My dad and I returned from our trip to Europe last Wednesday, and I jumped in with both feet to a work project which lasted through the weekend. So, I’m just now getting back on board with normal life. Or as normal as life can be around here. But before I get too far away, I want to share more pictures. I could only do so much on my phone.
First, we landed in Brussells, Belgium. We stayed in Bastogne and toured the area where my uncle would have served his last days during World War II. There is a museum dedicated to the 101st Airbornne, the unit that parachuted into the area and helped liberate it from German control. The museum is four floors filled with memorabilia of the area as well as staged scenes, such as this of a soldier parachuting.
There are these painted concrete markers from Normandy to Bastogne, marking the route the Americans took to free France and Belgium from Nazi forces. One stands in the square of Bastogne, symbolizing the last mile of the march for freedom.
Outside the small town of Bastogne, the area residents dedicated a park called the Wood of Peace to the American military that fought and died in the area. Four thousand trees are planted in memory of the Battle of the Bulge combatants, including American and Belgian forces and civilians who aided the military, such as a nurse who was killed while serving the wounded.
We drove through Luxembourg and stopped in a very small village to see this memorial to the American soldiers who fought to protect the town. Everywhere we turned, there was an American flag, often flying next to the Belgian flag. I don’t think I could overstate the amount of gratitude these people had (and still have) for the American military’s efforts to protect their nation during the war.
In one church we visited, the organist came in as we were about to leave. When he found out who we were and why we were there, he walked over to the organ and started playing the Star Spangled Banner. I have never heard it played more beautifully, and I cried through the whole song. It still brings tears to my eyes.
My great-uncle was assigned to the 28th Infantry and was killed on September 16, 1944, in what was called the Siegfried Line. Hitler built a wall of rebar-enforced concrete barriers all along the German border as tank defenses. They were nicknamed the Dragon’s Teeth because they would rip the undercarriage of a tank driving across them. The Germans built the border in the 1930’s then allowed hedges to grow up around them. So, if a tank wasn’t aware that they were there and tried to drive through the overgrowth, they would get stuck on the barriers. While some of the line was destroyed by the Allies after the war, ripping out 390 miles of concrete was not practical. So, it remains in many areas, usually right alongside farms and one-lane roads.
We visited my great-uncle’s grave at Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery. Even though it was closed due to the government shut-down, it was not gated, so we could still walk in. Almost 8,000 soldiers are buried in this cemetery, and it will take your breath away to see the expanse of crosses and stars (for Jewish soldiers). This is just one half of the cemetery. It is divided in half by a large walkway.
We were able to walk right to my great-uncle’s grave because I had printed out the location from the website. If I had not done so, it would have taken us quite a bit of time to find it, since he was at the back of the cemetery. When the cemetery is open, they have guides who help find the graves and take pictures. We were on our own, though.
Roses are planted all over the cemetery, and we found out that they are Tyler Roses, as in Tyler, Texas. While my dad’s family is from Mississippi, it was still a great thrill that we had something of Texas represented in this beautiful memorial.
Finally, the cemetery is bordered by these large pillars with the golden eagle on top. Very striking.
Our stay in Belgium was too short. It is a beautiful country with friendly people and delicious food. We learned more about WWII history in two days than I learned in two years in school. Our guide, Henri Mignon, lived near Bastogne during the war. His father was accidentally killed near the end of the war by stray shrapnel. He gave us a very real picture of life during this time and offered lots of personal experience. He also served in the military and has an extensive knowledge of military history. If you need a guide in any area of Belgium for a war tour, he is THE man.
I’ll share more pictures of our travels through Germany later. This was really the highlight and reason for our trip.