10/2/2017 Along the Path of Heroes Part 6: Bastogne & The Battle of the Bulge
The Times photo by Ron May
McAuliffe Square, Bastogne with Sherman Tank and Bust of Gen. McAuliffe
Gen. Taylor (right) and Gen. McAuliffe, Dec. 27, 1944.
Ronald P. May, USN (Ret.), is author of the book, "Our Service, Our Stories". He helps veterans share and preserve the stories of their military service. For more information or to tell your story, contact May at 317-435-7636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook at Our Service, Our Stories.
In July of 2016 I joined a tour group and took an 11-day trip to Europe to tour World War 2 battle sites in France, Belgium and Germany - places that some of our Indiana veterans once walked on or flew over. This series of articles is a summary of what I saw and learned there as I followed the path of American heroes who answered the call of duty to preserve freedom over 75 years ago.
Bastogne, today a city of 15,000 inhabitants, is located on the southeastern tip of Belgium near the border with neighboring Luxembourg.
It doesn't show up easily on the first glance at a map of Belgium.
In fact, if not for a surprise German offensive on December 16th, 1944 it would probably have escaped the attention of most U.S. soldiers, if not most Europeans.
But it is a must stop for any serious traveler who is tracing the battles of World War 2.
In 1944 Bastogne, then a quaint town of 4,000 residents, became a coveted target of Nazi German aggression.
The town of Bastogne was quickly surrounded by advancing German forces on December 20th. Their surprise offensive there and throughout much of Belgium created a 'bulge' in the Allied front lines and was thus later referred to as the Battle of the Bulge.
The German forces had targeted Bastogne because all of the main roads through the Ardennes Forest up to the coveted harbor at Antwerp in northern Belgium converged on the village. The Germans had planned to wrest control of the harbor and disrupt the supply chain to the Allies.
On December 22, 1944 Gen. Anthony McCauliffe famously sent back the one-word response of "Nuts" to a German Commander's demand for the 101st Division to surrender to the Nazi forces which had surrounded the town.
McAuliffe was the Acting Division Commander for the 101st Airborne Division which had its headquarters unit just outside the city at the Bastogne Barracks.
Members of the 101st Division dug in and fought valiantly to spare the town from being overtaken by the aggressor.
For 7 long days they held out against an overwhelming enemy until Patton's 3rd Army rushed in from the south with its tanks and troops.
It was a key victory which signaled to the Germans that their massive offensive was doomed to failure.
Today, 73 years later, Gen. McCauliffe and the 101st Airborne Division are venerated throughout Bastogne and Belgium.
The square at the town's center is called McCauliffe Square in his honor. Surrounded by shops and a large parking area, the square includes a bust of McAuliffe and a U.S. Sherman Tank which appears to still be guarding the town today.
The actual site of the 101st Division Headquarters is a few miles on the outskirts of town at the Bastogne Barracks Base which today is a museum preserving the story of Bastogne's deliverance.
Our tour group walked around the historic site that included many buildings and a large parade area for the troops that had been used during World War 2. Dioramas of mannequin soldiers inside one of the buildings tell the story of the siege and show the soldiers performing the tasks of the headquarters unit.
Among the dioramas is one of Gen. McCauliffe issuing his "nuts" response to the German demand for an Allied surrender.
On the same site, we enjoyed visiting the WW2 Vehicle Exhibition Hall, a large warehouse with an impressive inventory of restored Allied and military vehicles including various tanks, trucks and an assortment of other vehicles.
Across the street from the Bastogne Barracks is a local cemetery. Here we visited the graves of two women who had served as nurses who had tended to the wounded during the Battle at Bastogne.
Ironically, my friend Christina had just mentioned to me that she had read about one of the local Belgian nurses who had volunteered her medical services in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and had died recently.
The woman's name was Augusta Chiwy. And there I was, standing in front of her grave.
Chiwy was born in the Belgian Congo and had come to Bastogne when she was 9 years old. She trained to be a nurse and offered her medical services to the wounded when the Germans launched their attack in the Ardennes and surrounded Bastogne.
At one point the courageous woman put on an Army soldiers uniform to go out and collect the wounded from the battlefield, even while under fire. She survived being blown through a wall and after the war worked in a Belgian hospital that specialized in treating patients with spinal cord injuries.
She died at the age of 94 on August 23rd, 2015 near Brussels. She was as much of a hero as any soldier, sailor, airman or marine.
Our next stop was the impressive Mardasson Memorial located just outside of Bastogne. The monument, which is adjacent to the equally impressive Bastogne War Museum, was erected to honor the American service members who had been wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge.
A huge structure of concrete in the shape of a star (as in a U.S. Flag star), it was begun just after the war in 1946 and completed in 1950.
A memorial stone on the ground at the center of the monument has a Latin inscription which translated in English reads, "The Belgian people remember their American liberators - 4th July 1946."
Each of the 50 U.S. states is inscribed in the concrete rim at the top of the monument.
I located the inscription for the state of Indiana and thought of the men from our state who had fought bravely and saved not only Bastogne but much of the European world from Nazi aggression.
Remembering the sacrifices of our World War 2 veterans is fitting whether we do so from the battlefields and museums of Belgium or from the comforts of our home state.