After five days in Normandy, and a quick two days in Paris, our group headed east for Bastogne. As we crossed the Belgian border, the scenery outside of our bus window became more densely filled with the tall, thick trees that make up the Ardennes Forest. Bastogne, Belgium sits close to the Luxembourg border in the southwest region of the country and has a population of fifteen thousand. Liberated by the Allies in September 1944, it was the central focus of Germany’s last major offensive operation of the war in December 1944. Known now as The Battle of the Bulge, it lasted five weeks, until the end of January 1945, and exposed all troops to intense combat in subzero temperatures. After the Nazis’ counterattack failed, their military was in retreat to Berlin until the end of the war in May 1945.
The town of Bastogne had a deep appreciation for the Americans who defended it during the winter siege. Their town square featured the bust of General Anthony McAuliffe, who was the acting commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Division. When asked by the Germans to surrender Bastogne, he simply replied with, “Nuts!” Bastogne also featured several shops and bars playing with the “Nuts!” phrase. The Bastogne War Museum is located just outside of town and commemorates the impact of the Americans successfully defending the town. Inside this museum, I made a few comparisons to what our group had seen previously. First, the translations in the exhibits now included German, most likely because we were getting closer to the German border. How would this museum depict Nazi Germany with many of its patrons being from the nearby Deutschland? Second, the museum did not ignore Belgium’s complete history during the war, in which a portion of the population collaborated with the occupying Nazis. Collaboration seemed to be glossed over in museums in France, with more attention focusing on the French Resistance. Lastly, as one tours the museum and learns about the five-week battle, one is offered four different perspectives from nonfictional characters: Emile Mostade, a thirteen-year-old boy who plays the accordion, Mathilde Devillers, a Bastogne native schoolteacher, Hans Wegmüller, a German lieutenant, and Robert Keane, a corporal in the 101st Airborne. Using the audio guide, one can hear each person’s depiction of the events through four voice actors. Each perspective adds more of the human element to the war. This was the first museum to offer a German soldier’s perspective. After visiting the museum, we visited a sector of the Ardennes Forest that Easy Company (101st/506th) occupied. It was fascinating to see their foxholes still dug into the ground.
After Bastogne, we crossed into Germany and stopped in Remagen. The town sits along the River Rhine and was the location of the crucial Ludendorff Bridge. As the Germans retreated in March 1945, Hitler ordered the bridge to be demolished to slow Allied movement, but the Americans arrived to find it, surprisingly, still intact. Many myths surround the failure of the destruction, and include sabotage, bribery, and treason. U.S. troops would eventually capture the bridge, almost guaranteeing the Allies would march on to Berlin. Nazi commanders tried relentlessly to destroy the bridge after it was captured by the Americans but failed continuously. Hitler would essentially order the executions of five German officers who failed to destroy the bridge before and after the Allies captured it.
We hit the road the next morning, and to help break up the drive to Berlin, we stopped in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. This town is located near Point Alpha, which was an important U.S. Army observation post during the Cold War. With post-war Germany now split between capitalism and communism, tensions along the West Germany/East Germany border became heightened. As many in East Germany were fleeing to the capitalistic West, the threat of a Soviet invasion also loomed, and Point Alpha was where NATO believed the invasion would begin. Professor Mansoor was stationed at Point Alpha in the late 1980s, and to hear him relive his glory days as a company tank commander was enjoyable.