battery lost all four of its guns there and “A” Battery only got back on the road by sheer luck and back breaking work. It would not be a good place for artillery even if the weather had been beautiful. Next we drove through Schoenberg and to Meyerode and checked on the monument in the woods dedicated to Lt. Eric F. Wood, who was 589/A Exec O. (The legend of his exploits during the battle have been better told in many books centered on the battle.) Then we drove to the ridge near St. Vith known as The Prummerberg where the 81st ECB was in action with the 168th ECB in the defense of St. Vith. The remains of many foxholes and dugouts are still in evidence here in the woods. They have not quite filled in over the years.
There is a bridge over the Our River at Hemmeres where there is a sign lettered in both the French and German languages. The French part has been defaced and torn off. Even though this area is inside the Belgian border, the heritage is German. The German language is spoken here and the residents don’t want one to forget that. This place was a part of Germany prior to WW I, but was awarded to Belgium as part of the war reparations. This does not make these folks any more Belgian that it does me. The “Ardennes” is also known as the “Schnee Eifel” in this area. Maybe having the same currency now (the Euro) will be a positive step toward unity.
That same afternoon we put more miles on the car looking at the “Dragon’s Teeth” at Heerstrasse near Grosskampenberg, stopped for refreshment at Buchet, and checked out the house that Ernest Hemmingway stayed in before notice of the attacking Germans sent him packing back to Paris.
We finished up the tour back at the Reusche’s home at the computer looking at digital photos that Josef had been making every time we stopped. Then, of course, we sat down at the dining room table with the family for desserts and a recap of what we had been doing all day.
Before leaving the village of Grosslangenfeld we walked to the local church nearby that is about 850 years old. I don’t think that any of the churches in the USA are quite that old.
Back in Bleialf, Dave looked up a resident he had met on a previous trip, a fellow whose name is Eddy. So, after supper at the Zwicker, we all sat around at the outside café table and had a bier with Eddy. (That’s the way they spell it over there.)
May 18, 2004 Tuesday
After breakfast at the Hotel Waldblick we again met with Josef Reusch for a trip to inspect a German bunker that is still reachable and, although cleaned out of everything, is still intact. This area is now forested where the guns once had a clear field of fire, so we drove up a logging trail to reach it. It was not an easy reach. We slipped and slid on the steep path finally coming to the entrance. Then that was another slip and slide down a large pit to a square hole in the concrete. Josef had brought along flashlights for each of us and we sure did need them once inside. The bunker was nothing more than dark, damp, and empty rooms. I am glad that we made the effort, but one time is enough of that. At another place, Sevenig, a bunker had been apparently blasted by a huge charge. The roof of reinforced concrete came to rest on is edge, neatly balanced. So, there it stands today as a monument to Hitler’s Folly, the “West Wall.” I wouldn’t stand too close to it. Some day that thing will decide to fall all the way down.
We made a stop at Eschfeld Church and Military Cemetery. This church is lavishly decorated inside with religious murals and motifs that had been painted by a priest who once served there.
There is a place where the three countries of Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg come together called “Drieland.” There is another huge bunker here, but it is also known for the Driefrontier Flags/Monument, and is the site of the original European Council meeting that was convened to talk about establishing a European Union.
We parted this afternoon from our German friends and went to lunch at a “fritterie” near Malmedy.
On stopping at the 106th Memorial in St.Vith, we met the gentleman who lives directly across the street, Herr John Gennen, (no relation to the Bourgmestre of Vielsalm.”)
Herr John Gennen offered to take a photo of the four of us at the Memorial, and we stayed a few minutes to talk with him. I asked him if he should be addressed as “Herr” or “Monsieur?” He just broke up laughing, and we all laughed with him. I think that I can guess what his answer would be had he offered it. Although a part of Belgium, St. Vith is definitely German in heritage. No two ways about it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at places of note mentioned in all of the books; Ligneuville, Monumeny, the Baugnez Monument, Saurbrot, (Camp) Elsenborn, Bullingen, Honsfeld, Bucholtz, Lanzerath, Manderfeld. Then we returned to our lodging at Bleialf, the Hotel Waldblick
May 19, 2004 Wednesday
In the morning we had a date to meet with Ron van Rijt in the town of Schmidt in Germany. Ron is a Hollander, about 43, single, drives a motorcycle with a sidecar, and is a dedicated WW II buff with his main interest in the Huertgenwald area. His time is devoted to touring the area with visiting WW II veterans from both sides and he can show and tell about all of the aspects of the bitter fighting in the Huertgen Forest area. Best of all, he is fluent in English.
When we arrived Ron was waiting for us with several of his German friends; Ludwig Fischer, the Mayor of Schmidt, Dieter “Bomber” Falter, who is a specialist with defusing and disposing of unexploded ordnance of all kinds, and Fritz Tillmanns, the German veteran of the (German) 89th I.D. who was involved in the fighting nearby in the Kall Valley between the towns of Vossenack and Schmidt. Also we had a new friend with us that day, Bob Huffacker, a retired U. S. Army Major, living in Europe, whose hobby is studying WW II. We had met Bob along with the WW II Society at Spangdahlem Air Base. After introductions all around and a little bit of small talk to get acquainted, we began our tour of the area.
In our estimation this area was another one of those places that, looking at it today, you would never think it to be a likely place for two opposing armies to fight over. The terrain is densely wooded and laced with steep ravines; poor, unimproved roads make hairpin turns going up and down, the hard shale ground is next to impossible to dig in, and the enemy was already in place and well prepared. And then one has to think about the weather. A lot of “Monday morning quarterbacking” can take place here.
While at the bottom of the ravine on the small bridge crossing the Kall River, we were entertained by Fritz who played his harmonica for us and sang several verses of “Lily Marlene.” Fritz is an accomplished musician and has a pleasing voice. We were touched by this performance. I suppose you “had to be there” to appreciate it as we did.
Certainly a highlight of this day was to be asked to place flowers at a monument in Schmidt, Germany. Our German friends provided the flowers and although we had no stirring speeches, John, Barney, and I placed the flowers with as much dignity as we could. The monument is dedicated to all of the soldiers who fought and died so that peace could come to the world. These moments always fill me with emotion.
We were conducted to a neatly mowed yard behind a house in the village of Kommerschied where a local family had a small museum of military refuse (I call it) displayed in a garage size building. Ron knew these folks well, and before we left he presented each of us with a small souvenir that he had made for sale to visitors.
We then went behind another house nearby to where there is a small monument in the backyard at the place where the remains of an American soldier was discovered in recent years. Pvt. Lemuel H. Herbert died here during the battle. His body was apparently covered over in his foxhole and only recently unearthed when the resident here was doing yard work. Of course the authorities were notified, the remains were removed, positively identified, and a full-scale military funeral was held with burial in the military cemetery This German family now maintains a small flower garden with a cross, topped with an American helmet and a small plaque dedicated to Pvt. Herbert.
Also in this area a West Point class ring was found that belonged to Turney White Leonard who was awarded the CMH (posthumously) for action here. The ring was eventually returned to his family.
Before leaving we visited the German Military Cemeteries at Vossonack, Huertgen, and Kesternich. One of the cemeteries was undergoing renovation to make the grave markers more secure. The stone designating the grave of Field Marshall Walter Model had been stolen so many times by souvenir hunters that it was decided to re-do the whole cemetery to make the markers more difficult to remove. One of the stones that we noticed especially was that marking two bodies. One was a man 61 years old and the other a girl of 16. Both died in 1944 and were buried in the military cemetery. Those had to be desperate times for the German Army. Most gravesites contain multiple bodies, as many as six, and many unidentified. One cemetery had traditional tombstones (instead of the ones flat on the ground,) engraved in the Russian language. We don’t know the story behind that one.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------May 20, 2004 Thursday
This morning we met with M/Sgt Dave Westhausen for an escorted tour of Spangdahlem Air Base. This is a huge Flugplatz (airfield) inside Germany where the USAF maintains the F-16 and A-10 squadrons in readiness for any contingency. M/Sgt Westhousen had been in touch with us for some time and had extended the invitation to visit the airbase during our trip. We settled on May 20 & 21 as the dates.
When we arrived at the Air Base our CRIBA friends, Henri Rogister, Albert Fosty, Louis Jonckeau, and Leon Lambotte were already waiting for us. The eight of us were to be honored guests for the day.
After being cleared through the very strict security check at the main gate we drove to the building that housed the offices of the unit of M/Sgt. Westhausen. This is a section charged with fueling the aircraft based here. We were introduced to the officers and men and given an orientation of their function. John, Barney, and I also had a chance to talk to these young airmen about our experiences in 1944-45, not very far from where we stood.
An Air Force bus soon arrived and we boarded along with our CRIBA friends and also some members of the “WW II Society,” a group composed mainly of the Air Force people, their family members, and some AF retirees. (The mission of the Society is the study of the war in Europe and especially in their area of the continent.)
Our first stop was at the hanger holding the A-10 tactical fighter plane. The ground crew and pilot were there to give us an orientation of their specific mission and a close-up look at the aircraft. A platform was set next to the cockpit for us to get a good look inside and the pilot, Lt. Brian Wojcik, stood on the opposite side and explained how everything worked in his “office.” M/Sgt. Tim Peasley walked us around the outside of the airplane and explained the weapons points and details about the plane itself. (Being an airplane “nut,” I just eat this stuff up.)
From here we went to where the F-16s were housed. All of these hangers were built during the “Cold War” era and are very sturdy structures. “Blast Proof,” they call them. (We all hope that they will never be put to the test.) On arrival at the hanger with the F-16 we were given the same opportunities as at the A-10. There was a good look inside the cockpit with the pilot, Capt. Travis Ruhl, explaining the functions of the many buttons, switches, displays, and control devises. (I think that I can fly this thing now! Well anyway, you can’t blame a guy for wishing.) The ground crew gave us a walk-a-round and explained the external side of this very complex machine.
It came time to have a little lunch so we were driven to the “Club Eifel.” These military base clubs that were once “NCO Club” or “Officer’s Club” are now combined into one facility, open to all members of the military and their guests, and are given a more generic name. On entering, we found ourselves to be the guests of honor. Once having loaded up at the buffet and seated with the members of the WW II Society and the Air Base brass, we had a very nice meal. We were engaged in conversation with many of our younger generation who were truly interested in our WW II experiences. It was a very nice time for us and we were privileged to be able to meet those people who are now our first line of defense.
After the lunch we once more boarded the bus for the ride to the “Pitsenbarger Airman Leadership School.” This is another USAF function on the air base to train the military. It is named for an USAF medic who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his rescue work in Vietnam. While there we were asked to autograph the display of a POW diorama in a classroom hallway and John Gatens contributed his 106th bolo tie to their collection of medallions in a prominent display case.
We then appeared before a classroom of the Bitburg High School Junior ROTC students. The class of very clean and fresh looking teenagers were proudly dressed in their Air Force uniforms, looking very military. Each of us, in turn, spoke to the class about our war in the Ardennes, fielded questions from the class, and then we were interviewed, with video, for a future TV presentation on the air base network.
From the school area we were bussed to where our cars were parked at the Fuels Unit offices. Our Belgian friends, Henri, Albert, Louis, and Leon were bid adieu, and we drove to the base Lodge to claim our accommodations for the next two nights.
There was just time enough to unload our baggage and wash our faces before we met our Air Force friends in the lobby. The pending event was strictly informal, so all of the service personnel were in civvies and had brought along their wives, and in some cases, their children. We drove to the village on the Moselle River, known as Neumagen-Dhron, to engage in what they said was a “Wine Probe/Dinner.” It was all new to us, but it sounded like a fun thing. Everyone arrived at the Winery of Tomas Bollig, Vintner, and were ushered inside by Herr Bolig. The WWII Society was our hosts and the four of us were their guests. Herr Bollig started the affair by speaking to the group about the size of his vineyard and the wine producing operation. He then brought out, one type of wine at a time, and explained the unique attributes of each. A sample was then poured in everyone’s glass for a taste. There was a short discussion time between each “taste,” and bread on the table for refreshing the “taster.” After about (let me think) six or seven different wines, a nice dinner of ham, potatoes, and sauerkraut was served. We were then privileged to be present for the meeting of the W II Society. Their President, Ed Lapotsky, a retired Lt. Col., conducted the short business meeting. Ed presented Dave Ford with a medallion representing the 82nd AB Division for Dave’s avid interest and pursuit of the history of WW II.
Would you believe that we had to sample even more of Herr Bollig’s wine before we left, and then we all walked around back to the storage building where our friends bought enough of the gentleman’s stock to last them until the next visit.
On arrival back at the Lodge about midnight, a “Good Night” was said to all, and we had little trouble falling asleep.
May 21, 2004 Friday - Spangdahalem Air Base
This morning we woke to sounds of a bugle playing “Reveille.” Would you believe it!? “I can’t get’ em up, I can’t get ‘em up!!!” Yep, it was a vague moment until I could realize that I was sleeping on a military base. It has been a long time.
Today was to be an informal, play it by ear, type of day. Dave Westhausen came to the Lodge to pick us up and we all went over to the base Burger King for a light breakfast. Some of our WW II Society friends were there and we made plans to go into Bitburg to visit the cemetery where then President, Ronald Reagan, had attended a ceremony with the German leaders. Ed Lapotsky led the group and, as he had been in command of the security at that meeting some years ago, was able to give us a very comprehensive tour of the cemetery. Reagan’s visit there later became a controversial issue since this was the site of graves of some of the infamous German SS.
Dave Westhausen and we four then parted company with our WW II Society friends and proceeded on our own to visit the ancient city of Trier. The road that we approached the city on was bumper-to-bumper and very slow moving, and we had to search for a place to park the car. This city is one that has a structure known as the “Porta Nigra.” It is an entrance gate, once a part of the wall that surrounded the city, when this city was occupied by the Romans. It is a massive structure, open to the public, and several stories high. Of course the younger types were climbing to the top of it, but we were satisfied just to look up. (We wore out our “climbers” long ago.) Trier is a major tourist attraction and it would be fun to just hang around and “people watch” if you had the time. All of these old cities have their cathedral, this being no exception. It is another massive structure that makes one wonder at the skills of the craftsmen who erected and decorated it many hundred years ago. We wandered on through the crowds on the main drag and stopped at a couple of places to sample the pastries and wine before leaving. The streets were literally jammed with people on this day as it was a holiday. It was a nice stop and we enjoyed our visit very much.
It was late in the afternoon when we got back to where Dave and Sue Westhausen live in the village of Speicher. We visited for a while and met their children and caught up on family “stuff.” That evening we walked to a neat little Italian restaurant for a nice dinner. When it became time to depart it was like leaving family. Dave escorted us back to the Spangdahlem Air Base and saw that we had no problems with the security.
May 22, 2004 Saturday
This day we drove north to the village of Thimister-Clermont to visit the “Remember Museum 39-45” and the couple who own and operate it, Mathilda and Marcel Schmetz. I would like to think that we are the only ones who receive the warm welcome that they offer, but I am sure that they are the same with other American visitors. There is usually a table set for something to eat and drink and lots of enthusiasm to show us the latest. The latest in this case was an M-10 Tank Destroyer that Marcel was crafting, full scale, from wood, that when finished he will display to visitors. I seriously doubt that anyone will be able to tell it from the real thing (unless they kick the treads.) They also had a most pleasant surprise for me. My good friend from Oostend, Nick Jonckheere, was there to greet us. I have known Nick now for about ten years, but we don’t see each other often. Nick is into restoring old motorcycles and he brought his latest to show off. It is a 1951 FN, and it is in perfect condition.
We were escorted through the entire collection by Mathilda and Marcel. Their dioramas include some contributions from our 106th Veterans. John Swett’s uniform appears on a manikin in one of the displays as an example. Ken Smith, John Swett, John Gatens, Hugh Colbert, and I are all featured in “Then and Now” displays. There is a Red Ball semi truck that we all have left our autographs on. Any vet visiting is asked to participate like this, and any WW II item that he might want to donate to the museum will be displayed. M & M never sell, give, or trade these items.
While we were there we questioned Marcel about gaining entrance to Fort Battice that is only a few km’s away. He got on the phone and made arrangements for us to join in a tour about to begin. Fort Battice is one of several “Maginot Line” type defenses built by Belgium in the 1930s in hopes of discouraging an invasion from Germany. They were soon overrun when the Blitzkreig began. Fort Battice is mainly underground, a long way underground, exactly 158 steps (I counted them) on a steel stairway. Before descending into the bowels of this monstrous installation we inspected the weapons bunker on the surface. It housed 75mm cannon and a variety of machine guns, but once a high-powered shell penetrated the walls it was all over. There are other cupolas on the surface that housed big guns and could be raised to fire and then lowered. The thick armor and concrete on these weigh 120 tons and are operated by hydraulic lifts from below. As we watched, our guide raised and lowered one for us to see. “Now you see it, now you don’t.” It all must have been seen as a good idea at the time. This guide had long legs and he sure did wear us plumb out walking through those narrow tunnels. I doubt we will be tempted to do that again but it was worth seeing.
Battice is the village where our Military Police carried out the execution of German soldiers who were captured while wearing American uniforms. They were tied to posts and shot by a firing squad. We went to the spot where this happened and viewed the wall that was directly behind those posts. It is located in a remote spot not accessible to just anyone. The location is on the property of a large trucking company. It so happened that Marcel knows these folks so he made the arrangements for us to visit the site. It is now overgrown with weeds and not easily reached, but we made the effort. We snapped a photo of the wall that clearly shows the area of impact of the bullets that were fired at the execution. Very sobering, it was the way things were done.
Before leaving our friends, Mathilda and Marcel, we were asked to return on May 28 to visit with a class of 5th grade school children who would be there on a “field trip.” We promised that we would.
That evening we drove to Clervaux, Luxembourg, to our lodging at the Hotel Koener. We met with our old friend and curator of the WW II Museum in the castle, Frank Kieffer for a dinner, renew old acquaintances, and make plans for tomorrow.
May 23, 2004 Sunday
The village of Wereth, Belgium, was to be our destination on this day to participate in the dedication of a Memorial to eleven soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion who were captured, and then murdered by German SS troops, during the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler’s orders were to show no mercy. The SS did not. This is a unique Memorial as it is the first to be dedicated in Europe to only black American soldiers. The members of the 106th Infantry Division Association can be proud that they had an important role in the establishment of this Memorial.
When we arrived at the location there was already a sizable crowd. We were very pleased to meet with our U.S. Air Force friends and also many of the CRIBA members. Josef Reusch, from Grosslangenfeld, Germany, was there along with his daughter, Anita, and her husband, Doug. Frank Kieffer came from Clervaux, Luxembourg. Our Netherlands friend, Hans Wijers, was there with a friend. Too bad we did not have time for talking with these nice people. There was the U. S. Army Color Guard, Army musicians, and other military people, including Lt. Gen.Ward. The General was there to give the dedication speech. And, of course, Adda and Willy Rikken who led this effort to fruition, and Dr. Norman Lichtenfeld, who was primarily responsible for raising much of the money to finance this project.
The ceremony went off very well with the speeches and recognition of individuals, along with several groups presenting flowers. John Gatens, Barney Alford, and I presented a large floral arrangement on behalf of the 106th Infantry Division Association.
After the dedication ceremony we were invited to be guests at a luncheon in the village of Herresbach. The large hall was crowded with those attending the event. It was our pleasure to be seated at the head table with Adda Rikken and Lt. Gen. Ward. These honors are ours simply because we are representing the American veterans of all units, and our 106th Division Association.
That evening we drove back to Josef Reusch’s home for a visit and a light dinner. Before leaving, we spent some time in their garden where Barney (the horticulturist), and we, admired the flowers and vegetables that were growing there. The family also wanted us to see their village church so we all walked the short distance to make the inspection.
By this time we were ready to head for the barn, so we bid fond adieu, boarded our Opel minivan, and drove to Clervaux where our accommodations were at the Hotel Koener.
May 24, 2004 Monday
In the morning we met with Frank Kieffer for a tour around the Duchy of Luxembourg. We drove to a vantage point where we had a nice view of the village of Vianden, and the old castle that once was the main residence of the ruling family. This castle dates to 1417 and is the actual “Grand Ducal House of Luxembourg.” It is interesting to note that the motto of the Luxembourg people is “We want to remain what we are.” However, this does not make them immune from progress.
From there we drove to the town of Echternacht. This town is another tourist delight. It holds the Abby of St. Willibrord that has been there since year 698. This institution is still very active and the older sections are open to the public. While viewing the crypt that held the bones of St. Willibrord we were in the company of a class of school children making the tour. Willibrord was a most important person in this region having crusaded against the pagans to the north. His followers ascribed miraculous powers to him, swearing he could ‘multiply’ wine and cure the plague. He died in 739.
After lunch we made a stop at Ahn Caves Albert Berna-Ley, a winery in the village of Ahn situated on the banks of the Moselle River, on the Luxembourg side, of course. We spent a little time there as Frank knew these folks and wanted to buy a couple of cases of wine to take home. The Moselle wine is the best. (They tell me.)
From here we drove to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in the Hamm area of the city. There are 5,076 American military dead buried here, including General George S. Patton, Jr. Although Patton requested burial with his men it became necessary to relocate his grave to make it more accessible to the many visitors who wanted to visit it. (There are 15 dead from the 589th F A who are buried in the Military Cemeteries in Europe.)
During the visit to the cemetery we encountered a touring group of students from the American University in Washington, D.C. We spent some time with them and related some of our wartime experiences.
As the time was getting late we drove back to Clervaux with Frank. We promised to meet again the next day for more of Luxembourg.
May 25, 2004 Tuesday
We had made a date to meet with Frank Kieffer at 10:00 in Clervaux at the “Statue of The G.I.” This is a life-size bronze statue of an American soldier standing on a stone base, designed by Frank. We suspected what was going to happen and, sure enough, Frank, Camille Kohn, President of CEBA, and Jean Milmeister, also representing CEBA, showed up with a floral arrangement for us to place at the base of the statue. After a short ceremony and photo session we all retired to the WW II Museum in the old castle for a “Vin d’Honor.” M. Kohn read a prepared speech extolling the merits of the American soldiers and the deep appreciation of the Luxembourgers for the restoration of their freedom. We then all drank some of that very nice Moselle wine in each other’s honor.
On exiting the door into the courtyard, I was surprised to hear someone say, “Is that John Schaffner?” It was John Hoye, a gentleman whom I had known through e-mail correspondence for several years but never met. He is an ex-U. S. Air Corps pilot, USAF Korean War pilot, and USAF Vietnam War pilot. I had known that he would be touring the area with his wife, Bette, granddaughter, Anne, and her husband, Cory, but I surely didn’t expect to meet up with them here and now. What a big surprise it was! We all had a nice get-together, toured Frank’s museum, shopped the town, and had lunch together. They had made their accommodations for a two-week stay at Baraque de Fraiture at that other Inn next door.
That afternoon we met with Frank again and toured around the battlegrounds of Luxembourg. We went to see the memorial to George Mergenthaler at Eschweiler, the monument at Schumann’s Crossroads, and the village of Dahl, where Sgt. Day Turner earned his CMH, and several other sites of significant battles. That evening we returned to Frank’s home for a nice dinner and more conversation.
May 26, 2004 Wednesday-
This morning Frank Kieffer had made arrangements for a group of current German soldiers to visit his museum in Clervaux. We had agreed to be there about 9:00AM and also to mingle with them and perhaps answer questions about the many items on display that they would be curious about. They were a nice bunch of guys and several spoke English enough that we could converse. Before they departed we got together for a group picture. I believe that they were all too young to appreciate WW II and what it was all about.
Before we could depart, an “Elder Hostel” group of Americans arrived and Frank asked us to hang around with them and acquaint them with the various displays and items. A few of these people were Army vets and we swapped some stories with them.
We finally got loose and drove to the town of Erpeldange for lunch at the Dahm Hotel. This is where we would stay for the next three nights. The next stop this day was Diekirch, the town housing one of (if not the best) WW II Museums in Europe. We had an appointment to meet with the curator, Roland Gaul. After we spent some time on our own talking with some other visiting Americans, Roland arrived and conducted us on a very extensive tour. This museum is literally bursting at the seams there is so much to display. Expansion is in the works but, like everything else, money is the big problem. The people who operate these places are mostly volunteers. Roland has a “day job” down town but is otherwise “married” to the museum.
By the time we finished here it was time to head back to the hotel, have supper, relax a bit, and think about tomorrow.
May 27, 2004 Thursday
Today we had arrangements to meet another Luxembourger, Roger Schwartz. Dave Ford had been in touch with Roger and had set up the appointment. Roger is retired and is an historian of the battles in the area near his home and is pleased to conduct visiting Americans here and around the village of Fromburg. Roger invited us into his house and we had a short, but very pleasant, visit to get acquainted. The American 4th Infantry Division was involved here suffering high losses during the Battle of the Bulge. We drove to the site of a battle where Captain George Wilson, CO of F Co., 12th Reg., lost nearly everyone in his company in a desperate attempt to just survive. The foxholes and site of the CP in the woods are easily recognized today. Wilson authored a book titled, If You Survive. The book portrays his battle experiences. It is most interesting to any WW II buff.
Roger directed us to the crossroads at Michelshof where there was a restaurant, Herr Segne Dieses Haus. I am sure that most Americans driving by would not give this place a second glance, but it turned out to have a delightful dining room, serving the very best food. Roger knew how to pick a good place. We didn’t know it while we had the meal, but this crossroads was the site of a battle where the German troops walked into a prepared American target, and about 400 Germans were lost to an artillery concentration and small arms fire before they could react. Out of two companies there were only two survivors.
After the meal we drove to the village of Consdorf to see a 2000# bomb that was on display in the park. It is inert of course, and represents a pair of them that were dropped nearby by B-17s returning from a raid in Germany.
We then drove on to Berdorf that is the site of the Parc Hotel, a large resort type hotel, (now closed) and some very unusual geological rock formations. Again, here was where the 4th Inf Div was in action. During the battle the hotel was destroyed and became known as “The Fortress Hotel.” The story is told in MacDonald’s book, A Time For Trumpets.. It is now a quiet little town and the hotel is to be converted into a retirement home facility. We met the owners, Corneille Schwenninger and his wife, and had a very nice few minutes talking with them.
Before leaving this area we went into the woods to a place that had been a bivouac area and inspected old Beech trees there where GIs had carved their names and towns in the bark. They are still visible after almost sixty years. We photographed one that had “Baltimore, Maryland” carved in it. (Dave’s and my home-town.)
Roger then took us to a village where we stopped at the house of someone he knew. It was John Parker, Col., Ret. USA. Parker is like a “snowbird” except that his summers are spent in Luxembourg and his winters in Florida. We all went to visit the village tavern for a while to sample the local beer and listen to Parker’s tales. He is one of the “good guys.”
We then drove back to Roger’s village for a fond farewell and back to Erpeldange for supper and the night.
May 28, 2004 Friday
A promise had been made to Mathilda and Marcel Schmetz to return to Thimister-Clermont to be there at their “Remember 39-45” Museum to meet with a 5th Grade class of school children. We arrived in plenty of time and were engaged with Mathilda while Marcel conducted the children on a tour of the museum. In the meantime Mathilda had set a large table for about a dozen of us who were there and served us lunch. She said that it was “leftovers” from a group of about 40 that had been there the previous day. I don’t know if it had a name, but it was good and went down OK.
After their tour the children came into the large entrance room. The room had been set up with a low stage at one end for John, Barney, me, another old vet who had been a medic and was there on a visit, and a younger woman. The class sat down in front and individuals were invited to ask questions of us. Mathilda stood in between and did all of the translating. It was quite an experience for us, as the questions sometimes got rather personal. We answered as best we could.
At the end of the question and answer session each of us vets was presented with a souvenir of the event. One child for each of us approached with a package. Each package contained a personally drawn picture (by the student) and a plastic bucket of “Pear-Apple Syrup.” We were touched by the sincere manner of the presentation.
The father of this younger woman with us had been killed during the war in that area. She never knew him. Her gift from the children was a framed picture with a wartime photo of her father in the center surrounded by wallet size photos of each of the children. It was inscribed, “We will never forget.” We were all very moved, to put it mildly.
This was followed by refreshment for everyone and a “gab” session. The kids were then taken outside for photos and then turned loose to climb on the M4 Sherman Tank. Fortunately none fell off. One boy went out on the 75mm tube like a monkey and swung to the ground. Marcel then loaded them all in the back of his ¾ ton Dodge Weapons Carrier and took them for a ride around the block. (Big block.) It was a great day.
Since we were to be at Henri Chapelle Cemetery the next day for the Memorial Day Ceremony we arranged to stay at the Hotel des Ardennes, adjacent to the railroad station in Verviers. It was not too far. Of course it was a “walk-up” and our baggage by now was getting to be a burden. I was looking to hire a couple of Chinese coolies, but could find non.
May 29, 2004 Saturday
Our obligation today was to be at the Henri Chapelle Military Cemetery to participate in the laying of the floral arrangement on behalf of the 106th Infantry Division Association. This was to take place at 4:00 PM, so there was time to spend elsewhere.
We had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel in Verviers, then changed into our “Sunday” clothes, and departed. We then drove to the village of Aubel that is not very far from Henri Chapelle to spend some time looking around. It was a busy place, lots of traffic, and American and Belgian flags prominently displayed from the houses and shops along the main street. Aubel was to host another Memorial Day Celebration after the one at Henri Chapelle.
We almost never leave a place without making the acquaintance of someone. Dave Ford will see to that. Sure enough, we had not been there long before we spotted Dave talking with one of the residents. He was a younger fellow with a child in tow. Fortunately he could speak enough English for us to be able to converse. We all sat down at a sidewalk café table and had a soft drink. One of the shopkeepers saw what was going on and joined us. He apparently was interested in the history of the war and recognized us as being veterans of the 106th. He asked us to not go until he got a book from his store that he wanted us to autograph. Sure, why not? We do that all the time. When he returned with the book it was a recent printing, in French, displaying the 106th insignia of the cover. At first nobody took notice of the title. Then we did notice that it was written by our least favorite author. I know that there is going to be some repercussion when I tell you that it was Death Of A Division by Charles Whiting. Of course we signed the gentleman’s book. It made him happy and when the natives are happy, everybody is happy.
Time rolled on and we were looking for a place for lunch. Our new friend suggested that we try the Abby Val Dei. It was not hard to find, and sure enough it was an Abby that looked like it had been there forever. A section of it was turned into a restaurant that is a bit hard to describe. The entrance in this ancient stone building was like walking into what had once been a stable, whitewashed stone walls, and a rough stone floor. I truly believe that it had once been a stable. The food was great and the service was cafeteria style. There were bench type tables to sit at, and later we found that what once had been the barnyard was neatly planted with grass and a surrounding hedge. Umbrella topped tables were set for the customers to use. It was very nice.
One of the local folks there could speak English and invited us to the outside table where her family was seated. We all pulled chairs up and spent some time with the family of M. Jacques Ollevier. Of course we all pulled out family pictures and talked for a while before we decided it was time to head for Henri Chapelle. It was another nice experience for us.
Quite a large crowd had gathered at the Henri Chapelle Cemetery by the time we arrived but we had been given VIP parking privileges so there was no problem getting close. On entering the grounds we were greeted again by our CRIBA friends and then went into the building to meet the Superintendent, Mr. David Atkinson, (brother of the Superintendent at Hamm Cemetery.) Our group had assigned seats so we located them before the activities started. We were together with Adda & Willy Rikken and Dr. Norman Lichtenfeld and his wife, down in front. (It’s nice when you have the right people looking out for you.)
The day was beautifully clear with a cloudless blue sky, and the sun was beating down just like at the beach. Hot! I felt for the uniformed troops that were participating, as they had to stand in formation an awfully long time. Yes, eventually two did pass out and had to be carried off.
The ceremony was opened by a “Fly Over” of a formation of F-16 fighter planes from the 52nd Fighter Wing, USAF, Spangdahlem, Germany.
The speakers all had their turn at the podium and then the flowers were presented as the donors were called. The Military Escorts carried the flowers, followed by the sponsoring representatives of the units. When our names were called we rose from our seats and walked with the Military Flower Bearers to where the Director ordered the flowers placed. “Present Arms” was ordered, then “Order Arms,” then Gatens, Alford, and I walked back to our seats.
When the ceremony ended we stayed and mixed with our CRIBA friends and other folks that we knew. We also saw the folks that we met at the Abby Val Dei, and Ron van Rijt, who had entertained us at the Huertgenwald on May 19.
When we were finally ready to leave (, I think that we closed the door behind us,) Henri Rogister and Albert Fosty were there to guide us to Henri’s home for the evening. We had a delightful time with Henri and Renee, and Albert and Annie, with a lovely dinner and social evening.
It finally came time to say good night so Henri guided us to the hotel. If we had been left on our own I think that we would still be lost in the maze of streets in Liege. Without reservation, I can say that our good friend, Henri and his sidekick, Albert, were most important to the wonderful times that we had.
May 30, 2004 Sunday
We were strictly on our own for this day to cruise around and visit those sites that we have, so far, missed.
Our first stop was at the WW II Museum at the village of La Glieze. This place is significant for being the “high water mark” of Col. Jochem Pieper’s attack. Left behind was a King Tiger Tank that is now on display in front of the museum. Once again we were given an open door as returning veterans. During our visit in the museum we met with both U.S. and Canadian families. It is always nice to be able to relate the history of the 106th with the younger generation and see their interest in us. From La Glieze we drove to Houffalize. This was another fought-over town that was battered by both armies. It has since been rebuilt and except for the monuments and a Panther Tank on display, one would not suspect the blood shed here in 1944-45. It is “old world” picturesque and a favorite place for spending a holiday.
For a light lunch today we decided to stop at a “fritterie.” A fritterie is nothing more than a fast-food place specializing in serving French Fries. So that was it, French Fries and a soft drink.
We drove to Their du Mont where the C Co./508PIR/82nd AB had the mission of taking a hill away from the Germans. How many times have you heard that story? It was a bloody battle and the site is now marked with a monument and a cement pillar topped with an American helmet. We proceeded to the little village of La Vaux where Dave had spotted an American truck on a previous visit. We did see a truck parked back off the road a good distance but Dave was unable to find anyone home to talk to. Having failed here we went on to Spineux to see the monument that was dedicated to the 424th Regiment. Farther on this road is the village of Rochelinval where there is a monument dedicated to the 551st PIR, a regiment that was virtually wiped out in the attempt to capture the village. It is a heartbreaking story too long to relate here. Of 790 men, only 110 survived the battle. While here we unexpectedly met our friend Claude Orban. Claude conducted us on a short tour of the area and showed us exactly where all this took place. There is a book available about this battle titled, Rendezvous at Rochelinval by William Tucker. Claude then took us to his parent’s home in the area where we were treated to Belgian waffles and coffee, and then on to Grand Halleux where we met his wife and daughter. Also Claude showed us his personal collection of battlefield items. He keeps his items under lock and key just to keep the kids from wandering off with things. Some are quite rare.
As it was getting late we proceeded to Baraque de Fraiture where we would spend the next two nights.
We considered having just a bowl of soup for supper tonight, but the dinning room was all decorated with 106th Division stuff so we knew that would never do. Bernadette kept bringing good things to eat, so here we were again, stuffing our faces. Oh yes, there was plenty of company at dinner, and we also received a phone call from our last Battery Commander, Ted Kiendl. Ted lives in France and we were a bit disappointed that he could not meet with us.
May 31, 2004 Monday
This would be our last day. Time had flown, and there was still much to do. Does that sound familiar?
At breakfast we were approached by three Americans, Joe Chesnut from Alabama, and two friends who had served as artillerymen in the 1950’s. Joe was on a tour of the battleground and was very surprised to see us as he had recently read my memoirs about the battle at Parker’s Crossroads. Now he was meeting three veterans of that battle in the very place it was fought. He already knew our names, but certainly never expected to meet us, especially here. Joe was on a tight schedule so we did not have much time for talking, but I think that we made his day.
Dave, John, Barney, and I met with Eddy Monfort for a day of seeing more neat things in the area. We drove some back roads and went by the “La Ferme des Bisons.” Yes, a farm that keeps American Bisons. They must have at least a thousand head, and it is near the monument to the Navajo Indians who served in the battle.
For today a ceremony was arranged for the memorial at Parker’s Crossroads. If you are not familiar with that memorial, it is a 105mm Howitzer installed on a large cement pad shaped as a five-pointed star. The star is flanked by several large stones that carry bronze plaques having the inscriptions dedicating the site to the 589th FA and other units that saw action here. Three flagpoles are installed behind, flying the flags of Belgium, United States, and the European Community. It is very impressive.
We returned to the Auberge du Carrefour and once again prepared for the ceremony. By 4:30 PM the crowd had gathered. There was the Bourgmestre, Jacque Gennen, President of CRIBA, Christian Kraft, Andre Hubert, President Emeritus of CRIBA, the family of Maria Lahaire, Rogister, Fosty, Lambert, etc., too many to list here. There were many familiar faces of the CRIBA organization and others we did not know.
Mayor Gennen spoke, Christain Kraft spoke, Andre Hubert spoke, flowers were presented at the base of the monument and the national anthems were played. It was all very sincere and touching. They will not forget.
(As an ‘aside’ here I will mention that when the community of Vielsalm heard that there was to be a ceremony here, they had the howitzer removed to a facility in Vielsalm, cleaned, repainted, and returned to the site in time for our visit.)
Inside the Auberge we found that the place was set up for a banquet. Decorations were in place honoring the 106th, the 589th, and us three veterans. It was an event to remember. I lost count of how many courses were served but it was all “5-star.” During breaks in the meal our dignitaries made their prepared speeches honoring the American soldiers for restoring their freedom and expressing their very heartfelt appreciation. At the end of the meal the chef wheeled out a table set up with a 4’ X 8’ display that represented the crossroads at the time of 19-23 Dec. 1944. At the appropriate locations on this diorama were photos of Barney, John, and me. There was a miniature house afire (with an alcohol burner) and model tanks and trucks. Imbedded fireworks sparklers were lighted to simulate the battle. Everyone was fascinated by this display, and, of course, the chef received a great round of applause. Oops, forgot to mention there was also a cake for our dessert.
No problem getting to sleep again. I don’t know how much of this treatment my poor old heart can stand.
June 1, 2004 Tuesday
The time came for departing and leaving our good friends behind. We have had a memorable time. The weather cooperated beautifully. No one fell ill or suffered any problems. We saw and did all that we had planned on and then more.
This morning we had to start for home. Bernadette had set out our breakfast as usual. We had to find extra room in our luggage for souvenirs and they were bulging at the sides.
The most difficult time was yet to come. We had to say goodbye. Maria, Bernadette, and Esmeralda were there and everybody was trying to hold back the tears. It doesn’t work. Any one would think that we were headed for the gallows if they had walked in on us. We finally said the last goodbye, grabbed our bags (and a handful of Kleenex) and made for the car. The ladies followed us out and helped load the bags. We had one last hug and three kisses, boarded the car and drove off with them waving a final goodbye.
We were driving to Brussels today to find our hotel near the airport and relax before flying home tomorrow. On arrival we turned in our rented car and caught the shuttle to the hotel.
Our friend, Vince Gerard, from Somzee, had been in touch with us and we made plans for him to meet us at our hotel. Vince came in the early afternoon, bringing his mother with him. Vince is now driving a Jeep Renegade bearing Texas plates, fancy that! We spent the day and had supper together talking about old times. Vince is always good company and was present at the 106th Reunion at Norfolk two years ago. We are considered old friends now.
After Vince and Mom depart we got to bed at a reasonable time and make sure that all was ready for the flight tomorrow.
** June 2, 2004 Wednesday
We took the shuttle to the airport, checked in, and hung around for our flight. You all know the routine. While waiting for departure time the weather finally turned wet. The rains came but we didn’t care then. We departed Brussels on United Flight 951 at 12:40 PM It was a long boring flight, just the way we like it. When we got near Dulles there were thunderstorms in the area, so the flight was diverted to hang out up there for an extra hour. We finally squeak on to the runway about 4:20 PM. No problem with clearing customs. The officer asked me where we had been. I told him that we had re-visited the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He grabbed my hand, shook it and said, “Thanks. You have a good day!”
Special thanks to the family of Lejeune-Lengler at Baraque de Fraiture, and our CRIBA organization friends. They always treat us like we are something special. We feel like they are our family.
And to M/Sgt. Dave Westhausen, USAF, and the WW II Society members.
Thanks to the operators of the museums that we visited for their courtesy in guiding us around their exhibits.
Special thanks also to Mathilda and Marcel Schmetz for they always manage to touch our heart.
Again I have to offer thanks to Dave Ford for his help in planning this adventure, making reservations for us, and guiding us around in three European countries. I am sure we could not have done as well without him. Maybe we can do it again some time.
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James D. West