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Our Belgian friends

Our Belgian friends

     In 1990 a group of American veterans of World War II went to Belgium to attend a ceremony dedicating a monument to the 99th Infantry Division. As we left the plane and entered the terminal at the Brussels airport, a Belgian friend, Edgard Pots, greeted each of us. He was holding the American flag with his left hand and held out his right hand to each veteran and said, "Welcome home."

     In 1984 Ruby and I saw the military cemetery near Liege for the first time. Henri-Chapelle Military Cemetery has nearly 8,000 crosses and stars of David and is well-maintained by the American Military Cemetery Commission. It is a fitting tribute to our fallen comrades; solemn and beautiful. It is doubly lovely on special days, such as Memorial Day, when Belgians decorate the statuary with beautiful flowers. In addition, many of the individual grave sites have been adopted by individual Belgians, by families or by religious, veterans, and civic groups, and are also decorated with flowers. Few American communities give the attention to military cemeteries in their areas that our Belgian friends give to American cemeteries in Belgium.

     Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz have built their own monument to honor the Belgians and Americans who fought to free Belgium. They have turned a large barn into a fine museum they have named "Remember Museum 39-45." It is a private museum, not open to the general public, but the Schmetz' open the doors wide to welcome American veterans who visit the area. It is still a work in progress containing artifacts they have recovered from the former battlefields as well as some contributed by appreciative veterans. Marcel has re-built several American Army vehicles used in WWII and even has a Sherman tank he has lovingly restored. A visit here was made doubly memorable when the host and hostess invited us into the kitchen of their home for homemade wine and snacks. Other Belgians brought more snacks and we had a rousing good time even though we did not have a common language.

     Jean-Philippe Speder and Jean-Louis Seel, two Belgian friends, met in 1978 when they were in high school. They shared a common interest in the Battle of the Bulge which was fought in their area of Belgium. They joined forces to search for artifacts and souvenirs. In 1980 they found their first U.S. Army dog tag which led them to contact some American veterans. On Sept. 29, 1988, they found the remains of Pfc. Alphonse M. Sito who had been a member of B/394, 99th Division. This was a watershed for them. They contacted the 99th Division Association and, with a group of dedicated 99th veterans, formed a team to search for the remains of Americans who had been buried in the heat of battle, never located and currently listed as "Missing in Action." In 1994 Marc Marique and Jean-Luc Menestrey joined their team and we refer to the four of them as "The Diggers." To date the Diggers have located the remains of eight of our comrades that have been positively identified by U.S. Army forensic experts and two others whose identity is still uncertified, but tentatively identified. These men have devoted hundreds and hundreds of man hours searching for these remains and doing it all gratis on their own time. They have families to care for and full-time jobs and do this to show their respect for the men who fought for their country. Recently a magazine editor offered to write an article soliciting funds to aid the Diggers but they turned it down as they felt it would demean their efforts. It is an honor to know such men.

     In 1994 a dozen of us who served in the 99th Division, and a few family members, were invited to a ceremony in Belgium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. We met at a lovely hotel near Elsenborn. At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1994, we assembled at the Belgian/German border, exactly 50 years from the start of the biggest battle ever fought by the American Army. A number of our Belgian friends were with us as a Dutch priest led us in a prayer of remembrance for our fallen comrades. We listened to a tape recording of artillery fire and recordings of the Belgian and American anthems. In the pre-dawn darkness of a cold December morning, it was a moving experience for all of us.

     On Dec. 17 we joined hundreds of Belgian children, adults, veterans, and officials, as well as some American officials, at a ceremony at Baugnez, just outside of Malmedy, where German troops had slaughtered 67 unarmed American Army troops who had surrendered. This ceremony was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of what became known as the "Malmedy Massacre." All of the Belgians treated us as honored guests. Later that same day we went to Stavelot for a dedication by those citizens of a U.S. Army halftrack as a monument to soldiers who died fighting here. The local officials included us in their program and Roger Foehringer spoke for us. This also was the 50th anniversary of the slaughter of almost 200 Stavelot citizens, ages two months to 82 years, by the same German troops who were at Baugnez.

     Throughout this trip our small group had outstanding TV and newspaper coverage. Our actions were on CBS the night of Dec. 16 for about a minute. On Belgian TV our return to the battlefield was given more than an hour. All together we had more media coverage than did the "official" events held in Bastogne.

     When we were at Baugnez, an off-duty Belgian policeman who was riding with us for the day, told us an SS man had been spotted in the area. The Belgians were quite upset as they really hate the SS because of their brutality and viciousness when Germany conquered Belgium. Everyone was looking for this individual. It turned out that this was a man about 40 years old, in a car with French license plates, wearing a complete SS uniform and with an SS decal on the side of his car. The police chief of Stavelot came upon this fellow parked on the street. The chief tore off the decal and threw it down, then opened the door and yanked the man out bodily. He proceeded to slap the man with his open hand until the fellow was sobbing in tears. The chief threw him back in his car and told him, "GET OUT OF HERE! AND DON'T YOU EVER COME BACK!" We agreed with our cheering Belgian friends that the chief had handled things properly.

     We spent the next couple of days in our chartered bus visiting various areas of the battlefield. We would stop at every place one of us had been and that individual would tell us of his experiences in December 1944, during the battle. One of our young Belgian friends video-taped each of our little spiels and gave it to us. He did this even though he could not speak English and did not understand what we said. Each of us learned a lot as we had only experienced our own small part of the battle. Our hosts had also secured permission for us to tour "the Northern Shoulder" where the 99th held a ridge line, forcing the Germans from their planned route. This is now an artillery impact area of Camp Elsenborn used by the Belgian Army in their training and is usually off-limits to visitors. To make it even more memorable, when our bus reached the camp we were greeted by a dozen or so U.S. Army WWII vehicles driven by the Belgians who had restored them so we each had a personal chauffeur. It was cold and windy with snow on the ground, very similar to what it had been 50 years before.

     When it came time to leave, we got another example of the Belgians' feelings for American vets. The hotel bill was a lot less than the quoted rates agreed to. The accommodations, food, and service had all been excellent and we felt a bit uncomfortable accepting this added generosity. Will Cavanagh, the Diggers, and our other Belgian friends had made all these arrangements for us and guided our touring and would not accept any compensation for their services or their time away from their families. One fellow had even used some of his vacation time from work to be with us. Perhaps you can now better understand why a lot of us have such a strong feeling for our Belgian friends.

     Each time Edgard Pots is thanked for all he has done for all American veterans, his response is, "Thank you for giving us our freedom."

Thor Ronningen