Whitehead revisits battlefields
Fifty-nine years ago, Lt. Charles E. Whitehead was an air observer aboard a little L-4 Piper Cub. His duty was to direct the aim of the 105mm guns of Headquarters Battery, 370th Field Artillery, 99th Infantry Division.
Whitehead, of Brooksville KY, returned Sept. 6, 2003, to Belgium, 59 years after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Charles J. (Chuck) Whitehead accompanied his father on this pilgrimage.
In July 2000, a gentleman answered a request for assistance concerning the 99th Infantry Division which was placed in the "Bulge Bugle." This was the first contact between Dr. Whitehead and Christian de Marcken, who lives in Paxton MA.
Three years later Dr. Whitehead returned to Belgium to locate the areas where he fought during the Battle of the Bulge.
He also had expressed the desire to retrace the steps of the infamous Colonel Joachem Peiper, who commanded the German SS troops responsible for the Malmedy Massacre.
While in Europe during WWII, Whitehead flew more than 120 missions at very low altitude to locate enemy targets, such as tanks and troop concentrations. He flew with two pilots who would alternate. Lieutenant Sears might fly in the morning, while Lt. Proctor would fly in the afternoon. They flew L-4 Piper Cubs, also called Grasshoppers or Maytag Messerschmitt.
We met for the first time at the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge monument at Eola Park in Orlando FL, in early 2001. We were introduced to Charles and Thelma Whitehead and Thelma's brother Lt. Col. Thomas B. Carpenter, a retired B-17 and B-234 navigator. At that time Charles said to my wife Jeanne, that he had no desire to go back to Belgium.
With time, we became friends and Charlie expressed the desire to see the field where he had pushed Proctor's and Sears' L-4s out of the mud that early morning of Dec. 17, 1944.
At that time the German tanks already had destroyed all the L-4 spotter planes of the 2nd Infantry Division. These were located on a ridge on the other side of the street called "Zur Rotheck." German tanks were attempting to destroy the spotter planes of the 99th Infantry Division, which were in Bullingen.
Thelma and Charlie shared with us pictures taken in Ovifat and Longfaye, Belgium. These photos were taken in 1944, during the battle for Elsenborn Ridge. Charlie wanted to locate the pastures from which he flew to pinpoint the German troops attacking Rocherath-Krinkelt and advancing toward Elsenborn Ridge.
On Sept. 6, 2003, Charles E. and Charles J. Whitehead landed at the Brussels International Airport. They were greeted by Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz. They own and operate the Remember Museum at Thimister-Clermont. Their home and museum is located less than two miles from the U.S. Military Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle, and about 13 miles south of the U.S. Military Cemetery of Margraten in the Netherlands.
These grateful Belgians lodged us, fed us, and provided transportation throughout the 10 days we were in Belgium. Thanks to the M&Ms and their friends, Charlie was not only able to locate the field and house where he stayed in Bullingen, but also the two fields where the planes landed in Spa.
Probably the most interesting challenge was to locate the pasture in Longfaye. We literally went door-to-door trying to find a person who would remember what happened in the little village 59 years earlier. One elderly couple, Jean and Angele Simons, showed us where the L-4 planes were kept secured during the night. Another gentleman, Eugene Solheid, was an excited seven-year-old when one of the U.S. Army pilots gave him his first airplane ride over the village. Everywhere we went the Belgians invited us into their homes and we were greeted as good old friends.
A most emotional moment was the meeting of Mariette and Georges Louis-Kotten. We were in the M&Ms' dining room when Mariette opened a folder to show Charlie the grave of an American lieutenant she and her husband had adopted. Charlie leaned over to look at the certificate and other records. His face expressed astonishment as he said, "I went to high school with William D. Markin." What a coincidence! Of the 7,989 graves in Henri-Chapelle, it was a personal friend of Charlie's that this grateful couple had adopted.
The next step in the Battle of the Bulge pilgrimage was to go to the U.S. Military Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle to pay respect to heroes killed in action. Gerald Arseneault, the U.S. superintendent, went out of his way to create a special ceremony in honor of Lt. William D. Markin. An American flag was placed on the grave and sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy was moistened and spread over the lettering and markings of the white marble cross. This permits the wording to stand out as one takes pictures of the cross.
Standing there on 57 acres of American land, surrounded by 7,989 graves of our heroes, is one of the most emotional experiences one can ever undergo. While standing in front of the cross, the superintendent activated an electronic device which sounded "Taps" and our national anthem from the high tower overlooking the cemetery. We saluted the American flag in honor of Lt. William D. Markin of the 370th Field Artillery, who was killed in action Dec. 20, 1944.
Charles and Chuck visited three U.S. Military Cemeteries in Neuville-En-Condroz, Henri-Chapelle, and Margraten. They also had the opportunity to retrace the steps of the infamous German SS Colonel, Joachem Peiper. From the starting point of the von Rundstedt offensive on Dec. 16, 1944, in Losheimergraben, they walked through the German concrete defense line called the Siegfried Line.
Hitler constructed this along the 600 kilometers of border from Switzerland to the Atlantic coast. It consisted of concrete spikes called "dragon teeth." These were intended to stop any tank or other vehicle from entering Germany.
The Whiteheads visited Bullingen, where Mayor Gerhard Palm invited them to a get-together in their honor. Charlie received a booklet describing the American line of defense along Elsenborn Ridge. Thanks to Georges Louis, we were driven to the little village of Baugnez, Belgium, where Peiper's SS troops murdered 84 American prisoners in a field at the crossroads. This site also is referred to as the Malmedy Massacre of Dec. 17, 1944.
Charlie had the opportunity to follow Peiper's path along the Ambleve River, visiting Stavelot, Trois Ponts, La Gleize, and Stoumont.
Mrs. Georges de Harenne invited the Whiteheads to the castle of Froidcour in Stoumont. She took Charlie on the long terrace surrounding the castle and pointed out the retreating route used by Peiper and his troops as they were chased out of La Gleize on Christmas Eve 1944, by the 30th Infantry and the 82nd Airborne Divisions.
The visit to the Belgian Military Training Camp at Elsenborn was most interesting. We were trying to retrace the steps of Sgt. Charles Calhoun, who lives in Mayfield KY. He had fought with the 99th on Elsenborn Ridge. Adjutant Jean-Claude Schmetz and Major Loos gave us detailed military maps. The adjutant explained that a visit to Elsenborn Ridge would be impossible as it is now a target area for all artillery and large tank gun practices. Many unexploded shells are buried in this area, which is completely "off limits." Nevertheless the adjutant escorted the Whiteheads and their Belgian friends through the camp's museum. He then guided his guests through the fields and woods near Elsenborn ridge, where American and German foxholes are kept untouched as a memorial of one of the most important battles of World War II.
One afternoon was devoted to a visit to the Remember Museum. This is an exceptional museum and every item on display has a personal story.
Another afternoon we were privileged to visit a special site. Very few people have had the opportunity to visit this private property. The reason it has been kept secret is two-fold.
First, the American army did not want to publish the name of the unit involved for fear of having the Germans retaliate by torturing or executing prisoners of the same unit.
Secondly, the Belgian person who owns the area does not want the Germans to come and visit the place their so-called "heroes" were executed.
If you remember, the Germans had dressed up some of their soldiers in American uniforms. These Germans were driving captured American vehicles and operating behind enemy lines, cutting U.S. Army telephone lines, misdirecting road signs, and directing the U.S. troops in the wrong direction. Three of the first Germans captured in Sogno Remouchamps were court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad.
This has been documented in various books, and pictures of the executions were printed. However, you never saw a caption under these pictures mentioning the location nor the name of the American unit which was chosen to perform the execution.
Charlie Whitehead found out the unit involved was with the 99th Infantry Division and visited the site and saw the bullet holes in the wall where the German prisoners were executed.
Another day was devoted to a visit of the Belgian Fort of Tancremont. From there Marcel Schmetz drove us to Parker's Crossroad at Baraque Fraiture, where a 105mm howitzer is on display. Major Parks was able to slow down a whole German division for two days. He had only three canons and about 300 men to accomplish this extraordinary act.
From there Marcel took Charlie to visit the largest monument built in Europe in honor of the American liberators. This monument is called the "Mardasson." It is located on the outskirts of Bastogne. The Belgians built a large American star, which stands on a hill near Bastogne. One has to climb 60 steps to reach the top of the monument. The names of all 50 states are engraved in big letters in the marble of the monument.
The final day of the pilgrimage was spent in Remagen, Germany. The M&Ms drove us to see where Whitehead flew many times over the Remagen Bridge, which was captured intact in early March 1945. This bridge permitted the troops of the 99th Infantry Division to cross the Rhine River.
It was a pleasure and an honor to accompany Dr. Whitehead back to the battlefields. It was a reminder of the sacrifices made by so many mothers, fathers, wives, and children who lost their loved ones. These heroes gave their lives to allow us to live in a free country and to raise our children in the land of the free and the home of the brave.