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Bull makes battlefield tour

Battlefield tour: Bull makes an unlikely but satisfying revisit

Battlefield tour:

Bull makes an unlikely

but satisfying revisit

     After thinking about it for several months, and after consulting with Thor Ronningen and Bill Meyer, I made a journey that would have seemed unlikely and impossible 55 years ago. This ex-soldier and wife, Dorris, our son, Dennis and wife Pat, our son, Warren and his best friend, Judy Widen, recently revisited Europe and retraced some of my WWII footsteps.

     Our journey had multiple objectives. We wanted to enjoy Paris as tourists. We wanted to see the Omaha and Utah landing beaches at Normandy. I wanted to walk in the same sand as the D-Day invasion troops and to imagine their thoughts as they observed the heavily-defended bluffs above the beaches.

     In the 99th territory, we wanted to find and thank the Veschkens family in Le Minerie, Belgium, who gave physical and emotional shelter to me and others in our squad in February 1945. The family included two daughters and one son. We had sent them clothing after the war and had carried on some correspondence with them.

     We wanted to see the Krinkelt monument to our division. We wanted to retrace my footsteps from landing at LeHavre to the spot where I was wounded near Oberkirchen. That last objective proved to be about 40 years too late to find the route on post-war highways. Oberkirchen was too far into Germany to travel within the time we had allotted. Instead, we decided to visit a few memorable 1944-45 non-battle sites.

     We rented a seven-passenger Renault diesel minivan in Paris. Dennis and Judy did the driving and the rest of us helped with the navigating. We stayed in Bayeux in Normandy for three days where we walked the invasion beaches and visited the WWII museums that brought back old memories.

     The museum at Bayeux, for example, exhibits a severely dented U.S. Army helmet. It reminded me of a compassionate cook who, as I walked through the chow line, traded his unblemished helmet for mine that had suffered an artillery hit.

     Then we drove from Bayeux to LeHavre and started to follow the route shown in Thor Ronningen's "Butler's Battlin' Blue Bastards." LeHavre now has a beautiful bridge over the bay, a modern harbor, and wide highways leading out from the docks. We found Forges, our first bivouac. We did not find the orchard where local people, both male and female, had shared our open latrines in 1944.

     Giving up all hope of following our exact routes, we had a quick French lunch in Bapaume (only an hour and 25 minutes) and pushed on to Monschau, where we had reserved rooms at Hotel Carat.

     Monschau is a German resort town in the Perlenau river valley, with beautiful old buildings built on steep hillsides. The city is now overcrowded on weekends and holidays with tourists, motorcycles, and dogs, but nearly deserted during the week. It is within a mile or so of Hofen, the site of a major fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Monschau was neither defended nor shelled during World War II. If you look carefully, however, you can still see rows of dragons teeth almost hidden in a tree line at the north end of the city, near the Volkswagen dealer, at the intersection of highways 258 and 399.

     No visit to 99th territory can be complete without a stop at Henri Chapelle Cemetery. The morning after our arrival in Monschau, we visited Sam Gibney, Row B13, Grave 23, and Gene Oxford, Row B10, Grave 28 — the only L Company men (I believe) who were not returned home. I experienced the same inexplicable survivor guilt feeling that I felt during my first visit in 1993. Why are Sam and Gene in Henri Chapelle and why have I been privileged to live the good life? Why should I have survived when Ensign Williamson, John Corrigan, Warren Butler, Bill Parmelee, Leo Wresinksi, and other close friends paid such an awful price? Why didn't I do more so they could have done less?

     After visiting the cemetery, we had incredibly good luck. Starting with an address on an envelope, we stopped people in nearby Aubel and asked for help in finding the Veschkens family. People were invariably friendly, polite, and willing to give us detailed directions in a language none of us spoke.

     We drove a few kilometers through Aubel to the small village of Le Minerie. At its only pub, I asked if the bartender knew the Veschkens family. He took me next door and introduced me to Guy Veschkens. Guy was five years old when his parents offered a group of dirty and cold soldiers a dry, warm place to sleep. The house where he now lives is the same one where we slept. Guy has always lived there. He pulled out some old photos, one with George Prager and John Corrigan in the front row, with me, Ralph Lammers, a GI whose name I've forgotten, and Robert Jones in the back row. I believe his other photos include Paul Buhl and Warner Anthony.

     The Veschkens family has not strayed far from their parents' home. The oldest daughter, Josie Jacob-Veschkens, lives about 10 minutes from Le Minerie. Celine Jacob-Veschkens, next oldest, who recently died, had lived in Aubel. One of Celine's daughters lives perhaps 300 yards from Guy. Her brother operates the only bakery in Le Minerie, across the street from Guy's home.

     Celine Schyns-Jacob and her husband, Herbert, came at Guy's request to talk with us because of their better grasp of English. She teaches music and her husband is a baker who works in Liege. They took us to nearby Andrimont to see Josie Jacob-Vesckens. Josie showed us an old picture of her three-year-old daughter who was wearing clothes that we had sent them after I returned home. After a long visit in our different languages, we left with warm feelings and hugs and promises to keep in touch.

     The following day we set off for Remagen, not an easy place to reach from Monschau. On the way we drove through Duren, a city I remember as totally leveled by bombs and artillery in the war. To facilitate traffic, its war-time streets had been bulldozed out of the rubble from demolished buildings. Duren is, therefore, the newest looking city that we visited. It is bustling with people and activity, a picture of prosperity that is shared by virtually all villages and cities that we visited. Duren raises a question, however. What happened to all its debris and rubble?

     Crossing the Rhine on the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen is an event that is indelibly imprinted in my mind. MPs were maintaining an even flow of foot traffic onto the bridge. German artillery shells were periodically falling on the bridge floor and on the approach to the bridge. The twin towers at each end seemed to emanate dark and foreboding thought waves. As I remember, we were tired because we had marched many miles to get there. We waited a long time for our turn to cross. During the wait, we located, liberated, and consumed considerable quantities of cognac. In spite of all these negatives, I believe L Company crossed safely without casualty.

     The six of us had lunch on the banks of the Rhine on a warm, sunny day, downstream of the now-demolished bridge at the approximate site of our pontoon bridge to Erpel. I kept looking at the bomb scars that are still visible on the east hillside. I also kept looking at the still foreboding towers on the east bank. I almost felt fear again. We drank another cognac to celebrate our safe crossing. I wrote to Duane Shipman and George Prager who crossed at the same time and also to other friends to include them all in our celebration.

     After lunch, we walked up the paved river bank to the towers on the west side. The bridge approach has been demolished. The towers have been converted into a museum called "Memorial to Peace." My son, Warren, purchased my admission ticket. I declined to purchase ones on the grounds that I had already paid the price. Interestingly, the literature in the museum applauds the bridge commander who was executed for not blowing the bridge.

     Our next visit was to Lache, the approximate spot where I crossed the Wied River in the dark of night in March 1945. At that time, the water was frigid, the current was strong, and it was up to my armpits. We had to contend with some German small arms fire. During our recent August visit, the 50-foot-wide river was shallow and flowing placidly. Several people were holding picnics on its park-like banks. Footbridges spanned the stream. A few adventuresome persons were parasailing off the nearby cliffs down to the river banks below. What a difference!

     We spent the last day near Hofen. He had to see the Krinkelt memorial to the 99th Division. Krinkelt is a very small village, not shown at all on our road maps. We eventually discovered that it abuts Rocherath. The memorial is impressive, and its plot of ground is neatly kept. If I had been designing the memorial, however, I would not have chosen the sobriquet "Battle Babies." Those words have been used before and were once applicable, but to have "babies" carved in stone to describe our division for all time tends, I believe, to demean our battlefield performance.

     We drove back to Monschau a direct way through Hofen, and for the second time found Gasthaus Schmiddem closed (a holiday). We wanted a beer to remember our I Company friends, Richard Mills, Thorny Piersall, Paul Putty, Leon Rogers, and Don Stafford. So we remembered them without the beer.

     Lunch was at Hotel Perlenau. We couldn't resist eating at the establishment that had butchered and cooked the heifer that George Niell, George Prager, and I had liberated at some risk from a Hofen hillside. Without disclosing the reason for the inquiry, we asked how the hotel was so fortunate to have escaped WWII damage. In the words of the young cook, "they just didn't find it." We didn't argue with him.

     Our last task was to find the depressions that marked our squad's foxholes at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. A hiking path from the Perlenau Hotel winds through the trees, under the post-war bridge, and comes out on the old road that led up to Hofen. A post-war dam on the Perlenau River, along with the new bridge and highway, has changed the topography considerably.

     However, we found one large depression on the steep hillside in what is now a forest of tall pines off the old road. It probably was used as our squad headquarters. Two smaller depressions were found within a hundred feet or so of the large one. The depressions somewhat parallel the river. One of these depressions or another that we did not find was the foxhole that George Neill described so well in his book, "Infantry Soldier." And I spent many uncomfortable hours sleeping in and peering out of a similar one.

     In retrospect, my revisit was satisfying by almost any criterion. The emotional block that develops between combat soldier and civilian softened between my family and me. My kids and wife asked many questions, some that I declined to answer. However, their questions became less sensitive, and my answers became less guarded. Our family bonds, always strong, were strengthened.

     We enjoyed the adventure of finding our way in three foreign countries, learning to use their currencies, mangling their language, and tasting their culture. We enjoyed the rolling terrain that was covered by hay fields, growing corn, green grass, pine forests, apple orchards, and grape vines; also the mighty Rhine and the placid Wied. We made new friends, especially a young couple who ran our favorite restaurant in Monschau. We renewed our friendship with the Veschkens family. As an unexpected bonus, my survival guilt faded as I converted from an ex-infantryman to a tourist like my wife and kids. I recommend a similar visit for all 99th veterans.

Ivan Bull L/395

4004 Farhills Dr.

Champaign IL 61822