Saturday, October 12, 2019

#24b: Belgium. Bastogne.

Pulling off of the road, I was not sure what to expect. As 'war memorials' go, usually there is some sort of informational signage or plaque to help guide you around. Here I was in what was maybe the most anticipated historical place of my entire life and I wasn't sure if the small gravel area was for parking or a place for tractors to turn around. But there across the street I was justified: a small stone monument to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR; the names and service numbers of 14 boys, all more than ten years younger than me, who had died in the forest behind me. I stood and read their names. Some I recognized from the series: Warren H Muck, Alex M Penkala, Donald B Hoobler, but most I did not. Their sacrifice would not be known to Hollywood.

I turned and walked back across the small road and went into the woods. There seemed to be a path although no signs led the way. I half expected to be shouted down by an angry farmer for trespassing. The forest was bright at the edges. The needles created a soft floor which muffled footsteps and made the whole place eerily silent. I intersected with some sort of trail and followed it back, not sure where it may lead, but feeling that this was more appropriate than simply wondering through the forest. As I got deeper into the woods it became darker and I began to notice that the trees all seemed to have been planted in symmetrical rows; this was not random wilderness, it was the work of human minds. Walking down the rows made me feel as though they stood watch on either side of me. Still the needles covered the ground and the only sound as I began to pick up my speed was the occasional twig cracking underfoot or a bird calling in the distance. And then finally I saw one. This is what I had been looking for. A remnant of Easy Company. The hole did not look accidental although it was worn around the sides and partially caved in throughout the years. A foxhole. Where the men of Easy slept, kept watch, lived for all of those freezing days and nights during the siege. 

It was odd, this hole. Standing alone in forest. Maybe all of the other foxholes had caved in. Maybe this was a rear foxhole for an officer. A little confused, I kept walking on, looking for more traces of Easy. And soon, just near the road on elevated ground, foxhole after foxhole. Maybe ten feet apart just inside the woods from the road. Dozens of them. Larger ones that two or three men could occupy at once in front of the clearing looking down across an open field towards the tiny German occupied town of Foy where perhaps slightly less miserable men stood watching back at the men of Easy who had dug into the frozen woods of Bois Jaques. I began to see some sense of attempted order that came out of what became the Siege of Bastogne. Some lines and defensive perimeters were vaguely distinguishable, but overall the men in the Bois Jaques were sharing it with their enemy - in a few instances they would even walk through each other's lines on patrols or bathroom run in total confusion. This winter, the coldest in decades, with snow coming down on the undersupplied and battle weary E Company, brought men to their breaking point. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to crouch in one of these foxholes when German artillery began to pound The Bois Jaques. To be totally reliant on luck, or fate, as to whether that simple hole would protect you. On this summer day it was difficult to imagine that time that the men of the E Company endured for twenty-five miserable days: constant motor, rocket and artillery fire, attacks by German infantry, and even two bombing runs by misguided American P-47s.

Bastogne was a thorn in the side of the entire German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. This offensive that Hitler had thrown more troops into than that of the initial invasion on the Western front in 1940 which brought on the downfall of France: it was Hitler's last gamble of the war and totally caught the Allies by surprise as they made preparations for the final push into Germany. The thick red and blue arrows on battle maps indicate the movement of these massive armies into Belgium and the Allies' attempt to halt them. These lines and maps have always fascinated me. To visualize the handiwork of brilliant military minds maneuvering armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the fields and forests of Europe. But not until walking through this forest had I appreciated what it looked like to be a soldier on the ground fighting for their life in this massive chess game. This forest could have been the backwoods of Meadowcrest at my childhood home in Cincinnati (and many times as a kid I ran around those woods pretending it was), but to see the foxholes, the perimeters, the field in front of Foy, the makeshift crosses set up in the forest; it made the whole battlefront seem much more human.

Breaking down my tripod, I made my way back towards the edge of the woods. Still the needles created an unusual silence as I walked. It reminded me of the silence that settles in after a newly fallen snow and how the Bois Jaques in December 1944 must have been similarly silent during the intermittent breaks between the artillery fire. How it must have made the onset of such a deafening assault all that more terrifying. I lit a cigarette (sorry Jenn) and thought about those men as I hiked down the little road through the forest back to the car. Even those that survived never got to leave Bastogne peacefully walking down this road like I was: they left by charging down the field at Foy, on to their next trial, digging in again against a fierce and determined enemy who had nothing to lose. Pushing back at that thick red arrow on the map as the Fifth Panzer Army attempted to break the Allied lines and reach the sea. They never would. And the men at Bastogne, the heroes now etched into the stone on that little monument next to the nondescript gravel pullout where I now met my car will always remind us why.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

#24a: Belgium. In Flanders Fields

I'd have to imagine that they thought we were insane. The birds. With their tiny brains, flying overhead and looking to make a nest or forage for food over the once peaceful fields of Flanders, Belgium; but finding this an untenable task given that we had blown to hell every tree or useful remnant of life in sight. Us, the 'intelligent' species, sitting in rat and lice infested holes among our own waste and corpses hurling steel and lead back and forth at each other for reasons most of us were scarce to even really understand.

Flanders today is a beautiful part of Europe. Its rolling green pastures reminded me of the midwest where I grew up. Of family trips driving through Indiana; of small towns where the worst traffic on the road would be a tractor pulling a big cart of hay. As you drive through Flanders in 2019, you would never imagine that this was the setting for the most horrifying battleground in human history almost 100 years ago during the First World War. You wouldn't imagine that as your tiny Peugeot (or whatever that European car was named) flew down those roads, it at one time would have been interrupted every few miles by 6 ft wide and miles long ditches; fields of barbed wire and millions of shell craters that made this peaceful farmland look like the surface of the moon after weeks upon weeks of artillery barrages of a proportion never known. You wouldn't imagine that millions of men died here in those fields. That many of them are still buried in mass graves beneath your feet; each country did their best to bury their own in proper gravesites, but out of necessity, both sides were forced to bury their enemies just to rid themselves of the bodies piled up in newly captured trenches as the inches of fields were fought for in Flanders.

This beautiful farmland requires an imagination to make the transformation in your mind back to this time - as now over 100 years later the Belgians have gone back to their normal lives and apart from the cemeteries and monuments dotting the fields, it barely looks different from the quiet mid-western countryside. Winston Churchill after the war even proposed leaving some cities like the beautiful Ypres (ee-pruh) in ruins to remember and memorialize the devastation of the war. The Belgians balked at this idea (rightly so). Their response was to rebuild as quickly as possible to show their resilience in the face of the devastation (imagine if after September 11th we had left the 15 acres of ground zero rubble to sit there as a monument to the destruction caused by Al Qaeda. Winston, you had some good ideas over the years, but this was not one of them). But the devastation is certainly worth remembering.

Let me try to put this in perspective: in the battle of Verdun a few miles south of here, 60 million artillery shells were fired over the course of 10 months. OK... well that's just a statistic if you are like me. Unrelatable. Doesn't mean much... kind of like when they say the world economy is $80 trillion - that's quite a bit more than the $30 I have in my wallet I guess... Let me help: 60,000,000 shells / 10 months = 6,000,00 shells per month. 6,000,000 shells / 30 days = 200,000 shells per day. 200,000 shells / 24 hours = 8,333 shells per hour. 8,333 shells / 60 minutes  = 138 shells per minute. That's more than two shell impacts PER SECOND FOR TEN MONTHS. An incessant and terrifying ear shattering drumroll of artillery explosions for ten months straight. Many that weren't killed were driven insane (ever heard the term shellshock?). 70% of men killed in these battles were killed by this artillery.  It was September 11th every few days for almost a year. These are the statistics that move you. They are ones which had never been known before and haven't been known since. But they are ones which when you walk through the fields of Flanders, chills go through your spine knowing that not long ago this is what happened beneath your feet.

The peaceful and mostly untouched town of Bruges in Northern Flanders, among others, evaded the wrath of this artillery fire as it managed to escape the front lines of the war. Its chocolate, postcard worthy canals and charming old town square a symbol of what many towns may have looked like in Belgium had they not been showered in this barrage of steel. It was and still is a gem of Flanders and as a result probably a little too crowded by tourists pilling in to admire its beauty (and waffles and chocolates). But Ypres further south which found itself in the crosshairs totally leveled in the war is also a beautiful sight. Its Menin Gate hosting a ceremony every night for the last hundred years to commemorate the fallen which saved the city from capture. Hundreds of people turn out to watch each evening to carry on this tradition (I was there on a Sunday night and was 5 rows back because I did not arrive an hour early). Ypres is a monument to this time. But also a monument to the resilience of the Belgians, who were essentially just collateral damage in a conflict of which they had no interest in being involved.

I certainly take for granted that 4,000 miles west of this place, I have not nor will ever experience what being the 'collateral damage' in a conflict like this would be like. That as Americans, we as a country were enraged to the point of mobilizing our entire nation's armed forces because a purely military target on our homeland was attacked a few decades later. This 'day that will live in infamy' for the USA... it was just another day if we put it on the same yardstick as what the Belgians dealt with for four horrible years during the Great War. But life has gone on. The birds fly; flowers grow; the graves stand peacefully silent.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
     That mark our place; and in the sky
     The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields,

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields - John McCrae

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Letter to Scott

The high arches at Union Station remind me of your time. Those high sweeping cement pilasters a monument to a different era. A time when it seemed people weren't so uptight and bickering about everything there was to bicker about as we go about our daily lives. This was not a time in which I lived, but it's one which captivates me. I can hear the notes from the band echoing off of those heavy cement walls. The trumpet, the cello, the saxophone; the jazz. The women with their short bobbed hair and sequined dresses dancing to the bright sounds. The men, cigarettes in hand with a slick suit and tie, standing back. Taking all of it in.

You thrived in this time. Maybe you idealized it for me. You so ironically ennobled for me a time in which you seemed to despise so much. 'Boats against the current,' you said of these people, 'beating on, but borne back ceaselessly into the past.' Would that you had known today it is your time we wish we would be borne back towards? That it may have only gotten more dismal as the years have passed? That you exited this world right before we found our absolute worst?

We (I?) wish now that we could only be brought back to your time. This time that you were drowning in and so disillusioned by. This time that crushed even a dreamer like your Jay. If a time like this, after the boom of a roaring decade, could not bring hope to you, what should? You: The dreamer. The idealist. All this must have just been a facade to you. All this concluding with Jay's dreams brought silent by a gunshot in a swimming pool. But you should have seen that if you could have lived nine more decades, that the boat would have been borne back into your own time. 

Why was your present so hard for you? I wonder what you would think of me far further down the dark road that you saw yourself upon. What land might you have seen New York now? Originally the green and empty canvas to the generations before you, but in its heyday you saw already in shambles. I wonder what you would have thought of the smoke rising from lower Manhattan in the early years of the new century, but also what you would have thought of the bright pillars of light that rose only days after. Maybe there's tragedy and hope in every generation. Maybe I'll just sit in Union Station and dream about your jazz the same as you sat there dreaming about something else you found better; and while we were dreaming, other stuff was happening - not all good, not all bad.. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.