Bastogne Belgium: A Heartfelt Thank You

Bastogne is a small village in Belgium with old stone buildings, charming bakeries, and chocolatrías swimming with Belgium’s famously decadent chocolate.  It is an enchanting village that makes one yearn for the pure simplicity of the past.  You walk its streets and you can’t help but fantasize about going home from the market carrying a basket full of fresh produce with that signature warm loaf of French bread peeking out the corner.  If you are like me you might even secretly play that opening scene from Beauty and the Beast in your head and imagine yourself being greeted by the townspeople of that quiet little village with a hearty chorus of “Bonjour! Good Day! “

Picture 9We stayed in a small hotel that was run by a family who also made us a meal of quiche, and some type of beef stew that was truly fantastic.  And there was bread…lots and lots of bread.  They kept sending it out with the family’s adorable 8-year-old son.   I accidentally scared this unsuspecting  bread deliverer by asking him how old he was.  He replied in very broken and loud English “ MY NAME IS ALLEN”.  This was clearly the only phrase he knew in English.  This struck me as funny because the only French I knew was “ja ma pel Claude” (My name is Claude).  In my hurried excitement to communicate, I screamed this phrase at the little boy, which undoubtedly startled him.   The primary reason for his confusion was that I used the masculine name Claude instead of my own. That would be the French equivalent to me shouting that my name was Frank or Bob or Bill.  Needless to say, my effort at communicating in French was not successful and our table did not receive any more bread.

Even though it is quite charming, this small village would be easily overlooked by the traveler if not for its Picture 11historical significance in WWII.  In an effort to capture the important harbor of Antwerp, near the end of 1944 Germany had attacked the American troops in the area and occupied this small Belgium village.  This siege initiated the infamous Battle of the Bulge.   A few days later, the 101st Airborne Division and others lead a counter-attack.   After several days of intense and deadly fighting the US troops were surrounded and left to fight the harsh winter elements with diminishing supplies.   As a visitor you can wonder the dense forests where these brave American men fought, struggled and died.   You can see where they dug foxholes in an attempt to stay warm and safe from exploding debris.  Nearly 76,890 US soldiers died during this long and arduous battle, which is more than 7 times more than those who died on D-Day at Normandy.

The people of Belgium were so thankful for the sacrifice of American soldiers that they built the giant Mardasson Memorial in 1950  and dedicated it to the American men who died to protect and liberate the people of Belgium.  This memorial is tasteful, beautiful and massively powerful.  It is a pentagon raised to the sky by giant columns that are inscribed with the historic depictions of this tragic battle that highlights America’s classic resilience and perseverance.  When you climb to the top of the structure you can view the surrounding battlefields of the past.  You realize these now peaceful trees were once audience to all the horrors the men endured during those harsh winter months.  If those trees could talk…what would they say?  What tragedies did they witness?

The most moving moment of this experience was when I read an inscription on one of the giant columns.  On it was a heartfelt thank you from the people of Belgium to the American men who fought and died for their freedom.
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“This memorial and the earth surrounding are dedicated to the enduring friendship of the peoples of Belgium and the United States who forged a bond from their common struggle to defeat the enemy of all free peoples….For the people of Belgium it was the final stand against an enemy who for nearly five years had violated their soil and vainly tried to crush their spirit. “

The words brought tears to my eyes for many reasons.   Most significantly I felt the true unfiltered gratitude the Belgium people had for the American Men who choose to stand up and fight for the freedom of a people they had not met on land thousands of miles from their own homes.  At that the time of my trip the US was involved in another war attempting to promote liberty and freedom.  However, US soldiers were not being met with gratitude but instead with contempt.  It was therapeutic to see that our actions and sacrifices for the preservation of worldwide liberty were appreciated and that at least the people of Belgium understood our sacrifice and were eternally grateful.
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Mirroring the giant memorial stands a very informative and interactive WWII museum, which is also shaped like a giant star.  This museum is a haven for those who enjoy artifacts from WWII history.   It highlights some of the more interesting parts of the battle. Towards the end of 1944 the US men had very little food or supplies to protect them from the wintery elements of that cold December and because of the fog there was no way to get the supplies they desperately needed.   The Germans asked the struggling US Forces for their surrender, but General McAuliffe’s notoriously brief and gutsy reply was one simple word “NUTS!”  The next day the fog cleared which allowed for much needed supplies to reach the men and they were able to hold on until General Patton and his armored tanks broke the deadlock thus ending the battle of the bulge and took the Allied forces one step closer to the end of the War in Europe.  Although, you will never hear it from a member of the 101st airborne division many people make Patton the hero of this battle.  His fleet of tanks ended this battle and saved many lives.  There are several memorials in this area dedicated to him and his fleet of tanks.
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Bastogne was my favorite stop in terms of WWII battle significance.  If you are interested in WWII history it really is a must visit in terms of relevance to the war and how well the war is chronicled in the museum and monument.  I loved my trip to Bastogne.

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