10/5/2017 Along the Path of Heroes Part 7: Beauty and Horror in the Ardennes
Soldiers pull a heavily loaded ammunition sled through the snow covered Ardennes.
Memorial Wall for Malmedy Massacre near Baugnez.
About Ron May
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 email@example.com. 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.
The Ardennes region in southeast Belgium is rich with rugged charm and beauty. Cool, meandering streams carve their way across undulating forested terrain.
The hilly and wooded area reminded me of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.
From December 16th, 1944 - January 25th, 1945 this region was inundated by German soldiers attempting to break through the Allied-controlled lines in the surprise offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Tanks bullied their way across the dense forest while mortars and other explosive ammunition shattered trees and pierced the silence of a bitter cold winter that exacted its own death on those who dared to endure it in tiny foxholes.
Seventy-two years later, on a warm and delightful summer day, our tour group drove through stunning scenery of lush green hills and dense forest, stopping frequently to see the many monuments and commemorative markers of battles that had taken place here.
Unlike the monuments in the more urban areas, these simple markers in woods and fields were less spectacular in size but no less impressive. The natural scenery all around them seemed to offer a more authentic testimony to the battles once fought there.
One of our stops was outside of Wereth, Belgium where there was a monument to the Wereth 11. At this location German SS troops cruelly massacred 11 U.S. African American Soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battery after they had surrendered on the 2nd day of the battle. It is one of the only monuments in Belgium dedicated to African Americans who fought in World War 2.
Another stop was in Honsfeld, Belgium where we saw some concrete troughs that were in use during the Battle of the Bulge. A photograph from that time shows German SS troops standing by the troughs putting on some uniform items looted from the corpses of dead American soldiers.
A monument was erected above the troughs. Our guide, Henri explained that this more recent monument paid tribute to All who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, including the Germans.
Seventy plus years later even the enemy German soldiers were being remembered. Time has healed wounds and eased the trauma of memories so that more recent generations are invited to remember the sacrifices of both sides of the war.
Perhaps by honoring the dead and remembering the sacrifices on both sides former enemy nations can continue to preserve the peace they enjoy and profit from today.
Our group crossed briefly into Germany to see some remains of the infamous Siegfried Line, a string of defensive objects designed to keep tanks and other military vehicles of border nations from rolling into Germany.
Known as the "Westwall" to Germans, this 'spine' of concrete objects ('dragon's teeth') was built in less than two years between 1938 and 1940. Over 500, 000 people, many of whom were conscripted foreign laborers, built the jagged line of teeth which stretched 390 miles from Holland to Switzerland. The objects made of concrete looked like "dragon's teeth" and were reinforced with iron rods.
Intended to deter France from coming across the border following Germany's invasion of Poland and other eastern countries, the U.S. forces began crossing it in late 1944 as they made their way toward Berlin.
The infamous 'teeth' were not nearly as impressive as I thought they would be.
Not only were they small in size, they were now almost completely hidden by the grass and weeds that have grown up over them.
It reminded me of the once great 3rd Reich of the Nazi party, now obscured by defeat and the passage of time.
Our guide Henri told us that Germany has been steadily removing the teeth from the land they once tried to protect. Reminders of a failed defense in a lost war, Germany wants to make them as obscure as the weeds have.
One of the more interesting and sad stops was outside of Malmedy in the tiny hamlet of Baugnez. Here a tragic massacre occurred in the clearing of a field close to the edge of the forest.
On December 17, 1944 a convoy of men from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion surrendered to the Germans of the 1st SS Panzer Division which had surrounded them at the Baugnez crossroads.
A short time later, the German soldiers guarding the 120 American POW's who had been moved to an open field suddenly fired their machine guns at the group, killing 84 of them.
During the massacre, some soldiers escaped into the woods and eventually made their way back to the Allied front to testify to the atrocity.
Following the end of the war the Nazi soldiers involved in the massacre were charged with war crimes and punished.
The memorial, consisting of a wall of stone, identified each of the executed men by name and included a black stone embedded into the wall for each man killed.
A little shrine with a cross and flowers anchored the far side of the wall. I discovered there two photos of U.S. soldiers who had died in the massacre.
Later that evening, four of us walked back to McCauliffe Square in Bastogne and went to the Le Nuts Café.
The café is named for the 'Nuts' response which General McCauliffe gave in reply to the German Commander's demand for the division to surrender.
Although there were several great Belgium beers to choose from, there was only one fitting choice for us on our last evening in Bastogne. It was the commemorative "Airborne Beer", named for the famed 101st Airborne Division that protected Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
We toasted to our two days in Belgium. And we toasted to those who fought there 72 years ago and preserved freedom for a nation that continues to remember and honor their liberators.