Free at last!
Free at last!
This piece was written by Will Cavanagh's mother, Marthe Cavanagh in 1966, about her memories of life in Belgium during the time of liberation in 1944. She was born and raised in Verviers and spent the German occupation in that area. After the war, she worked for the U.S. Army and later married an Englishman.
Free at last!
The milkman came earlier than usual that morning, Sept. 9, 1944. When I opened the door, he could not contain his joy and shouted excitedly, "They are here! They are here! They are coming near the top of the hill!"
As he filled my jug with milk, his hand trembled and his eyes filled with tears. We were both overcome by emotion. He managed to mumble something about American soldiers having been spotted at the Lambermont crossroads. I could hardly believe it! It seemed like ages since Operation Overlord took place on the Normandy beaches.
We had heard of the Allied advance through France and northern Belgium. We knew about their struggles, determination, and courage. It was nonetheless hardly believable that they were practically on our doorstep!
The news spread like lightning! My sister and I went down the street at nine o'clock that memorable morning. The road leading from the village of Lambermont was decked with flags and flowers. Every window displayed Belgian, American, British, and Russian flags which either came out of hiding after four long years of occupation or which had been specially made for the occasion.
As we anxiously waited the silence and tension were relieved by the excited shout, "Here they come!" It was a false alarm. The sounds of gunfire could clearly be heard at the top of the hill and the Germans responded from a nearby cemetery. As suddenly as it had started, the firing ceased. We later learned an American tank in a field near the crossroads had knocked out the German gunners. We were about to live through moments as memorable as the German invasion in 1940!
A German staff car from Pont du Cheene tore through Hodimont at top speed as we ran into a friend's home for shelter, then bolted the door and waited.
Flags and pennants vanished as did people. Through the net curtains we spotted another German vehicle moving up the street, its occupants pointing rifles at the houses on either side. We ran to shelter in the cellar.
Some minutes later, we decided it was safe to go outside again. The Germans had hardly disappeared as a dense crowd filled the streets, again redecorated with multicolored flags, flowers, and in some homes, the photo of a missing son, perhaps dead or languishing in a prison camp.
The black, red, and yellow colors of Belgium blended with the Stars and Stripes and the red, white, and blue of Britain. Machine gun fire rattled in the distance. A resistance man killed a German motorcyclist on Place Verte.
Along with our friend, we decided to go home for a cup of the tasteless brew we called coffee. As we drank our coffee there came the sound of hobnailed (German) boots crashing on the cobbled street. From a window we saw about 50 Germans with hands raised walking down the street into captivity. They were the very last we saw.
At one o'clock we heard the unmistakable sound of tanks coming down the hill. Rushing outside, we spotted them surrounded by a delirious crowd that was overcome by joy and intense emotion. We burst into tears, thus releasing four long years of pent-up feelings.
Arms went out to those young men who came from all parts of the USA. I well remember Sergeant Jimmy Savignano, the military policeman with a bright smile from Skenectady NY. One of the tankers wore a helmet on which he'd painted the name "Angel Anne" in white letters. When he laughed it was from the toes up!
Townspeople from all walks of life came to thank the soldiers for their new-found freedom and giving them the right to live once more in freedom and dignity. I saw young boys and girls having their first taste of chewing gum and trying to blow bubbles as expertly as the GI standing next to them. An old lady excitedly told a tall Texan of her grandchildren who lived in Houston and who she'd never seen. The soldier proved helpful, proudly airing all the French he'd learned since landing on Omaha Beach.
The streets were packed with people from the nearby villages of Andrimont, Stembert, Lambermont, and Heusy on this bright and sunny day. People gathered on Place Verte and shouted, "Long live the Allies! Long live Belgium!"
I find it hard to describe the electric atmosphere. Though I was there and witnessed that outpouring of joy and thanksgiving, my words seem weak. I reflect upon those amazing scenes. People clambered onto the moving vehicles to kiss the soldiers' boots and dirty faces. The soldiers were overcome by the welcome given them by the hysterical townspeople.
A few days later the American military police set up in town followed by a Civil Affairs Detachment known as C2G1 commanded by Major Thomas A. Brown. His staff included Lt. George Fexy, a Captain Hankins from Spokane WA, Captain Davies, Lt. Ira M. Korst, and Sgt. Sherril T. Wills of Atlanta GA.
Back home, I'm sure they will have told endless stories of their time in Belgium and the rousing welcome they got in Verviers. Our country will remember them with eternal gratitude. It will keep green the memory of those who gave their lives so that we could live to tell this story of newfound freedom.