Monday, December 24, 2007

Battle of the Bulge Memories, Emotions Live On

Ray Johnson of the U.S. Army Public Affairs Office:

BASTOGNE, Belgium, Dec. 21, 2007 - Standing next to the killing field where he once found himself face-down in the snow surrounded by the dead and dying, Ted Paluch said his return wasn't as emotional as it once was, especially having visited three other times.

His resiliency and composure quickly crumbled, though, when asked to honor 84 U.S. soldiers murdered near Malmedy, Belgium, in World War II.

As the 85-year-old from Philadelphia gingerly stepped on the frozen turf -- the ground as hard as it was 63 years ago when he served with 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion -- Paluch's eyes brimmed with tears. Clutching a wreath and almost whispering to himself, he said: "One of my guys was found here, in this exact spot. I wish he was standing next to me now instead."

Similar sentiments were heard 50 miles away in Bastogne, a Belgian city forever linked with the massive World War II campaign officially tagged Battle of Ardennes, but better known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Invited to the dedication of the Baugnex 44 Historical Center, a museum that recounts American prisoners of war being executed in 1944 by a German SS Panzer unit, Paluch was one of several hundred veterans and current soldiers who commemorated Battle of the Bulge ceremonies Dec. 15-17.

The 30th Bastogne Historic Walk, which paid tribute to 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, kicked off three days of remembrance. Roughly 3,000 participants, including 900 U.S. servicemembers, marched along the outskirts of Bastogne and through the villages of Hemroulle, Champs and Longchamps, where the "Five-Oh-Deuce" fought and bled.

Following a narrow road reduced to muck in places, marchers went past grasslands and thick forests. It is here where great tank battles took place in the open, while hand-to-hand combat spilled from one foxhole to another.

Carl Dalke, 82, who served with the 101st Airborne Division's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, recalls the first 24 hours of the fight as being the toughest, with his unit surrounded and trapped in arctic-like conditions. He labeled it "gut wrenching," especially when his best friend died -- one of 19,000 Americans killed, along with another almost 60,000 injured.

"But at no time did we ever think that we would lose, ... even though we were outnumbered seven to one," said Dalke, outfitted in 1940s-era military clothing and sporting several rows of medals, including a Bronze Star.

At a small memorial hugging the road, Dalke, like Paluch, laid a wreath to personally recognize those who didn't survive the costly monthlong struggle.

Along the walk, marchers passed by several such memorials and realistic scenes of uniformed reenactors digging foxholes, stealing through the woods, manning crossroads and driving authentic vehicles of that era. Adding to the setting were 22 parachutists jumping from a C-47 Dakota transporter.

Later in the day, a formal wreath-laying ceremony was held in Bastogne's McAuliffe Square, named after Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, who famously replied "Nuts!" when asked to surrender by the Germans. Prior to the ceremony, the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Honor Guard led a parade formed by dignitaries, beret-wearing veterans, Belgian troops, and soldiers from USAG Benelux and USAG Brussels. Also included in the mix were school-age children carrying flags of every U.S. state.

The procession, with a sidewalk-lined crowd tagging along, made its way from downtown to a small park and monument dedicated to Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the 3rd Army, which relieved besieged 101st Airborne Division forces. Afterward, the parade returned to McAuliffe Square, where U.S. and Belgian officials, military leaders and Battle of the Bulge survivors remembered those who fell.

Army Col. James Drago, commander of USAG Benelux, joined Marcel D'Haese, of the Belgian 5th Fusiliers, which fought alongside the Allies, in presenting a wreath. Drago, a veteran of operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, called the moment "truly amazing."

"The amount of energy that the Bastogne community expends to show their heartfelt appreciation each year reminds us all of the awesome sacrifices our soldiers made in that cold winter of 1944-1945," the colonel said. "Knowing that people from around the world participate in such large numbers annually confirms just how important these sacrifices were."

Special thanks to the Sergeant and the American Forces Press Service.

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