Travelers enjoy M and Ms as hosts during Belgian trip
(Portions of a letter from Larry Clapsadl to Frank Kawalek)
I wanted you to know I got a copy of "Dauntless." I found one from an online military bookseller at a cost of $75 and I was glad to get it. It's a good book and I'm pleased to have it.
We had a good trip to Belgium. Bill Meyer, the Checkerboard guy, had given me the names of Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz and told me to contact them if we were going to be in their area. We were going to Henri-Chapelle as soon as we arrived, so contacted the M&Ms.
That was the best thing that could have happened to us and those two made our trip memorable. When I wrote to them and asked if they would allow us to see their museum, they insisted we stay with them for a few days. We drove directly to Mathilde and Marcel's in Clermont, near Aubel, as soon as we arrived.
Avonne and I went to Henri-Chapelle. It is the most beautiful cemetery we've ever seen — meticulously maintained and situated on a high ridge where you can see the panorama of the Belgian countryside. We really were impressed by the care and attention to the cemetery.
A third grade teacher and her class in Aubel adopted Avonne's father's grave and we wanted to meet them. We'd sent them a photo of him taken from a group photo of the 371st before going overseas that we found through Warren Pfeiffer (S/371). The school children and teacher, the Schmetzs, their priest, a couple of veterans, one of whom has a brother buried there, and we had a small private service at the cemetery. The children sang. It was wonderful.
Afterward, Mathilde took us on a tour of their museum and it is a knockout. They have so much in there and it's all arranged so well.
There are about 60 mannequins that Marcel has made out of resin from latex molds (he said a mannequin costs about 300 Euros). He paints and dresses them in uniforms that people have given him. He arranges them in scenes — foxholes in the snow, radio operators, partisans, men, women, children. He has tanks, jeeps, and 3/4-ton trucks. There is so much to see, it's hard to take it all in in one visit. He also paints the backdrops and mounts the photos.
Marcel was a boy when the Germans annexed Belgium and remembers the occupation and some of the atrocities committed against them. He remembers the American soldiers when they staged in the Aubel area and had the mess hall set up on their farm. He remembers the kindness of the soldiers. He collected and saved everything left on the farm and through the years has amassed a tremendous amount of material. He has a library that would put the WWII collection of most libraries to shame, including after-action reports, orders, and photos and published documents.
While we were there, they had numerous visits from veterans and their families. Marcel and Mathilde seem to live solely to perform kindnesses to American veterans and their families. They escorted some to the Normandy beaches during the following week. They don't charge for anything. They don't desire contributions. Theirs is the most altruistic relationship to U.S. veterans you can imagine.
The people in their area are still very much aware of the debt of gratitude they owe to the U.S. for liberating them and many times while in local towns, Mathilde introduced us to someone who had hosted soldiers in their homes when they were children. They remember them with love and thankfulness.
Memorial Day observations at overseas cemeteries were held while we were in Belgium and the one at Henri-Chapelle was such a tremendous experience.
There were hundreds if not thousands in attendance. Several well-spoken tributes were given about American soldiers who gave their all in that great war. There were dozens of wreath-layings with such appropriate solemnity and ceremony. It was one of the most moving moments in our lives, to be there in that place, knowing what was accomplished and under what hardship.
Everyone should be made to know what your generation has done for the world. It would make us all better people, I believe. I guess you get the message. The Belgians, at least those in the eastern part of Belgium, are conscious of the war and they love Americans. I could talk a lot about all the experiences and sights and maybe, if we ever meet, I'll bend your ear for a long time.
You should go back over and, if you do, drop by the Remember Museum in Clermont, where you'll meet some of the finest people on earth — Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz.