- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

BASTOGNE, Belgium — The sweet high-tenor voice filled the little chapel at Henri-Chapelle Cemetery with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the words were in an unfamiliar tongue. Roland, an elderly Belgian gentleman, told me proudly: “I sang this for Gen. Eisenhower when he came here in 1945, but I was only a little boy then. When the Americans arrived, it was paradise.”

A Vietnam War veteran with long white hair and in a black leather jacket, standing nearby, did not try to hide his tears as he strained to hear the French words — “O, Regardez dans la clarte du matin (“O, say can you see by the dawn’s early light”).

Henri-Chapelle Cemetery lies on the road from Liege, Belgium to Aachen, Germany. It is not far from Bastogne, a small town whose name is seared, like Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, in the soul and sinew of America. The cemetery is the last resting place of 7,992 American soldiers. Most of them died trying to repulse the German offensive known by us as the Battle of the Bulge, for the great bulge in the American lines. Europeans call it the Battle of the Ardennes, for the great forest surrounding the town.

There are 14 such World War II sites maintained abroad by the American Battle Monuments Commission, created by an act of Congress in 1923. Use of the permanent cemetery sites on foreign soil was granted in perpetuity by the host governments to the United States, free of cost, rent and taxation. In the Ardennes area, there are three cemeteries of American dead. The American flag flies above all of them; the dead can sleep in American soil.

We had come, a group of travel writers from the United States, along with dozens of World War II veterans and their families, to honor those who had fallen in the cold, bloodstained, forested hills of the Ardennes in Belgium and in Luxembourg. At Henri-Chapelle, there are rows and rows of white Christian crosses and Stars of David, arranged in broad sweeping curves on a gently sloping lawn.

The veterans fanned out among the graves to look for the names of comrades fallen 60 years ago in one of the fiercest and costliest battles of the war.

Belgian veterans were there, too. One of them told me, with great pride, that when the Germans arrived, all of the 100 young men of his village were ordered to join the German army. To a man, they refused. To a man, they were sent to work camps to labor as slaves. Some survived; many did not.

As the busloads of veterans arrived, they were greeted by dozens of schoolchildren, waving small American flags and chanting, “Wel-come, wel-come, wel-come.” Belgian schoolchildren of the Ardennes are taught to care for the graves of the fallen Americans, and to honor the Allied dead who gave their lives to free Europe from the Nazi yoke. The local community is involved in keeping the memory of the battle alive.

A woman read a moving poem entitled “Freedom Is Not Free,” which she had composed for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the battle. Anthems were sung, short speeches made. Sixty years is a long time, but these men, Americans and Belgians alike, have not forgotten the liberation of Belgium and Luxembourg. Many are veterans of “the longest day” on the beaches of Normandy who fought their way from June 6, 1944, through the summer, autumn and winter into 1945. The insignia on their jackets tells the tale.

The Battle of the Bulge began Dec. 16, 1944, when a formidable assembly of German tanks, guns and men, including the dreaded SS Panzer division under the command of Gen. Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, crashed through the forest against the thinly held American lines. Adolf Hitler’s theory was that the Allied invasion could be halted and that British and American forces could be divided, enabling his army to cross the River Meuse, capture Brussels and the port of Antwerp before the Americans could react.

The Americans fought valiantly with extraordinary courage. The battle began in a blizzard and did not end until Jan. 28, 1945. It was the final great German offensive of World War II. The ground was frozen; those who died in the forest often were buried beneath nothing but a mound of leaves, with a boot or hand thrust through the snow to mark where they died.

Foxholes dug by American soldiers in the forest east of Bastogne and markings on trees skinned by artillery remain undisturbed, a living testament to those who fought there.

A walk through the now silent forest is like a visit to carefully preserved battlefields at Antietam and Manassas — an elegiac reminder of what the days and nights of battle must have been like for friend and foe alike. The Ardennes campaign, fought along with British, Canadian, Free French and Belgian troops, eventually claimed 80,000 American dead and wounded and more than 100,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured. Eighty-six of the Americans were slain Dec. 17, 1944, when the Germans lined them up in a meadow near Malmedy and cut them down with machine guns.

In Bastogne, the American 101st Airborne Division held the overwhelmingly superior numbers of Germans at bay until Allied reinforcements, led by Gen. George S. Patton Jr., raced to relieve them and turn the tide of battle. It was here that Gen. Anthony McAuliffe uttered his famous rejoinder, “Nuts,” in reply to the German demand for his surrender.

NUTSCAFE

Bastogne still has a certain charm, despite heavy damage incurred in the war. A Sherman tank in the middle of McAuliffe Square is a magnet for boys to climb and crawl over the tank. The cafes surrounding the square bear names like Grill McAuliffe, Nuts Cafe and Patton’s Cafe.

Every year, on the Saturday closest to Dec. 16, the mayor of Bastogne throws nuts from the balcony of the City Hall in honor of Gen. McAuliffe, a native of Washington who died in 1975. This year, for the 60th anniversary on Dec. 16, the town expects to parade 300 Allied vehicles.

On Mardasson Hill, the Hill of Heroes, on the outskirts of Bastogne, stands a splendid memorial in the form of a star, representing the tribute of the Belgian people to the Allied, and particularly American, soldiers killed, wounded or missing in action during the liberation of the town and villages in the Battle of the Ardennes.

The story of the battle is inscribed on the interior walls of the memorial; the names of the units that participated in the battle are listed on the exterior columns alongside their unit insignia. A walkway along the top of the memorial permits visitors to see the site of the battle.

Belgian and American veterans gathered at Mardasson on this past Memorial Day to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of the battle. Brenda B. Schoonover, the charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, gave a moving speech pointing out that “honoring the dead would give meaning to our own lives”; the town choir sang, and 50 Belgian soldiers lined the walkway atop of the memorial and unfurled the flags of the 50 American states.

A museum at the Mardasson site commemorates the battle, with exhibits of authentic uniforms and weapons, and lifelike dioramas of war, both civilian and military. A 30-minute film brings the battle to life once again. Both Gen. McAuliffe and German Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel were consultants to the museum.

PEACEWOOD

Nearby is the Peace Wood, where trees have been laid out in the pattern of the UNICEF symbol of mother and child. The names of fallen veterans are inscribed on plaques at the base of individual trees.

The Ardennes battles did not take place in Belgium alone, but ranged over the adjoining Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, as well. Many small towns were destroyed in the fighting.

Luxembourg did not have an army (except for a volunteer army used in ceremonial functions only) and had always declared itself to be neutral. The night before the May 10, 1940, German invasion of Luxembourg, the grand ducal family and Cabinet went into exile in the United States, Canada and England.

The Germans incorporated Luxembourg into the Third Reich and its name ceased to exist as it became the Mosel Country District (Gau Moselland) from then until the liberation. In a referendum organized by the Nazis, 98 percent of the population voted against becoming German citizens, resulting in considerable reprisals against the population.

GEN. PATTON

Luxembourg remains devoted to its liberator, Gen. Patton, whose life-size sculpture stands, binoculars in hand, in Ettelbruck in northern Luxembourg, which the 3rd Army liberated on Christmas Day, 1944. The statue is a copy of one at West Point. Gen. Patton, who died of injuries suffered in a traffic accident shortly after the war, is buried in Luxembourg with his soldiers in the American Cemetery.

The cemetery is in a glade, framed by spruce, beech and oak trees. On the terrace above the graves are two large rectangular pylons. The outer sides are inscribed with names, rank, organization and state of entry into service of 371 members of the U.S. Army missing in action. On the inner face of each pylon, a large operations map is carved into the granite. The west pylon contains a map of operations in Western Europe from the Normandy landings to the end of the war; the east pylon shows a map of the Ardennes and the Rhineland campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge.

Set into the granite paving at the center of the memorial terrace overlooking the gravesites are Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s dedication of the Roll of Honor in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: “All who shall hereafter live in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally.”

More than 5,000 American military dead are buried in the Luxembourg cemetery, including a woman Army nurse. In 22 instances, two brothers rest side by side. At the front of the memorial, two flagpoles overlook the grave of Gen. Patton. Those buried in the cemetery are heroes to the Luxembourgers; there is no vandalism in the cemetery.

A German cemetery is also in the vicinity, and German bodies are still occasionally unearthed in the battlefields. The resourceful Luxembourgers, who volunteered their bedsheets as camouflage for the Allied soldiers during the winter of 1944, now use the German remnants of the war for more practical purposes: a German rocket launcher has become a rain gutter; detonating cord is now a yellow rope used for hanging out washing.

Through more than 1,000 photographs, the General Patton Memorial Museum in Ettelbruck documents the German invasions in May 1940, the occupation of Luxembourg and the liberation of the country by the Americans. The museum also exhibits many of the weapons excavated during the past few years on the Ardennes battlefields.

Diekirch, near Ettelbruck, is home to the fascinating National Museum of Military History that curator Roland J. Gaul oversees with unflagging dedication. The museum is dedicated to an impartial, balanced and objective representation of the historical facts of the Battle of the Bulge from three aspects of the conflict — the American, the German and the civilian.

The museum, in a former brewery, contains an extraordinary collection of weaponry, uniforms and armored vehicles, but its key attraction lies in the selection of dioramas representing various aspects of life during the battle. The most dramatic tableau depicts troops of the 3rd Army about to cross the icebound Sauer River on Jan. 18, 1945 to liberate Diekirch.

The museum is a favorite for returning veterans. When a group of visitors spoke with admiration and thanks to one such American veteran, he replied, “No, no; the guys who didn’t come home are the real heroes.”

Luxembourg is a lovely part of middle Europe. In the northern part of the country lie the forested Ardennes hills; in the south are rolling farmlands, woods and the valley of the Moselle River; in the extreme south is the mining district. The capital, Luxembourg City, is a vibrant, cosmopolitan center.

The national language, Letzebuergesch, is a strange combination of French and German, but distinct from and incomprehensible to both. The country is trilingual: French, the language of official and cultural activities, German and Letzebuergesch. English is widely spoken.

Luxembourg was originally settled by Neolithic and Celtic tribes. The Romans arrived in the first century A.D. By the 12th century, the counts of Luxembourg ran the country and from 1308 to 1437, the House of Luxembourg held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Subsequently, Luxembourg fell under French, Austrian, Spanish and German rule until its independence in 1868. Since then it has been a constitutional monarchy.

Vianden is one of the country’s pretty villages, crowned with the ruins of an old castle. The Americans had used the ruins as a reconnaissance post during the Battle of the Bulge and made their headquarters in a now delightful hotel in the center of the town. Vianden’s young people helped as couriers.

RUINSINTACT

Like the Viet Cong system of underground tunnels in a later war, so, too, in Vianden there was a system of tunnels linking the castle with the town. The Germans attacked the castle in November 1944 but retreated because of the number of casualties. The natives proudly said after the war: “The town is in ruins, but the ruins are intact.”

The castle was restored in 1977 and now receives about 200,000 visitors annually. The town holds a festival in the castle each August and hosts a nut market in October.

Luxembourg City, however, is the country’s main attraction, the capital as well as the seat of the European Community. It was founded at a Roman crossroads in the 10th century by Count Sigefroi, who bartered some of his land for a Roman fortress called Lucilinburhuc. He built his castle high up atop a sandstone rock, above steep walls overlooking two valleys, and erected a defensive wall around his castle.

Legend has it that Count Sigefroi married Melusine, a beautiful river mermaid. The count did not know that his wife was a mermaid, and to protect her secret she assumed her fish tail only on Saturdays, a day when she told her husband he could not see her. Curiosity, of course, made him spy on her, and she vanished into the rock on which the castle was built.

Once every seven years Melusine returns, either as a serpent with a golden key in its mouth or as a beautiful woman. She will not win her freedom from the imprisoning rock until someone is brave enough to kiss the woman or take the key from the mouth of the serpent. So far, no one has come forward, and she knits a stitch a year. When the garment is finished, all of Luxembourg will vanish into the rock with her.

Melusine, with two tails, also appears as a figure in German and Scandinavian coats of arms. A French legend has her married to Raymond of Poitou with the same secluded Saturdays. He too peeked, but she forgave him. When, however, he called her a “serpent” in front of his court, she assumed the form of a dragon and flew off, never to return.

The fortresses of Luxembourg City have been replaced by parks. The ruins of one of them have been incorporated into the new Museum of Modern Art of the Fortress. The Old Town, at the foot of the rock on the banks of the rambling river, was built from the 11th to the 19th centuries and has charming little houses and a splendid abbey, which the Germans used as a prison. It is being turned into an artists’ center.

The city has many fine museums, a beautiful cathedral, an imposing Ducal Palace, several good restaurants and a sensational pastry shop, the Patisserie Oberweis, which makes chocolates to rival the best of Belgium and pastries equal to the best of France.

The Kirchberg area is a stunning modern industrial area, primarily of banks but also home of the General Secretariat of the European Parliament. Although the area is somewhat lifeless, the architecture of the buildings and the beautiful sculpture by such world-famous artists as Frank Stella and Richard Serra makes it worth a visit.

On the way back to Brussels, a visitor should stop in Clervaux to see the permanent installation of the “Family of Man” exhibit created by Luxembourg-born photographer Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit is housed in the 12th-century Castle of Clervaux and continues, despite the suffering of World War II, to serve as a message of hope for mankind.

Dulles to Brussels, then to hotels

United Airlines offers the only daily nonstop flight between Washington Dulles International Airport and Brussels. From Brussels, it’s an easy drive to the Ardennes and Bastogne. From Paris, it’s a short trip via the comfortable high-speed Thalys trains to Brussels. RailEurope (phone 888/382-7245 or visit www.raileurope.com) can arrange tickets prior to departure from the United States. The company can provide individual tickets, reservations or special rail passes.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Brussels offers hotels in all categories. Le Meridien, Carrefour de l’Europe, 1000 Brussels (phone 32-2-420-1000, is a conveniently located hotel across from the railroad station, with comfortable, modern rooms. Hotel Amigo, rue de l’Amigo 1-3, 1000 Brussels, Belgium (32-2-547-4747), around the corner from Grand Place in the center of the city, is a Rocco Forte hotel that has been completely renovated and is small and elegant.

In the Ardennes, the Auberge la Grande Cure, 12 les Planesses, 6987 Marcourt, Belgium (32-84-47-73-69), is an attractive seven-room inn with a first-rate kitchen. It is convenient to the sites of the Battle of the Bulge and for winter sports, as well.

BATTLE OF THE BULGE

Belgium and Luxembourg are preparing special celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in December. For more information, contact the Belgian Tourist Bureau (212/758-8130 or www.visitbelgium.com) or the Luxembourg Tourist Bureau (212/935-5896 or www.visitluxembourg.com). Walking and driving tours around the battlefields are explained in brochures available through the tourist offices.

Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, rue de Memorial Americain 57, 4852 Nombourg, Belgium; 32-87-68-71-73; www.usabmc.com

Luxembourg American Cemetery, 50 Val du Scheid, L-2517 Luxembourg; 352-43-17-27

American Battle Monuments Commission, 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201 (703/696-6900 or www.abmc.gov)

National Museum of Military History, Roland J. Gaul, Curator, 10 Bamertal, L-9209 Diekirch, Luxembourg (352-80-89-08 or www.nat-military-museum.lu)

Bastogne Historical Center, Colline du Mardasson, B-6600 Bastogne, Belgium (32-61-21-14-13 or www.bastognehistoricalcenter.be)

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