NO MATTER HOW MANY war movies you see, there’s nothing like walking the ground where those battles took place, as I was reminded while spending 10 days in July helping lead a tour of World War I and II battle sites in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
After touring the D-Day sites (subject of last week’s column), visiting Mont Ste. Michel and viewing the fascinating Bayeux Tapestry, we forged eastward to Reims, where the Nazis surrendered to Eisenhower to end World War II; and to nearby Verdun, site of one of World I’s bloodiest battles. French soldiers were killed there at the rate of more than 70,000 per month for more than a year, ultimately preventing the German breakthrough. By way of comparison, the U.S. has lost approximately 5,000 troops killed since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How severe was the fighting at Verdun? All traces of the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont were obliterated by the artillery fire. Its memory today is recalled by signs on a hillside pointing out the locations of what once were the town’s bakery, butcher and post office, etc., on the shell-scarred landscape. It’s a ghostly reminder of the carnage, as is the massive ossuary, a 151-foot-tall memorial tower at the nearby French military cemetery. Visitors can peer through the windows into the building’s basement and be haunted by the sight of the skeletal fragments of unknown soldiers intermingled there — some 130,000 of them, both French and German.
FROM THERE it was northward to Belgium and the crossroads town of Bastogne, which, aside from the fact that its storefronts now offer souvenirs and meals for tourists instead of catering to the needs of farmers, appears to have changed little since the month when it was besieged by the Nazis during the Battle of Bulge in December 1945.
It was in Bastogne that surrounded U.S. commander Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe uttered his famous reply — “Nuts!” — to a German surrender demand. And it was in a forest outside of town (the foreboding Bois Jacques, or “Jack’s Woods”) that the men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — whose story was told in the “Band of Brothers” book and series — were snared in a purgatory of shrapnel, snow, sub-zero temperatures and near-despair. Many of their foxholes survive, some of them turned into impromptu memorials by family members and admirers.
The Bulge was notable not just for its Arctic weather, but for the barbarism of the Nazis. Hitler had specifically ordered his generals on the eve of the attack to terrorize those in their way, whether soldiers or civilians. And they did as told. The cold-blooded machine-gunning of 86 captured U.S. troops near Malmedy after their surrender is well remembered. But there were 21 other such incidents in which our men were slaughtered there that are not.
The Belgian civilians caught it even worse. We saw a monument in the hamlet of Noville, for example, honoring eight boys in their early teens who German troops yanked out of a nearby orphanage at random four days before Christmas and machine-gunned for no reason other than to brutalize the population.
The Battle of the Bulge remains the bloodiest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army, costing 19,000 lives. And 5,076 of those men now are buried a few miles away in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. As usual in such cemeteries the headstones stand in serried ranks. At the “head” of the formation stands the simple headstone of U.S. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who died of complications from a jeep accident a year after the battle and whose widow decided he should be buried with the men he had once commanded. As at the grave of Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. at Omaha Beach, the area around Patton’s grave was blocked off when we visited, an attempt to let the grass recover from the beating it takes from visitors.
WE OFTEN HEAR about how the Europeans disdain Americans. Perhaps, but not in places where memories of the German occupiers and atrocities remain vivid — like Normandy, where we were universally greeted with smiles, despite our attempts to mangle their language. And not in Belgium, where passing motorists tooted their horns and smiled at our group as we looked at monuments. They understand that without an America willing to sacrifice its blood and treasure, their pain and suffering might still endure.
It’s not a stretch to say that in such parts of Europe, World War II is better remembered than it is in our country. World War II ended 67 years ago and for too many Americans, it is almost forgotten. After all, it is almost as remote from 2012, time-wise, as the Civil War was to those who landed in Normandy. But the heroism and sacrifices made by those of “The Greatest Generation” live on — and it was a privilege and an honor to visit some of the sites at which some of those deeds took place.
Next – Our trip continues.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”