My dad and I arrived safely in Belgium Sunday morning. We rented a car to drive to Bastogne, about an hour and a half east of Brussels and only 15 miles or so from the Luxembourg border. I’ve never driven in a foreign country, and this was a great place to get acclimated. The drive was easy, mostly highway, and very scenic.
In Bastogne, a fairly small town, we hired a guide to tour the area and see where my uncle would have fought and died. He was worth every penny, or centime in French. I had only a limited knowledge of the Battle of the Bulge and no idea what it meant to the people of Belgium. Let’s just say that after 69 years they still make every effort to honor the American forces that liberated them from German occupation and defended them during crushing sieges and violent attacks.
Historical note: The Germans’ goal was to get to Antwerp where there was a major port to give them access to the English Channel. They were under orders to mow down anything and anyone in their path.
We saw numerous plaques, statutes, and memorials to the American Army, most notably the Screamin’ Eagles of the 101st Airborne. The movie, Band of Brothers, is loosely based on this period of the war. My uncle was assigned to the 28th Infantry and was killed September 16, 1944, five days after liberating Bastogne from German forces. The battle for the area continued into January 1945.
We saw more American flags in a single day than I probably see in a week in the US. It was truly humbling to experience their appreciation firsthand. In one church we toured, the organist happened to walk in. He greeted our guide, an old friend. After explaining who we were, the man walked over to the pipe organ and began playing the Star Spangled Banner. It was the most beautiful and moving rendition I’ve ever heard. I cried through the whole song.
The next day we drove about an hour north to Henri-Chappelle American Military Cemetery. Thanks to the government, the shutdown shutdown the cemetery since it is a national park. Just great. Lucky for us this particular cemetery does not have a gate, so we were able to walk in anyway. I had already printed my uncle’s grave site, so we walked right to his plot.
Side note: A GPS isn’t particularly helpful in rural areas. We drove down numerous single-lane country roads in search of our destination. Pretty but frustrating.
The sight of almost 8,000 grave markers (crosses and stars) was overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine that kind of sacrifice.
Historical note: This isn’t the only American military cemetery in Europe. There are at least five more in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, not counting Normandy.
We took our pictures and looked around for about 30 minutes. It is a beautiful and peaceful resting place. We are the first family members to visit, and it was a true honor. We are sorry we couldn’t see the visitor’s center or talk with anyone, but we are grateful that our trip wasn’t a total loss. Another American we met in Bastogne was scheduled to visit a cemetery in Luxembourg, which is gated. He was making plans to scale the fence. Good luck with that.
From there we drove to Liege to return the car and take the train to Germany. It was all downhill from there. Stay tuned for more adventures.