You may remember that around the end of last year, I visited the town of Bastogne with two friends. Being big fans of HBO’s Band of Brothers, we wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve together in the same vicinity as the paratroopers did over 70 years ago: in the Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge. I wrote a report about this very special trip here.
Imagine our delight when earlier this year it was announced that several of the actors from Band of Brothers would be coming to Bastogne for the Nuts Weekend, the annual commemorative weekend for the Battle of the Bulge, and would be retracing the steps of the real paratroopers there for the first time. We didn’t hesitate to buy tickets for two of the organised events: the signing session at the Bastogne War Museum on Saturday morning and the Q&A with the actors on Friday evening. On Sunday, you could buy a ticket to have dinner with the actors and join them for a walk in the fated Bois Jacques; and while I would have liked nothing more than to sit across from these guys whilst feeling too nervous to eat anything, this event cost around 500 € (506, to be precise, for the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment) which we all three thought was too steep a price. Besides, we’d get to meet the guys on two separate occasions anyway, which was good enough for us.
I took the train down to Bastogne, a long but incredible picturesque journey from Maastricht in the south of the Netherlands to Liège in the east of Belgium, then a smaller train to Gouvy, a bus to Houffalize and another one to Bastogne, right through the heart of the Ardennes. I arrived in the town centre and met my friends there. We grabbed a bite to eat and went off to check in at the same hostel we stayed in the last time. Unfortunately we now had a room on one of the top floors, adjacent to a room where the loudest group of Dutch people I have ever encountered were staying; however, they didn’t interfere with our sleep schedules too much. We exchanged Christmas presents, like we did last year, and then got ready to go into town for the Q&A session, which was to start early in the evening.
The atmosphere in and around Bastogne was similar to what we’d seen in Normandy. Green spray-painted US Army Jeeps and deuce-and-a-halfs flooded the motorway. Reenactors—men, women and children alike—walked around decked out in army fatigues, carrying authentic-looking equipment and sometimes even marching in formation. We were surprised to see so many fake weapons being carried around, especially considering the terrorist threat level in Belgium has been up to three since the attacks in Brussels.I suppose it says enough about the value people there place on these celebrations. We queued outside the venue where the Q&A would take place. The demographic was largely white, male and middle-aged, which was to be expected. We were ushered into a large room with a stage, and waited for the actors to make their entrance.
Over the past months, a fair few of the actors who had initially been announced to attend had dropped out, but there was still a fair share of them; so many that they barely fit on one stage. Aside from the actors, military advisor Captain Dale Dye was there, as well as two actual veterans who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge: Vince Speranza, a then 18-year-old machine gunner who joined H Company, 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division just before the Battle of the Bulge started, and Robert Izumi, who joined the Army at 17 years old and served as a sergeant major in the 101st during the siege of Bastogne.
I was thrilled just to see all of them sitting there, and couldn’t think of any questions to put to them when they were taking questions from the audience. Most of the questions and answers boiled down to the same thing: the men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge were heroes, and later generations, including the veterans, are grateful to the actors for portraying them and letting their story live on. There is a mutual respect and admiration: the “greatest generation” is portrayed as nothing other than brave, selfless, tough and admirable. In this respect, though I enjoyed the Q&A, I found there was little critical engagement with the actors or the veterans; it didn’t dig very deep. I suppose it was not the time and place to ask. The entire Q&A can be viewed on Youtube here, courtesy of radio producer Ross Owens.
We learned that we would be able to meet the actors afterwards, which we hadn’t anticipated at all. We were directed to a vaulted room, where the actors would appear a few minutes later. Four tables were spread around the room, each with four guys behind it. In the beginning, it was madness: we saw Robin Laing (Babe Heffron) and Shane Taylor (medic Eugene Roe) appear and got caught up in the throng of people at their table. Later on, some type of order was established, and people began to queue for the tables; but at this moment people were simply milling about. We got to speak to Robin and Shane, who were very courteous, and took a picture with them. Dale Dye and Nick Aaron (Popeye Wynn) were sat to their left, but there was no way we could get to them without queuing all over again. We decided to get a drink and queue for the next table, which had Rick Gomez (who played George Luz), Ross McCall (Joe Liebgott), Rick Warden (Harry Welsh) and James Madio (Frank Perconte). The whole thing went by very quickly; we took photos with them (they remained seated, it was easier) and talked very quickly and were moved along by members of the organisation. We had to queue for a good half hour for each table. The last actors we spoke to were Ben Caplan (Walter “Smokey” Gordon), Douglas Spain (Tony Garcia), George Calil (“Moe” Alley) and Bart Ruspoli (Ed Tipper). They were very sweet and talkative, and began photobombing each other in our photos! Some of them had been drinking quite a bit—I suppose anyone would, with an open bar.
I was a bit of a nervous wreck, and the whole evening is sort of a blur. What do you say to people whom you admire more than anything? I vaguely recall Ross McCall calling me a sweetheart and Shane Taylor saying “See you tomorrow” (at the signing), and becoming frustrated each time I handed my camera to somebody to take a picture. As I had taken my DSLR camera and asked various people to take a photo of us, not all my photos turned out well, because apparently pointing a camera and pressing a button is too difficult for some people. The last table had Philip Barantini (Wayne “Skinny” Sisk), Doug Allen (Alton More) and veteran Bob Izumi seated at it. By this point, however, I was feeling so tired and just absolutely spent with nerves that I couldn’t bear the idea of queuing for another half hour and talking to them. We would see them at the signing session the next morning, anyway. So we left and got a good night’s sleep. Nevertheless, I can’t express how amazing it was to see these guys, who have come to mean so much to me, in the flesh, and to talk to them and shake their hand and thank them for their wonderful performances.
We were up early on Saturday morning to join the queue at the Bastogne War Museum. The queue ran throughout the museum; again, actors would be positioned in small groups at different locations. While standing outside in the cold, we watched reenactors go about their business in the fake military camp that they had set up in front of the entrance. They had a big howitzer that at one point began firing blanks, with an almighty boom that made us jump. Again, we thought how odd it was that concerns about terrorist attacks had apparently gone out the window.
I had brought my Camp Toccoa T-shirt, which is worn by the guys in episode 1, to be signed by the actors. We didn’t have to wait very long inside the museum before we were taken, in groups, into one of the simulation rooms (a Belgian café in Bastogne where a simulated air raid takes place), where we would have two minutes with the guys behind the tables. In there were Shane Taylor (Doc Roe), Ben Caplan (Smokey Gordon), George Calil (Moe Alley) and Dale Dye. I was very disappointed that we weren’t to have more time with them. Two minutes is nothing when you’re wrestling for space with five other people. Shane Taylor seemed excited to see me and gave me a hug! George Calil, who had been drinking whiskey the previous evening, seemed hungover. Sadly there wasn’t enough time for me to have my shirt signed by Dale Dye, whom I would have loved to meet; the guy from the organisation gave no quarter and ushered us out again.
We moved to the next table, which had Douglas Spain (Tony Garcia), who was so hungover that he said “Hello, how are you?” twice without looking up once, and Rick Warden (Harry Welsh), who was very excited about the artwork my friend had brought along to get signed; he even gave her his agent’s details, so she could send some of it to him. We moved along to see Ross McCall (Liebgott), Rick Gomez (George Luz) and James Madio (Frank Perconte), who seemed quite chipper on what must have been little sleep. When we walked away from that table we ran into Ross Owen, the Scottish producer who conducted a series of interview with the actors from Band of Brothers in 2010 and 2011, gathered on the website bandofbrotherswherearetheynow.blogspot.com. We told him we loved the interviews, and he introduced us to the grandson of the real medic Eugene Roe, Chris Langlois! This was a very exciting moment. Ross told us they were working together on putting the interviews together in a book, along with additional material from people who had worked on the production. I wished I’d had my business cards with me to put myself forward as an editor, but we were ushered on again.
The last table had Philip Barantini (“Skinny” Sisk), Nick Aaron (Popeye), Robin Laing (Babe), and Doug Allen (Alton More). Philip Barantini asked me where I was from and when I said the Netherlands, he said, “There’s lots of Dutch people here, in the organisation as well.” I told him they ought to organise another actors’ reunion for Market Garden, in Holland, and he said they had been talking about that! That would be amazing. On our way out, I was stopped by a photographer to pose with my T-shirt, but I haven’t seen that photo online anywhere, so I guess it was discarded.
We went back to the city centre to grab a Belgian waffle and watch the military parade, which featured military veterans, school children and a marching band. There was a commemorative ceremony around the McAuliffe monument and the Sherman tank on the main square, attended by Izumi and Speranza (I think), but we couldn’t come close enough to see what was going on. After the ceremony, we went back to the city hall, where the actors would participate in the annual Nuts Weekend activity: jeter de noix, or, throwing packets of walnuts from the balcony into the crowd. Veterans Izumi and Speranza participated in this, too. It was hilarious to see them aim for some particular person and miss; they were all obviously having fun, and I got some pretty good action shots.
With the jeter de noix over, we went to Le Nut’s, the airborne-themed cafe we also visited last year, to have dinner. In my opinion, the atmosphere of the place was ruined by the loud music and the huge television screens, but we were determined to stay there until 9 p.m., when Nick Aaron, one of the actors, would perform in a tent outside with his band. However, having had another exciting day and not fancying the idea of standing around for a few more hours in a smoke-filled tent with leering Belgians surrounding us, we decided to go to the hostel instead and watch a film.
While we were having dinner, a reenactor entered the cafe, followed by an old man in a dress uniform festooned with medals, ribbons, epaulets—the works. He was wearing a plastic tag that said “101st Airborne veteran.” For a moment I thought he might be a reenactor too—otherwise, wouldn’t he have received the same honourable treatment as Izumi and Speranza?—but then I thought, no way. He seemed like the real deal. They sat down at a table to our right, where they struck up a conversation with a noisy Dutch foursome (are the Dutch always noisy? The answer is yes). They were from a village near Arnhem.
“Arnhem! That was a bridge too far,” said the veteran. Everyone laughed.
“Are you enjoying Bastogne?” he asked them. They replied in the affirmative. “Do you like Bastogne?” the girl asked him. “No!” he replied with emphasis, and they all laughed again. Later on I heard the girl telling the reenactor this was the highlight of their evening. At some point they got their phones out and he posed with them for a picture.
I glanced over at them a couple of times; sometimes the veteran was engaged in spirited conversation, but sometimes he stared at the screen that was above our heads, showing music videos. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, and some secondhand embarrassment, too. I’m suppose he was there out of his own free will, and happy that people were honouring their sacrifice and celebrating their victory—sentiments that reign supreme both here and in Normandy: building blocks of the American hero mythos. But why bring such a gentle old fellow to a bar with loud music and TV screens, toted around like a prized relic? I felt sorry for him, sitting there, having to answer the Dutch people’s inane questions, surrounded by noise and crowds. Who would possibly enjoy this? I thought. Imagine what that man has seen; imagine the incredible changes the world has undergone in the past 70 years. War tourism is a very strange sort of entertainment; ultimately, it stems from patriotism and nostalgia for a romanticised past. I wanted to ask him what he thought of this circus, the festivities and the reenactors; if he truly enjoyed it, or if he thought it was blown out of proportion. And what did he think of this one battle—or, rather, this one fragment of the battle, as seen in Band of Brothers—gaining so much recognition and attention, while so many other parts of the war are forgotten? How much of this is due to Americans’ thirst for heritage and history of their own? How did he feel about the aggrandized status of the military in the United States? I would’ve liked to ask him all of this, but I remembered the Q&A with veteran Bob Izumi, and was reminded that a critical discussion about the military was just beyond these old-timers. It was hardly the environment for a deep discussion. After finishing his soda water, the veteran left, accompanied by his friend the reenactor. He was stopped for pictures a couple more times on his way to the exit.
I had to catch a train in the afternoon, and so we spent our morning visiting a museum that had been closed during the same time last year: the 101st Airborne “Le Mess” museum. They had an excellent collection of weapons, costumes and photographs from the war, and a simulation air raid shelter. Here we spoke briefly with an American man who had fought in Operation Desert Storm and in Somalia, flying a helicopter. We were peering into a cabinet full of original army rations, and he pointed out to us that “the cheese still looks like that these days!” He told us that his father had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and his mother had been a nurse during the war; when he brought some of his rations home after his deployment, his mother had been bowled over by how many and how much more diverse they were than when she was in the army. He said he came downstairs one morning to find her having breakfast with all these rations. “Mom, stop it! I’m cooking you breakfast!” He said his father never talked about the war—never ever. I asked him if he did, and he replied “Yes, I didn’t have it that bad.” I’d never spoken to an American war veteran before, and would have liked to have asked him more questions, but the museum was getting very crowded, and he moved along. Downstairs in the museum, we caught the granddaughter of General George Patton being interviewed for TV. We stepped outside after our visit and found another reenactment camp on the lawn behind us, with troopers munching hot dogs in the cold.
We felt our visit wouldn’t be complete without another trip to the Bois Jacques, though we had been there before. We looked up the foxholes again, as well as the memorial for the Easy Company men who had died there in the woods. As I said above, we missed the trip to the woods with the actors, veterans and family members of Easy Company men, but a large chunk of the tour can be viewed on Youtube, again courtesy of Ross Owen. They discuss Easy Company’s particular route through these woods.
Thus ended another brilliant Band of Brothers-themed weekend.