My big strong grandpa passed away in 2007. The WWII stories he told me were about watching porpoises swim alongside the ship that took them over to England, the cool trains that took them from England to the Channel for their sail to Europe, a singer with a beautiful voice at the USO in Liege, and being assigned to build POW camps in the last weeks of the war. He didn’t say anything about the battles. He was a Combat Engineer.
In battle, the engineers would precede the infantry and sweep for mines, clear pathways with explosives, build temporary bridges, repair tanks, and whatever it took to keep their division on the move and the enemy at a distance. They sometimes blew up bridges and blocked roads so the enemy couldn’t use them. When battle circumstances called for it, such as in the Battle of the Bulge, the engineers also operated as Infantry. Below are sample pictures of what combat engineers were doing in the Ardennes. Notice they are wearing dark colored uniforms. In December and January 1944-45, the Ardennes had record snowfall and cold. Their Division was without camouflage against the snow.
The Battle of the Bulge got its name from the Germans’ surprise attack and advance into Belgium in mid-December 1944, that created a ‘bulge’ outward from the Siegfried Line. This map from www.army.mil shows the advance and the bulge.
After my grandpa was gone, I continued to read published accounts from his unit, and looked up locations on Google Maps, determined to learn what his Division had been through. Then it occurred to me that I had a little stash of frequent flier miles. So, I began planning my first trip to Europe, to see these places with my own eyes. The last week of October 2008, I left for Belgium.
The Ardennes in Person.
I stayed in the town of St. Vith, which was central to the start of the Battle of the Bulge. The town was virtually destroyed in the battle, but its Büchel Tower from the 1300s mostly survived, and was repaired. It had been damaged in fires and battle in prior centuries.
The town has erected a memorial to the US soldiers of 1944-45.
The owner of the inn where I stayed had her own personal story from the battle. She was 9 years old in 1944, and with her parents had to hide out in the woods for the month from late December to late January. Our GIs gave them food and helped them survive. As an inn owner, she has hosted many returning GIs and their families, and proudly showed me this certificate hanging on the wall in the inn’s restaurant.
In my rental car, I covered as much ground as daylight would allow for three days. The fall colors were stunning, as opposed to the bitter cold and snow the soldiers endured that winter.
This 20 km stretch of road from St. Vith to Malmedy is still there.
The field where the Malmedy Massacre took place on December 17, 1944, is preserved.
Another massacre also took place that day in Ligneuville, between Malmedy and St Vith.
The owners of this Ligneuville inn were able to distract German officers and save the lives of several captured GIs, who would have been executed in the massacre otherwise.
The village of Poteau, 10 km from St Vith, was the site of the longest US tank battle.
My grandpa was not at Bastogne, but I did visit there, as it was significant to the last part of the battle, and only 50 km from my St Vith base.
Taking a break from the seriousness of the battle for a moment: One of my fave movies, ‘If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium‘ (1969), has a light-hearted scene of an American and a German visiting the Bastogne Mardasson Memorial, telling their battle memories.
For some views inside the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson, check out this informative post by the Diverting Journeys blogger, on her recent visit there.
On my last afternoon, I visited the American military cemetery, at Henri Chapelle, Belgium, where nearly 8,000 of our GIs are buried on 57 acres overlooking a beautiful Ardennes valley. Another 450 names of missing GIs are listed on a marble tablet under the entrance canopy. The cemetery attendant printed me the names and locations of the six members of my grandpa’s battalion who are buried there, so I could visit each one.
The closest simulations in movies to what I learned on my visit, and what my grandpa described, are probably Fury and Saving Private Ryan.
The Wereth Eleven documentary (available on Amazon Prime and Netflix) tells about yet another particularly brutal massacre that happened at the same time as the Malmedy and Ligneuville massacres. Wereth is 13 km from St Vith.
The day after returning home to Kansas, I voted in the 2008 Presidential Election. Then a few days after that, it was Veterans Day with my own new realization of what that means.
About planning a trip to the Ardennes: There are quite a few people in the area who will assist and advise someone planning a personalized visit to the battlefields and related sites. They were truly kind and helpful to me.
About that singer with the beautiful voice at the USO in Liege. This was her song.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone selling poppies here for Veterans Day, so I’ve now bought myself a jewelry poppy brooch to wear each year. It came from the UK Poppy Shop, which has a great, ever-growing selection of affordable poppy jewelry, with proceeds going to the Royal British Legion.