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.

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2 comments :

  1. Your words and your photographs make your old (and former) English teacher proud. Reading your description of the foxholes and then seeing the pictures of them do indeed make this battlefront seem more human and less humane at the same time.

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  2. Thanks so much for the kind words. Oh gosh, my English teacher! please do not take points away for my inconsistent use of the Oxford comma and dubious sentence structure.

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