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Battlefield pilgrimage leave lasting impression on Grace

In December 1969, my late father, Thomas J. Grace Jr., was among a group of 99th Infantry Division veterans returning to the Ardennes in Belgium. Twenty-five years earlier they had fought there in the Battle of the Bulge. I wasn't able to participate in that tour but I promised myself that one day I would visit those locations where history was made.

This May, I finally had the chance to participate in a Battle of the Bulge tour. Our group included five vets of World War II, one of whom was a sailor, as well as vets from the Korean War and Vietnam. I was the sole representative for Dad's unit, the 924th Field Artillery Battalion, 99th Division.

Our tour left Minneapolis May 11 and arrived at Schiphol, Amsterdam, May 12. From there, our tour bus and guide went directly to Monschau, Germany. This small town, just over the border from Belgium, is straight out of a storybook. It sets in a narrow valley dominated by castles, one in ruins, at either end. Pastel painted stone and half-timbered buildings line cobblestone streets so narrow that a car barely fits.

Towns of this type are found throughout the Ardennes area, rarely more than a few kilometers apart. No matter how tiny they are, there always is an imposing stone or brick church. The hilly region is dominated by thickly-planted pine forests. Roads (trails) through the forests give the impression of an aisle in a Gothic cathedral. Occasional clearings host cattle, horses, or sheep. This is the type of terrai that made control of the high ground and road net a key factor in the Battle of the Bulge.

We first visited the fortress Eben-Emael, captured by German glider troops in 1940. Then it was on to the Hürtgen Forest, where our guide was Klaus Schulz, a German veteran of that slaughterhouse. The forest was dense, its steep surface thickly carpeted in pine needles. Foxholes, trenches, and pillboxes could be easily and frequently spotted in the gloomy half-light. It was chilly and rainy.

This was the perfect introduction to the Bulge battlefield, not far to the south; all that was missing were the Arctic conditions that prevailed in December 1944. Elsenborn Ridge, the dominant feature of the "North Shoulder" of the Bulge was held by the 99th after a desperate race against the Germans to hold the road leading to it through the gateway towns of Krinkelt-Rocherath.

As I walked in the field east of Kalterherberg where the 924th was at the battle's outset, and then on Elsenborn Ridge, looking out at small towns and the forests that hid the German Army, I could visualize what it must have been like. From this high plateau American artillery, including Dad's 924th, rained devastation down on the six German divisions attacking them at one time or another. One of the vets with us — he had two sons along — asked me how it felt to be where my father had fought. I could barely keep my emotions under control and answered that I could almost feel his presence. I scooped up some soil in a film cartridge and brought it home.

Next we went to Lanzerath and saw the field where Lyle Bouck's I&R Platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment held up a German parachute regiment for a day before being captured, and the building in which he "celebrated" his 21st birthday. A marker up the road in Honsfeld commemorated the murder of GI POWs — the first of many such markers we would see as we followed the route of Kampfgruppe Peiper.

The route led west through Bullingen, where the 924th's Service Batter was captured and more murders occurred. Then it was up the road to Malmedy to view the memorial and see the field where the largest massacres happened (about 70 GIs murdered). By the time we reached La Glieze with its Mark VI King Tiger tank, we had passed numerous memorials to GIs and civilians murdered by the SS.

East of St. Vith is the high plateau of the Schnee Eifel where most of the ill-fated 106th Division surrendered. A member of our group would have been there had it not been for a transfer to a division in Italy.

The next part of our tour took us to the numerous towns around Bastogne where so much of the Battle of Bastogne was fought.

At different points of the tour we were joined by expert guides including Klaus Schulz, British author and Bulge expert Will Cavanagh, retired Belgian colonel Emile Engels who grew up during the Nazi occupation and described Christmas Eve Mass attended by GIs (only one could speak French, the Belgians couldn't speak English); Dutch Army officer Marco Killian, an expert on the "Band of Brothers," who took us to the Bois Jacques near Foy to view the foxholes there.

We went to the Rhine River at Remagen to view the bridge ruins and I remembered stories told by the 924th of crossing under fire, hoping the planks laid over the railroad rails would stay in place. I recall my dad's opinion that the Mississippi at St. Louis is more impressive. Perhaps that was a little hometown prejudice because there's nothing like the massive Erpeler Ley towering over the Mississippi on the east side.

After a short cruise on the Moselle River, our tour ended in Trier, Germany, a town built by the Romans in 16 BC. A Roman villa has been rebuilt on the site of its ruins, and in the town one can marvel at the massive gate — a three-story building — and conjure up images of "Gladiator" in the amphitheater, still used for concerts.

Bastogne was the largest town involved in the Bulge fighting and we were there for the rededication of the memorial in Place McAuliffe. An M-4 Sherman tank, one of many we saw as memorials, had just been refurbished and had a new coat of paint. The name "Barracuda" was stenciled on both sides — on the left just ahead of the 88mm hole that killed its commander, S/Sgt. Dwight Alexander.

Our vets were honored guests at the ceremony and the average American has no idea of the depth of feeling the people have for America's role in the liberation of Belgium and Luxembourg. School children asked our vets for autographs and the elderly wanted us to know that they will never forget that they owe their freedom to us.

The church marks the hour and half-hour with the first line of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the organist, who was orphaned by the Germans, played the entire anthem for us on the church organ. We were in the cemetery at Luxembourg City for Memorial Day, and after a 21-gun salute, the firing party asked to meet with our vets.

The attitude of the public is inspirational. One can't travel more than a few miles without spotting a monument or memorial to the U.S. Atti and Willi Rikker, an elderly couple, raised money to erect a monument to 11 black GIs murdered by the SS. We met people who have adopted graves at the American cemetery at Henri-Chapelle. They maintain the graves and provide flowers. The German cemeteries are a sad contrast.

Early on we visited with The Diggers, two Belgians familiar to the 99th, who have devoted years to locating and identifying the dead whose remains were not recovered. So far they have recovered and identified more than 10. They do this on their own time and at their own expense.

We visited terrific museums at Bastogne and Diekirch, Luxembourg. Another one is operated by the M&Ms (Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz) at their own expense. They don't charge admission to Americans. "You've already paid the price," is what were told. The amount of equipment, weapons, uniforms, and memorabilia they had collected was unbelievable.

I expected to retrace my father's footsteps, but I didn't anticipate the impact the people would have on me. Their response to us was genuine and heartfelt. I was so proud to be an American. This was the trip of a lifetime.

James W. Grace

5702 Crowe Farm Rd.

Waterloo IL 62298