"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Mark Twain
“Human beings are made up of flesh and blood, and a miracle fiber called courage.”
This trip was never part of a plan, but sometimes the most magical things just happen. We were scheduled to go on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest in the fall of 2017 and, when an out of town wedding came up for the weekend prior to our departure, I decided that instead of returning home with Tim, I would continue onwards to Europe. My cousins, with whom we were joining for the river cruise, were going to be in France touring Normandy, but the logistics of meeting up with them didn’t work…however, it did get me thinking…
My dad’s oldest brother, Frank, was killed in WWII, around the time of the Battle of the Bulge and was buried near there. Typical of that generation, my dad never talked about it, so that is about all I knew. My dad’s life was always about moving forward. The youngest of three boys, their mom died when my dad was 3 and they grew up dirt poor during the depression. His older brothers had raised him, so when his oldest brother was killed in the war (my dad was barely 18 years old and was notified, via telegram, on his ship in the Pacific) it added to the losses of such a young man.…so life was all about the here and now for my dad, which definitely has its merits and allowed him to lead a wonderful life. But it didn't give me a lot to go on since that history died with my dad.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I dug out some of the (very few) things he had hung onto…a letter from my dad to my uncle apologizing for how little he had written to Frank, saying, now that he too was away at war, he “realized how much a letter meant to a guy”…a letter from my uncle Frank to my dad, written just days before he was killed, ribbing my dad for how much weight my dad had gained in training “it's amazing what three squares can do”…the telegram from my grandpa to my dad, notifying him that his brother had been killed.
A google search revealed that my uncle was buried at The Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium and I decided it was time someone from our family went to pay our respects. When I found the cemetery information I also discovered his unit information, so I dug around a little more online, trying to find out more about his story…it’s a bit confusing with different units and and military jargon but eventually, I struck gold! Someone had written a little, 53 page, book, no title or author, that followed my uncles 899th tank destroyer battalion from bootcamp thru the end of the war in Europe, and someone else had uploaded it to the internet! There was my uncle’s name, on page 8, listed among the 74 killed and 3 missing from their unit. It was a bit like a my own personal Band of Brothers…reading how they shipped out from New York with no idea where they were going…finally arriving in North Africa…fighting thru Africa and Italy, training in the UK eventually shipping off to Utah beach…fighting thru France, then Belgium where my uncle was killed during The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, just before The Battle of the Bulge...and onward to the end of the war for the rest. I arranged my flight from New York to Brussels, set up a rental car and arranged for a guide to take me thru some of the areas from the famous battles near Bastogne and Foy…I watched The Band of Brothers again, but this time it was so much more personal.
Hover on photo for description.
Links to the book 899th Our Battalion
I arrived in Brussels at 8:45 in the morning, grabbed the train into town, dropped my bags at my AirBnB and headed out to see the town. Most cities have “free” tours and there was one starting at 11am. I like to start off with one of these when I travel…it gives you a good overview of the city but, if your flight is delayed you haven’t inconvenienced anyone or lost any money. But first…a waffle! Brussels is a pretty compact city so, even with a waffle stop, I managed to make it to the meeting place for the tour in plenty of time. The city is famous for its cartoons, street art, history, fries, waffles, chocolate and beer but it is also the headquarters for the EU and NATO. Following the free tour I grabbed a heaping plate of the famous Belgian fries and headed to the HoHo bus for a tour of the wider city. After that, I shopped around and picked up some food and flowers for the next day (I would be heading out very early) and then picked up the keys for my rental car. At 5:30pm, I had a beer tour scheduled and was thrilled to see that two girls I had met on the free tour were there also (I had never traveled alone before and it was kinda weird at first but, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again). We sampled amazing beers made by monks and toured some fun and very hip places…I was probably too old for this, but I loved it! My new friends invited me to go out with them after the tour but, sadly, I had to pass...I had a big day ahead of me and the jet-lag, combined with the high-octane beer was getting the better of me!
I was up early to try and get out of the city in my rental before there was too much traffic. I only missed a couple of exits trying to get out of the city, and without too much backtracking, I was on my way. Driving thru the beautiful countryside it was hard to imagine a war took place here. As I got closer to the cemetery, the quaint villages and beautiful farms seemed untouched by the history…its funny how life goes on. The cemetery appeared at the top of a hill with its beautiful, well manicured grounds, a US flag on a beautiful overlook and massive monument building; it wasn’t dissimilar to the veterans cemetery where my parents are buried back in Minneapolis. I walked up to the building and started reading about the area…each pier on the colonnade was embossed with a different state’s seal and the names of soldiers still missing (there are 450 names, rosettes mark those who have since been recovered and identified). Out across the lawn are 7,987 graves including 94 graves for unknowns; there are 37 sets of two brothers and one set of three brothers buried here.
As I was standing there taking it all in, an official looking man approached me… with so many graves, I thought I should ask him how to locate my uncle’s gravesite. I asked him if would know how to locate plot B-3-30…he asked me if I was a family member and I said yes, my uncle Frank was buried here. He invited me into an office where he introduced me to the office staff and someone retrieved my uncle’s file. They spent some time going over my uncle’s service, where and how he was killed and they went over some forms I could send in to the (US) government to get more information. They gave me some information about a family in a nearby town who has adopted my uncle's grave (all 7,987 grave-sites have a local person who tends to it) they also brings flowers every year during the Memorial Day celebration the have here. It was so touching, I really wasn’t expecting any of this.
They gave me a folder with all of this information and said they would walk out to the gravesite with me…as we walked, they told me they were bringing wet sand from Utah beach (where my uncle’s battalion had landed on D'Day) they would wipe the sand on the front of the gravestone so that his name would show up better…eventually the sand would dry and fall to the ground…it was such a thoughtful symbol. After they wiped the sand on his grave they put an American and a Belgian flag there and had a little ceremony where they thanked me for my families sacrifice…I got all teary and really wished I had my family with me. The gentleman I originally met, Ludwig, gave me the two flags and then left me alone with my thoughts.
The beautiful and majestic Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.
I had no idea that this would happen, I thought I would come and lay flowers, say a few things and leave. I was so moved and humbled…the enormity of what transpired so long a go and the sacrifice made by so many families…the care given to the graves by the US government and by the local community, all these years. It was a lot of emotion for me to try to convey to my family…I would leave there with a real sense of love and pride and sadness and awe. Before I left, I spent some time walking around, trying to pay respects to those I passed. I saw some of the unknown graves and the three brothers…so many lives lost. As I drove the hour to Bastogne, where I was going on a Battle of the Bulge tour, I kept trying to imagine what it was like here all those years ago…over 75,000 US troops were killed during the Battle of the Bulge and somewhere between 10-25,000 in the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest…near here there are three other American cemeteries, two more in Belgium and one just across the border in Luxembourg.
In Bastogne, I met my guide, Robert, for my WWII tour and he truly conveyed the same sense of gratitude that I felt at the cemetery...that their lives were saved by the sacrifice of the soldiers that lay here. The history of the area here is rich and there are reminders all around; a tank, a statue, a memorial, a cemetery…not only ours but German cemeteries as well. Across the street from what had been the temporary American cemetery (but was now just an open field marked by a flag and memorial) Robert and I went into the German cemetery. Austere by comparison…the manicured grounds were large, each headstone listed six names (some I saw as young as 15). We stepped into the small chapel and there was a slightly wilted bouquet of flowers on the mantle…someone had been there somewhat recently.
Our tour concluded at the Mardasson Memorial, where Robert, a sculptor, had a beautiful sculpture on the grounds. There was so much to see in this area, and, even though I covered a lot of ground, I barely scratched the surface. Someday I will return with my family…until we meet again, these people will always be in my heart.
Hover on photo for description.