Histourism: Taking it “Easy” in Bastogne

My year was off to a brilliant start. I’m a big fan of the HBO television show Band of Brothers, which follows the paratroopers of the US 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Europe in 1944. It kick-started my interest in the Second World War two years ago and as I recommended all and sundry to start watching it, I was happy to convert two friends to the fandom. As I began to do more research about the period, it occurred to me that I’d like to visit the Belgian Ardennes, setting for the famous Battle of the Bulge, which is depicted on the show. It was quickly decided between me and my friends that we would meet up in the town of Bastogne to hang out together for New Year’s and to put ourselves in the footsteps of the men from Easy Company.

Bastogne is not only the title of the sixth episode, but the name of the small town in the Ardennes that the 101st Airborne Division held during the Battle of the Bulge. Called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein” in German, it was Hitler’s last major offensive against the Allies. As the Ardennes were very lightly occupied, he achieved complete surprise when a force majeure of Wehrmacht and SS troops attacked and drove the Allies back west. By 19 December Bastogne and the 101st had become surrounded. This Siege of Bastogne, as it is called, ended on 26 December, when General George Patton’s Third Army broke through the German lines from the south. The Germans then launched a counteroffensive called “Unternehmen Nordwind”, but as their forces had become severely depleted, the Battle of the Bulge ended on 25 January 1945. It is one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in American military history and is considered to be the death rattle of the German Army. Its failure made the westward advance of the Soviet Army on January 12th all the more successful.

Our trip, then, was focused on retracing the steps of Easy Company, of the 2nd Battalion in the 506th Parachute Infantry regiment, belonging to the 101st Airbone Division. We stayed in a hostel in Champlon, about 25 kilometres outside of Bastogne. We had a car at our disposal, so it was easy to reach all the different places.

Day 1
After celebrating New Year’s Eve together in the hostel, we set out the next morning for the town of Bastogne itself. Its historical importance is the biggest tourist draw of this otherwise fairly nondescript town. We did not have the snow and double-digits-below-zero temperatures that made the circumstances so hellish for the soldiers 70 years ago, but it was still cold and wet. As it was New Year’s Day, the museums weren’t open, so we decided to see some sights in and around the town itself first. The central square is called Place Général McAuliffe, named after the commander of the 101st (who replaced General Taylor at the time), who has become a real local hero over there. There is a bust of him on the edge of the square, next to a Sherman tank that was pierced by an 88 shell. On the opposite side of the square is a cafe called “Le Nut’s Bar” which, mercifully, was open, so we could warm up a little. The cafe is dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge and has lots of photos on the walls from that period. There’s also a wall of fame which features portraits of those WW 2 veterans that have visited Bastogne and this cafe several decades after the war. It was very cool to see some of the Easy Company veterans among them. The name of the bar comes from the famous anecdote about General McAuliffe, who received a German ultimatum on December 22nd that suggested the Americans surrender themselves honourably or suffer the consequences of a heavy attack. Upon receiving this message, McAuliffe crumpled it up and said, “Aw, nuts!” When stumped for a diplomatic reply to the message, they decided to send back McAuliffe’s initial response, which greatly confused the Germans. This iconic moment became a symbol for the American resistance at Bastogne.

After this we drove up to the Mardasson memorial, which is located just outside of town. It’s an enormous star-shaped edifice on top of a hill, from which you have a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. Or so we heard, because there was so much fog that we couldn’t see a thing; the same problem the American supply planes had 70 years ago. Everything was very still and solemn, and we wandered around the monument for a while, reading the inscriptions on the walls. Every once in a while a sort of bell would go off, the first tones of the sound the Big Ben makes when it strikes the hour, as if there was to be an announcement, but as it sounded at random moments we couldn’t guess what it might have been for.

Next, we thought we might visit the Bois Jacques, which wasn’t far away. During the Battle of the Bulge, Easy Company held the line in the Bois Jacques before attacking the town of Foy. The 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment had taken the road between Foy and Bizory, where the Bois Jacques is located, and 2nd Battalion, which included Easy Company, dug in there. The road is a motorway today.
On our way from the Mardasson Memorial to the Bois Jacques we took a side road towards the Bois de la Paix (Peace Woods). This is a miniature natural forest, covering about six acres and dating from the 1990s. There are 4,000 trees, which were planted on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, and all are dedicated to the fallen American soldiers and civilian and military casualties. A circular road ran around this little patch of trees, and every few yards there was a sign dedicated to a place somewhere in the world that had a special connection to Bastogne and had helped to make this memorial happen. Towns and cities like Cassino and Jerusalem, which are sites of conflict, and several villages in the Normandy that had suffered through the heavy fighting in June were pictured and described. Behind most signs, a tree native to the environment of that town had been planted. Each sign deplored the town’s history of being a location for battle and war and expressed a wish for peace in the future. We were the only ones there, and it still being foggy and cold it felt very melancholy. I quite liked it; it set the mood the way bright sunshine couldn’t.

We then drove back to the road between Foy and Bizory. And sure enough, a car park (of sorts) for the Bois Jacques came up on our right. Across from the car park there’s a memorial for Easy Company specifically; it has been sponsored, among others, by HBO and Tom Hanks, the creators of Band of Brothers. People had left fake flowers as well as a pack of Lucky Strikes, the cigarettes the soldiers smoke in their foxholes in the Bois Jacques on the show. We wandered into the Bois Jacques with no particular aim; we’d read online that there were still foxholes dug by Easy Company to be seen in the woods, but we had no idea where they could be. We walked around where we figured the line had been, but we saw no foxholes. The woods were eerily quiet, and the fog hung very low. We thought what it must have been like for the men, staring out into the fog day after day, and the quietness only shattered by bursts of artillery fire.

We drove on through the Bois Jacques until we noticed yet another memorial on our left. We stopped here briefly and read that this memorial had recently been vandalised, for the fourth time. There were notes expressing anger and sadness at the aimless destruction. I wandered down a path to the left of the memorial back into the woods, but still didn’t spot any foxholes. By this time we were freezing, and we decided to go back to Bastogne to grab some food. It was getting dark as well. The last thing we did that day was visit the memorial to General George Patton in Bastogne, who is seen as the great liberator of the town.

Day 2
We’d looked up a little more information about the area the night before, and we now knew the location of the foxholes. If I had walked a little further down the track next to the vandalised memorial, I would have found them! So, we made finding the foxholes our goal of the day. Before we went back there, however, we drove back to the centre of Bastogne to visit the tourist information centre and pick up some souvenirs. Just down the street from there is the Aux Pays d’Ardenne Original Museum. It’s very small and consists of three rooms which are stuffed to the brim with objects that depict the history of the Ardennes. One room is entirely dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge, and we saw medals, weapons, medical equipment (ranging from a standard aid kit to a blood transfusion machine), rations, photographs, song books, bibles, clothing, and personal artifacts from Germans and Allies alike. Another room shows some more weapons, an actual stretcher, the silk maps the Allies used in Normandy, and some helmets, crammed between taxidermied fish and rabbits (the Ardennes is also a famous hunting area).

We continued on to the Bastogne War Museum, which is located on the hill next to the Mardasson Memorial. It’s a very modern and informative museum with an audio tour that automatically gives you information about a certain object when you’re standing in front of it, and a few video rooms. It seems to be aimed at young audiences, because it introduces a few fictional characters at the beginning  of the exhibition (a young French boy, a French resistance fighter, an American soldier and a German lieutenant), whose individual stories and “eyewitness accounts” are repeatedly referred to. Furthermore, the deplorable conditions on the front (trench foot, combat fatigue, dead soldiers piled up all around) are skipped over. There is some space reserved for information and objects of the Pacific theatre, but not much. It’s good that this often forgotten theatre of war gets some attention–you won’t find many museums about it in that part of the world–but in my opinion, if you’re going to cover it, cover it properly and don’t just mention Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal somewhere in passing. And though the Nazis’ rise to power is covered, the “Jewish question” is reduced to a small paragraph somewhere towards the end of the exhibition, which irked me. It tries to focus on the whole war but doesn’t quite manage, and it tries to focus on Bastogne, which also doesn’t quite work out. Still, there are some interesting objects on display, like the town sign that General McAuliffe holds in a famous photograph; the Christmas letter that was sent to all troops, informing them of the “Nuts!” incident; tanks and weaponry; equipment like parachutes, rations, clothing, medical supplies; and personal effects. We visited the gift shop afterwards (which is rather expensive) and had some lunch in the cafe.

Time to find some foxholes! We walked down the track next to the memorial and sure enough, we saw some foxholes! We took it with a grain of salt, however; a large part of the woods has been cut down and replaced with grass, so the first foxholes we saw were probably not a part of the front line, but much further back. Technically, officers and medics stayed further away from the line, but we were still skeptical about their authenticity. Some holes are very large and deep, and crested with pine branches. In the show, you see the men reinforcing their foxhole cover with branches. It seems like they are well-kept for tourists, and rightfully so, I think; it’s nice to be in the woods and see a reminder that this is where it really happened. It keeps the memory alive.
We walked on westwards to where the treeline was extended further. Here we saw a great many foxholes. Some are “preserved” in a similar way to the first ones we saw, but others are shallower and smaller, and might have been dug by a single soldier in a hurry. These seem more realistic, and as this spot overlooks the town of Foy, which Easy Company attacked early in January, it seems likely that this was their real location. The foxholes may not be Easy Company’s, though, but may belong to any other company from 1st or 2nd Battalion. We sat in some of the foxholes and walked around trying to piece some of the history together. Even though the characters in Band of Brothers have been fictionalised, as fans we have become attached to them, and to walk around where the real Bill Guarnere and Joe Toye lost their legs, where Skip Muck and Alex Penkala were killed, and where Lieutenant Dike had a nervous breakdown while taking the town of Foy, was a special moment for us.

We explored the woods a little in the other direction and stumbled upon a rather strange memorial that is dedicated to a few specific men of Easy Company that lost their lives there in 1945: Skip Muck, Alex Penkala, Don Hoobler, John Julian, Carl Sawosko and Kenneth Webb.

As it was getting dark, we decided to make a last stop at the German cemetery in Recogne. Then we drove back to Bastogne and went to the Nut’s Bar to try an Airborne beer. It was served in a little ceramic helmet and it actually tasted really good! The next day in the Bastogne Barracks museum, our guide pointed at a picture of paratrooper Vince Speranza, and explained that when he visited Bastogne in his old age, he ordered an Airborne beer, pointed at the bottle and said, “That’s me!” It turned out that during the war, the grandfather of the man who brewed the Airborne beer had seen a paratrooper run up to a tavern and fill his helmet with beer to bring back to a wounded buddy. That was Vince, and he became a legend in Bastogne.

Day 3
On our last day we visited the cemetery where Renée Lemaire, the Belgian nurse who is also in episode six Band of Brothers, and her fellow nurse Augusta Chiwy (Anna in Band of Brothers) are buried. Across from the cemetery is the Bastogne Barracks Information Centre, housed in the former headquarters of the 101st. A good-humoured guide gave us an extensive 3.5-hour tour in French, but it wasn’t difficult for me to follow; he also spoke a little Dutch, being Belgian, and would sometimes translate things for me. We saw General McAuliffe’s former office, where the famous “Nuts!” scene is recreated with puppets; the medical post; a room filled with automatic weapons and artillery; and the radio room, where we got to hold an American M1 rifle and a German rifle, the name of which I forget. I was surprised at how heavy they were! Finally we went into the hall of fame, where pictures of all the veterans who had visited the museum cover the walls. There are veterans from the Pacific campaign too, and in addition to the Americans and English there are Germans, French, Dutch and other nationalities. We were of course excited to see some Easy Company men in there. The nurses Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy have their own showcase in the centre of the room with their service awards.

We also visited the officer’s mess, where a famous picture of McAuliffe and his staff’s Christmas dinner was taken, which has been recreated with puppets.

Lastly, our guide took us to the big warehouse where they restore old military craft. He explained how vehicles worked, how they could be stopped (Sherman tanks caught fire in no time), grumbled about the Hollywoodian ending of the 2014 film Fury (about an American tank battalion, starring Brad Pitt) and told us a great story about a sixteen-year-old English girl, Barbara, who lied about her age and got to command an anti-aircraft gun in the British Army during World War Two–I forget whether or not she was in the Battle of the Bulge. She lived to an old age and is also on the wall in the hall of fame.

After this exciting tour, it was time to go home. We had such a blast together and we learned so much about this chapter in the lives of the paratroopers we admire! Hopefully we can meet up in Normandy next time and do a tour of our own there.

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