Bastogne, a small town in southern Belgium, sits in rolling farmland, with stands of the Ardennes forest just outside of town. On our visit, colorful umbrellas decorated the main street.It likely would have remained unknown to the world, but Bastogne suffered the misfortune of being caught in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest land battles of World War II. When you visit this lovely Belgian area, you can trace what took place here 75 years ago next winter. You may wonder why Bastogne was the site of a pivotal battle of this last offensive of the German forces. After all, just a few months earlier Bastogne was liberated by the Allies and the residents settled in for a time of calm as the war wound down. Then, in mid-December, the Germans struck. Their goal was the port of Antwerp, and they bypassed Bastogne, forging ahead to create the “bulge.” Still, the Germans needed this town. Bastogne lies at the center of 7 roads, and these were crucial for moving troops and supplies. One by one, the roads fell to German control. By December 21, the American troops in Bastogne were completely surrounded.
To learn just what happened in Bastogne during those harrowing days, we lined up a tour with Reg Jans. He’s a local guide whose grandfather fought in World War II. Delving into his grandfather’s life, Reg realized “that freedom does not come for free and historical knowledge should be preserved and passed on.” He is constantly researching the history of this area in WWII. He is the perfect guide for a day-long tour of Bastogne. We started in the town, on the street where the 101st Airborne troops marched in on December 16. These are the men of the Band of Brothers series fame. This excellent 10-part video follows the path of Easy Company of the 101st, including their time in the trenches in Bastogne. Soon we were traveling down roads that were centuries old, through the farmland, in Reg’s Battle Bus van. Right away, we learned that the lay of the land has changed, due to this area actually farming trees. Forest area during the battle is grassland today, and new forests are planted. Our guide has hosted veterans and family members of the 101st, and he has figured out where the action took place. The heart of our tour was in the Bois Jacques, the woods where Easy Company dug in and held off the Germans despite lack of winter clothes, food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Some of the trenches exist today, and you can pay respects to these men on this hallowed ground. A bonus on our tour was meeting one of the actors from Band of Brothers, James Madio, who plays soldier Frank Perconte. He met with the veterans when preparing for his role, and we talked with him about Perconte. He was known for his cleanliness, even in the trenches. So in the series, Madio decided to brush his teeth in one scene, knowing this would portray Perconte well. As the Allies shivered in their foxholes in December 1944, the Germans sent 2 men into town to see the commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, and present a demand to surrender. The Allies were cut off from all aid so it was time to give up, right? McAuliffe’s famous reply was “Nuts!” The Germans, probably baffled, returned to their lines. A few days later, Patton rolled down one of the roads with his tanks and that was the beginning of the end of the siege of Bastogne. Here’s the farmhouse where that meeting took place. We moved on to the nearby town of Foy, where Easy Company fought after Patton broke through with his tanks to free Bastogne. This sleepy country town looks much the same today as it did in 1944. The building where a sniper shot from a high window still stands, bullet holes and all. Memorials to the men who held Bastogne can be found on the fields and in town. Because we must never forget the price paid by the soldiers on both sides, as well as the civilians of this small crossroads who were drawn into the battle. The main square is now known as McAuliffe square, and we ate lunch in the Café named “Nuts.” They serve a bowl of peanuts with each meal. That evening, we went to dinner in the Italian restaurant on the corner of the main square. This was the childhood home of nurse Renee Lamaire, “Angel of Bastogne,” who was killed in the bombing on Christmas Eve, 1944. The echoes of the past are everywhere, and by remembering, we keep alive those lost too soon. If you go, I recommend staying at the Hotel Melba, just a 5-minute walk from the main square, with this lovely front patio.
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