Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day in Bastogne and Margraten

I decided to spend Independence Day weekend in the area where the Battle of the Bulge took place during WWII, driving over the terrain and visiting museums.  I also wanted to take the opportunity to visit the American cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, where Don Case, a comrade of my wife’s father Bud Irish is buried. It was a very meaningful and rewarding weekend.
The Battle of the Bulge was an important, major battle in the campaign to free Europe from the Nazis. It started on 16 December 1944 when the Germans launched a surprise counterattack into Luxembourg and Belgium in an effort to split the U.S. and British armies and capture the port of Anwerp.  The battle lasted until late January, and caused the highest number of American casualties of any operation in the war. It had several names, but was popularly called the “Battle of the Bulge” because of the westward bulge it caused in the Allied lines as shown on battle maps.  I won’t re-tell the story of the battle, but here is a link that tells all about it: 
My trip started out with a drive to Luxembourg from my home in Sindelfingen, Germany.  I decided to stay in Vianden, a little town on the Our river, just over the border from Germany.  I got there about 1500 on Saturday, and had time for some sight-seeing in the town.  It is a quaint, picturesque little town nestled into a steep, narrow valley, with a restored castle dominating the heights over the town.  I had read that Luxembourg has three official languages – French, German, and Luxembourgisch (which sounds to me like German with French consonants and a French accent).  I don’t speak French, so for any extended conversation I’d ask if they spoke German or English.  They invariably chose German, which was fine with me.  But for casual interactions I quickly got used to “bonjour”, “merci”, “pardon”, “au revoir”, etc.  I think my most common phrase was “Je ne parle pas francais – parlez-vouz allemagne?”    J
I stayed in a quaint little hotel right on the riverfront, with a picturesque view of the town and castle from my window.  Everything about it was delightful, and I recommend it heartily:
Naturally I had to take a walk up the hill to the castle and walk through it.  It had some interesting exhibits, including one showing the progressive development of the castle’s fortifications from its start as a Roman fortification up through the height of its power in the late 1600’s.  It subsequently fell into ruin, and was restored to be a tourist attraction beginning in the 1970’s, with reconstruction continuing today.
Vianden Castle
This castle had a couple of exhibits unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere.  One was a fully-equipped medieval kitchen, with period-costumed workers cooking and providing food samples.  It something straight out of “Game of Thrones”!  The other was in one of the larger halls, where more period-costumed attendants allowed kids to put on helmets and showed them how to use some of the weapons.  I was glad to have had a chance to visit this town and castle.  On my last visit to Luxembourg in the 1980’s, I had seen a Bing & Grondahl plate with a scene of the Vianden castle on it.  I liked the looks of it and bought it as a souvenir, even though I hadn’t actually been to visit the town.  Now that omission has been rectified. J

After my walk up to the castle, I had a leisurely walk back down through the town, enjoyed a meal at my hotel, and went to bed with the sound of the river outside my open window.  Very pleasant!
The view from the Hotel Victor Hugo

The view looking up the Our River
Sunday was my day to visit Bastogne, famous as a key center of American resistance during the Battle of the Bulge. Part of the reason I had chosen Vianden for my starting point was so that I could follow the path of the attacking Germans, observing the terrain as I approached Bastogne from the east.  This area of western Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium is known as the Eifel, which is basically a low mountain range mostly covered with forest (the Ardennes).  The terrain is very steep and rugged in most places, although there are also high, wide, open plateaus that are mostly open cultivated fields.  It was easy to see why the Our River forms a natural border between Luxembourg and Germany, as the valley is particularly steep and narrow.
I started by driving north along the Our River until I was somewhere north of the town of Stolzembourg. Then I turned west and climbed up out of the valley.  I found myself climbing a very steep and winding road, and after reaching the top of the ridge, I descended a similarly steep and winding path on the other side.  I wanted to head toward the towns of Eschweiler and Wiltz, trying to follow more or less the southern part of the route followed by von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, along the boundary with Brandenberger’s 7th Panzer Army.   The northern attack route of Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army and the northern portions of von Manteuffel’s sector are better known, but this was the route that led most directly toward Bastogne, and I didn’t think I had time to drive further north, turn southwest toward Bastogne, and still have time to visit the museums I wanted to see in that town. 
On the ground, it was very hard to keep track of where I was, as the terrain was so broken and wooded, and the roads so serpentine.  At one point during my descent from the first ridge west of the Our, I got out my phone and took a video.  Unfortunately, it is too large a file to load here.  :(
It was really something to drive through this area and try to imagine moving massive numbers of vehicles and men in some sort of regular order.  It would be hard enough to do without opposition, let alone in the face of resistance that included artillery, anti-tank fire and blown bridges. This just isn’t the kind of terrain that allows for the effective employment of large armored formations.  I could see how small groups of American soldiers in key positions could hold up the advance of far superior forces.
Eventually I came out of the forest into more open, rolling countryside, which lasted until I reached Bastogne.  As I approached my first destination (the Bastogne War Museum), I realized that my Garmin GPS doesn’t have quite as good a handle on the roads in Luxembourg and Belgium as it does in other parts of Europe where I’ve used it.  It took me on what was probably the most direct route to the museum, but it went from a gravel road to a two-track farm road to a muddy cowpath.  This would be fine in my Jeep, but in my little low-slung VW it was dicey.  I had to laugh – it reminded me of a postcard that I had recently bought in Germany:
 The German word for GPS is “Navi”

After surprising a mother walking with her children and coming eye-to-eye with some cows, I came out into the back corner of the museum parking lot.  It is a fairly large museum, located northwest of Bastogne on the outskirts of town.  It is collocated with a large monument to the liberation that is quite impressive.  I took some photos, but it would undoubtedly look better from the air, as it is shaped like the star symbol that was painted on American military vehicles at that time.
Mardasson Memorial at the Bastogne War Museum
The Bastogne War Museum is very well put together, and tells more than the story of the Battle of the Bulge.  It is really a museum of the war in western Europe, documenting the rise of Nazism in Germany, the German invasion and occupation of other European nations, and of the invasion and liberation of the continent by the Allied armies.  Naturally, however, it focuses heavily on the actions that took place in and around Bastogne.  It is designed to guide the visitor through the museum on a specific path to follow the chronology of the war. An audio device with headphones is provided, and is automatically activated by the exhibits to narrate your visit as you walk through.  There are three separate movies along the way, in each of which you are seated in an immersive environment and experience different aspects of the war.  (One was a sort of conference room where they discussed war plans, one was a forest scene where you felt you were on the front lines, and one was a café in a town).  It was really quite creatively done, and seemed to be to be pitched at a level that was appropriate for just about any age.
There were a large number of displays, with a mix of artifacts and photographs, along with a lot of uniforms and equipment and a few vehicles.  I only took a few photos, as most of them were things I’ve seen elsewhere.  I did think these were interesting:
General Hasso von Manteuffel's leather
overcoat, worn during the Ardennes
offensive (Battle of the Bulge)
The unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies

Additionally, I was sorry to note that that vast majority of weapons in this museum were in relatively poor condition.  I doubt if any of them have tasted a drop of oil or been wiped down or cared for in any way since the end of the war.  It was quite disappointing to see, as they did have a pretty good representative assortment.  As a student and collector of martial arms, this probably had more of an effect on me than it might for the average visitor, and tainted my overall impression of the museum. 
In contrast to the weapons on display, the Willys MB Jeep and the German Kubelwagen they had were both in immaculate condition.  My photos, unfortunately, did not come out very well.
Overall I’d say this is a very good museum and well worth a visit, providing a good overview of the war in Europe and an understanding of the battles that took place around Bastogne during the liberation.
I next drove into downtown to visit the 101st Airborne Museum.  While there are a number of other museums in Bastogne, I knew I didn’t have time for all of them, and thought this one looked like a good bet, especially because of the special role of the 101st in the defense of the town.  I was not disappointed!
This is a privately-owned museum, and is comparatively small.  Located on a quiet street off the main thoroughfare, from the outside it just looks like a rather large brick house.  Unlike the larger museum, it does not attempt to tell a narrative or guide you through the exhibits in a certain order. It has three floors and a basement, and you simply walk around looking at the various artifacts and mannequins on display. In spite of its small size, I have to say that this is one of the best military museums I have ever been in, from the standpoint of an immersive experience.  Every nook and cranny is crammed with displays and artifacts.  The displays are very well put-together, and the collection is astonishing.  They have hundreds of small items from the everyday life of the soldier, from uniforms, weapons, and equipment to all the little personal items they would have handled in everyday life.  An amazing variety of things like soap, razors, sewing kits, C-rations, K-rations, writing paper, magazines, etc. are on display in cases throughout the museum. There are also several very realistic dioramas in which mannequins depict scenes from soldiers’ wartime experiences.  The mannequins in this museum are different from almost any others I have seen. Rather than the bland department-store type mannequins with featureless faces, blanks stares, and stiff poses, these are works of art.  They have realistic, unique, expressive faces and are placed in realistic poses. Their uniforms and equipment are accurate down to the last detail. 
The combined effect of these dioramas and the displays of personal equipment and effects was that I felt drawn-in and immersed, and at times almost overwhelmed.  It was a very personal and intimate experience, particularly in the basement, where there were graphic scenes of a medical aid station and a hand-to-hand struggle between German and American troops. 
I found afterwards that I had taken almost no photographs, probably because of how drawn-in I was to the whole experience.  I did take one photo of a display that I thought was an interesting technique. They took a photograph from a magazine, of actual people, and recreated it in every detail using mannequins wearing real uniforms and equipment.  The effect was very interesting, almost literally “bringing the photograph to life”:
 A depiction of the scene in the contemporary
photograph shown in the foreground 

About the only detailed photos I took were of a StG44 in a display case.  This is as close to one of these rifles as I’ve been able to get in a museum setting. The display of the weapon along with its accoutrements and other items is typical of the attention to detail in this museum:
StG44 - Note the MP44 markings

The magazines are also marked MP44 and MP43

The StG44 (Sturm Gewehr, or “assault rifle”) was one of the most significant arms developments of the 20th century.  Although it came too late in the war to help the Germans win, it had a profound effect on subsequent military firearms development.  The pattern of a select-fire, intermediate power rifle with a pistol grip and high-capacity detachable magazine became the standard for infantry weapons from that point forward. Interestingly, it was originally designated "MP44" for Maschinen Pistole 44".  This was an effort to hide its development from Adolph Hitler, who had disapproved of the concept.  When he finally became aware of it, it had been so successful and popular with soldiers on the battlefield that he not only reversed his decision and encouraged maximum production, but also coined the term "Sturm Gewehr" for it. (That's right - the term "Assault Rifle" is a propaganda term invented by Adolph Hitler.)   I don't know how many of them were actually marked this way - as you can see, all the items in this display are marked "MP44" or "MP43").
One item in particular caught my eye as a collector and shooter of the M1 Garand rifle.  I saw an M1 Garand clip loaded with 8 rounds of .45 ACP pistol ammunition instead of the .30-06 rifle ammunition it should have had in it. Initially, I assumed this was a mistake by the curators, until I saw another clip loaded the same way in another display case.  This second clip was badly rusted, and the ammunition corroded together, making it clear that this was a genuine battlefield artifact.
I asked the museum proprietor about it, and he told me that veterans have told them that they only had a limited number of 1911 magazines, so this was how they carried and shared extra .45 ammo. The vets told him that this kept the ammo in convenient packages that they could toss to their buddies in another foxhole if needed. Cardboard boxes would fall apart, whereas a Garand clip was sturdy and also held just enough ammo to fully load a pistol.  I thought this was fascinating, and shared it on an M1 collector site.  Apparently this TTP is not widely known among M1 shooters and collectors, although one or two people did come forward and confirm that they had also been told this story by veterans of their acquaintance. I love learning historical tidbits like that!
After leaving the museum, I spent some time in downtown Bastogne.  Unlike Germany, where everything is closed on Sunday, the town was quite active and most of the stores and restaurants were open.  I had an ice cream cone and walked up and down the main street.  In the town square I saw a display consisting of a Sherman Tank and a bust of BG Anthony McAuliffe, whose reply of “Nuts” to a German surrender demand immediately became legendary.
Memorial at the main intersection in the center of Bastogne

There was also this marker for the Voie del la Liberte (“Liberty Road”).  I either didn’t know, or had forgotten about this, but the road marks the route taken by General Patton’s Army during the liberation of France and Belgium.
It starts in Normandy and ends in Bastogne, and there is a marker every kilometer along the way.  The first marker (number zero) is at Sainte Mere Eglise.  I probably have a photo of that one at home, from my visit to Normandy in 1984. Now I have been here in Bastogne at the last one, number 1145:
The last marker at the end of the "Liberty Road"

On the way out of Bastogne to return to my hotel in Vianden, I headed north.  I wanted to drive through different countryside than I had seen that morning.  A few kilometers outside of town I came to the village of Foy, the scene of a memorable episode in “Band of Brothers”.
How could I come to Bastogne and not stop here?

I decided to drive around the village and see if I could spot the place where Easy Company had attacked out of the wood line.  I don’t know if I saw the spot or not (I doubt if they actually filmed the scene there), but while driving around the little narrow farm lanes I saw an American flag, and then came upon this memorial.  Apparently there was a temporary American cemetery here from 1945-1948. 
I thought it was interesting that the Belgian flag uses the same
color scheme as the modern German flag.  The colors black,
gold, and red are associated with republicanism and freedom,
as opposed to the Imperial Prussian and Nazi red, white, and black.

I drove a little farther north, then turned east and crossed Luxembourg back to the Our River valley. I approached the town of Vianden from the west, and got a different view of the castle:
It had been a long day, but it was the kind of day I love to have.  After a lifetime of reading about the war in books and seeing it through historical photographs and films as well as in movies and on TV, it is fascinating to visit the actual historical sites and see firsthand where the events took place.  Had things worked out differently, visiting places like this would have been my actual job while I was here in Germany, but as it is, I’m fortunate to be able to be here and do it for my own personal satisfaction.  I had my evening meal (a steak and a nice glass of wine) outside at a table by the river. J  The next day would be even better.
On Monday morning (July 4th), I checked out after breakfast and headed north up the Our river. While I was still driving with eye for the terrain and noticing all the familiar place names on the road signs (Houffalize, St. Vith, Malmedy, Elsenborn…),  I was headed for Margraten, Netherlands, to visit the Netherlands American Cemetery.  My anticipation of this visit gave the day a different feeling. 
I always feel a sense of reverence and experience powerful emotions when I visit American military cemeteries.  In this case, there was also a family connection to add meaning to the visit. As I wrote earlier in my entry about Steinbergen (9 April 2016), PFC Eldon “Don” Case died in the ambush on 9 April 1945, while taking cover alongside my wife Teresa’s father, CPL Aarol “Bud” Irish.  Bud wrote that they were lying so close together that he could actually feel the bullets hitting Don. He felt a strong sense of obligation and gratitude for having lived through that day, writing to his parents:  “I can’t explain it, but when you know that because someone else took all the bullets that might otherwise have gotten you, a person feels he just can never do enough to make up for them.”
Because this place where Don Case is buried has such significant meaning for Teresa and her family, I had hoped that we’d be able to visit it together.  But it didn’t work out that way, and I decided to go ahead and come by myself while I was here on my final military tour of duty in Germany.  
The cemetery is administered and cared for by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  Their website made it possible for me to learn about the cemetery and to look up Don Case’s grave so I would know where to go once I got there (there are 8,301 graves).  
We had known all along that for some time after the war, a Dutch family had cared for Don’s grave and had been in contact with his family.  What we didn’t know until fairly recently, however, was that each of the graves in the cemetery has been “adopted” by Dutch people, who place flowers there on Memorial Day and otherwise care for them.  This started shortly after the cemetery was established, as a spontaneous expression of gratitude.  The practice has continued on for all these years, as an enduring gesture of appreciation by the people of the Netherlands in recognition of the sacrifices made by Americans for their liberation.  There is an organized foundation that manages the process of adoption, and also works to place the adopters in contact with the families and comrades of the fallen soldiers who rest there:
Even though my decision to visit on this particular weekend was not planned in advance, I went ahead and contact the ABMC people at Margraten a couple of days before my departure, explaining our story and asking to be put in contact with the local person or family who care for Don Case’s grave.  They immediately reached out to the foundation, and I received an email the next day from Mr. Ton Hermes, the foundations’ president.  He offered to meet me at the cemetery, show me around, and explain the foundation’s work, as well as to try to reach the adopters and see if they could come and meet me that day.  It was a very generous and welcoming response, and a foreshadowing of the entire visit.
The approach to the cemetery is beautiful.  A tree-lined road out of the village leads to an impressive entrance gateway to the property. This opens onto a gently winding drive through green lawns and shade trees, ending up in a parking area at the entrance to the cemetery itself. 
A broad, shallow stairway at the entrance is flanked by a visitor center on the right and an open, covered building on the left. This building houses large maps with colorful graphic depictions of the airborne operations in the Netherlands (Operation Market-Garden), the Normandy invasion and battle across France and low countries into Germany, and a more detailed map showing the operations in the invasion of Germany in which most of the soldiers in the cemetery died. 
Inscription on the outside wall at the entrance to the cemetery
Operation Market-Garden

The Normandy invasion and operations in Northwest Europe.

The invasion of northern Germany.  You can
see the 102d Infantry Division "Ozarks"
symbol on this map in several places.

I met Mr. Ton Hermes at the entrance, and he took me into the visitor’s center to meet the ABMC staff who work there. They were very friendly, and had put together two folders of information about the cemetery, one for me and one for me to send to Don Case’s family).  The family’s folder included copies of a certificate from the foundation commemorating his sacrifice and the adoption of his grave.  On the walls of the visitor’s center are letters to the people of Margraten from General Eisenhower and President George W. Bush, as well as some historical photos.  After spending a few minutes in the visitor’s center, we walked out into the cemetery.
A long reflecting pool is in the center of the walkway to the cemetery and the main monument, an area which they call the Court of Honor.  On either side of this reflecting pool, the walls are inscribed with the names of 1,722 missing whose remains had not been found at the time it was built.  Those whose remains have since been located are specially marked.

Reflecting pool and monument

The statue and monument at the end of the pool depict a grieving mother and doves of peace, next to a war-shattered tree from which new life has begun to grow.  I felt it was fitting and moving symbol of the meaning of the place.
Ascending another short stairway into the main cemetery, I was immediately struck by the rows and rows of white crosses and Stars of David.  You can look at photos of these places all day long, but walking into one is a completely different experience. It never fails to choke me up – the impact of all those markers, each one representing a life lost in service to our country, is simply overwhelming.  The layout is beautiful – a long green lawn in the center leading to a raised mound with an American flag, wide shaded walkways on either side, and the rows of crosses on either side, curving gracefully in perfect symmetry.  It is beautifully-designed and impeccably maintained.
The side of the monument facing the graves, with the entrance to the chapel

We walked to Don Case’s grave, which I had previously looked up as being in Plot G, Row 14, Grave 27. As it turned out, Grave 27 was right on the end, closest to the walkway and under the shade of the trees.  We spent a few moments there, and took some photos. 
PFC Eldon "Don" Case

 After our visit to the grave, I invited Ton to have lunch with me.  It turned out that Monday is a “quiet day” for many restaurants in the Netherlands, so our options were limited.  I suggested we just go to my hotel and have lunch there.  We drove there and I met the people, with whom Ton was already acquainted.  I am not 100% sure, but I think they were closed for lunch as well, and very graciously made us something anyway!  The “Hotel Groot Welsden” is a beautiful little place right near the village of Margraten.  It was very comfortable, picturesque, and peaceful, and the people who run it are extremely nice and considerate. The restaurant is also first class.  I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was, considering that I had just picked it from an internet search!  I highly recommend it.
Up until this point, I had not said much to anyone about our own story, other than that our family had a comrade buried at Margraten.  Ton had wanted to tell me the story of the adoption foundation and tell the history of the cemetery, and I had wanted to hear it as he chose to tell it.  But now it was my turn. While we waited for our lunch, I showed him the copy of “A Thousand Letters Home” that I had brought for the adopters and told him the story of how the book came to be, what Don’s death had meant to the Irish family, and how Bud had always felt a sense of “survivor purpose”, trying to live the best life he could after having survived that day that cost three of his friends their lives. We paged through the book and I showed him the various letters that told the details of what had happened that day, as well as the letters to, from, and between the mothers.  In addition to the book, I also gave him a printout of my blog entry “Steinbergen”, describing my visit to the place where Don Case had died.  I hoped that knowing more than just a name and date on a cross would help to sort of “bring Don to life” for the people who had adopted his grave.
Ton and I had a nice lunch and talked quite a bit.  He is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Dutch Army, so we had some shared background that made for interesting conversation.  Eventually, it was time for him to leave, and I said farewell, with thanks for his efforts to get the information to the adopters.  I was sorry not to have met them, but felt confident that he would faithfully pass on the information to them when they could be reached.  All in all, it was a very interesting and satisfying time. I only realized much later that we had never taken a photo together - I think I was so absorbed in the experience that I just never thought of it. 
The day had been pretty cloudy and rainy up to this point, so I hadn’t taken many photos at the cemetery.  But shortly after Ton left the hotel, the sun came out.  I had been planning to return to the cemetery before driving home on Tuesday morning in hopes of better weather, but I decided I should try while the sun was out, and went back to the cemetery. 
This time, with nobody to talk to, I took my time just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere and meaning of the place. There is something about silence and solitude that makes me feel even more reflective and reverent in such places. When I visited Don’s grave, I placed a quarter on top of his marker. I did this not for me, but for Bud Irish, who I am sure would have visited Don’s grave had he not been diagnosed with cancer and had to cancel his scheduled trip to the 102d Division’s reunion. 
An offering on behalf of Bud Irish

The tradition of leaving coins at military graves:
When I returned to the hotel, they had something for me – Ton Hermes had come back during my absence, and had left me a copy of the book “The Margraten Boys – How a European Village Kept America’s Liberators Alive”.  It tells the story of the cemetery and the adoption tradition, and will be a meaningful memento of my trip to Margraten. 
The rest of my stay was quiet and peaceful.  I spent the late afternoon in the garden reading.  Dinner was a gourmet treat, after which I spent the evening writing the beginning of this blog entry.  Breakfast the next day was hearty and plentiful, and it was only with reluctance that I left to head back home to Germany.   My route led right through Aachen, the first German city to have been captured in WWII.  It seemed fitting that I was traveling over the route along which many of the soldiers buried in the Margraten cemetery had lost their lives.
Overall it was a tremendously interesting and successful weekend.  I can’t think of a more meaningful way to celebrate Independence Day than to visit historic places dedicated to preserving the memory of the sacrifices made by our countrymen to secure and preserve our freedom.
Music:  Silence
Mood:  Reverent