As we said “Au Revoir” to Paris and headed East to Bastogne and the Ardennes forest, my mind began to wonder how this area must have looked to the Allies as they made their push onwards to Germany to stamp out the last of the Nazi German resistance. On the drive into Bastogne, I couldn’t help but notice that this area of Belgium that lay sandwiched between France and Germany is beautiful, with rolling hills, dense forest, and winding roads, making me think I was on summer holiday, that I was about to engage in a week of camping fun rather than visit the town of Bastogne and pay my respects to the bloodiest battle in the history of the Army. The Battle of the Bulge was fought among those very woods and hills; the picturesque landscape I had enjoyed seeing was once the killing grounds for the Allied and Nazi forces alike. That was sobering to think about as I looked out onto the hills.
I will not dwell on the museum too much that we visited in Bastogne, though it was informative and tastefully done with a theme based on four, interconnected, true stories of people who experienced the battle (an American soldier, a German soldier, a Belgian schoolteacher, and a Belgian child). The part of the museum that I found most impactful was a remote, outdoor annex about 4 kilometers from the main museum. Visiting that site revealed powerfully to me just how hard the conditions were for the American soldiers who repulsed the last gasp German offensive and how they effectively turned the attacking Germans into a retreating force. It was the post museum trip to the original 101st Airborne foxholes in the forest outside the city of Bastogne that the weight of history really settled upon my shoulders. We visited the foxholes on a bright and sunny day, the temp was hovering at about 63 with the wind blowing softly as we walked in the dense forest shade, and I was absolutely freezing even with my jacket and hoodie on, in the month of May no less. Staring at the foxholes and feeling how the wind cut right through me on the top of that knoll made me reflect on the misery that the men of the 101st and other units must have suffered in the depths of December with temps as low as -15, without winter uniforms or hot food. The men who defended Bastogne answered the call, bore their misery with as much stamina as they could muster, with a good amount of gripes thrown in (I imagine that they used language our mothers would not have approved of), yet still they held the line and repulsed the Nazis, holding steadfast in the face of adversity. I walked away with newfound respect and awe for all the stories I had read about the battle and the conditions it was fought in and I worked to keep that in mind as we headed out for Remagen the very next day.
The city of Remagen is tucked into the hillsides that dip and dive around the Rhine River. If I had had no contextual knowledge of the battle fought here (the one in which the U.S. Army captured its first bridge across the Rhine and used it to drive deep into Germany), I would have seen Remagen as nothing more than a beautiful travel destination. During World War II, the Ludendorff Bridge spanned the Rhine River and though it was not in the most ideal location for an American crossing of the river, it was a bridge and it was intact and that was enough reason for the Allies to capture it. German attempts to blow the bridge failed and all their counterattacks to repel the American forces were defeated. The first American soldier to cross the Rhine was Sgt. Drabik, who ran the span of the bridge head under fire, reached bomb craters on the eastern side, and drove off German counter-attackers long enough for his comrades to join him. This small story brings me immense pride, because he was a northwest Ohio native just as I am!
After we had visited the museum, I walked along the riverfront biking and walking path and just really started to soak in just how hard it would have been back then to capture the Ludendorff Bridge, ford the river, or install temporary pontoon bridges . I could see that the Rhine is wide, swift, and deep; I could imagine the stout German defenses including threat of V-2 rocket attacks; and I could thus feel the immense stress the G.Is must have felt. Reading over how the bridge was taken as well as being able to take in the sights for myself and once again feel the weight of history in this location gave me a strong feel for what it must have been like over 80 years ago. On this trip I have been filled with thanks and gratitude for those that had come before and once again I reflect in awe at those men who did the impossible and made the superhuman just a regular part of their lives.
Ultimately, being able to visit these locations has added a dimension to my knowledge that reading about and seeing photos of the sites does not provide. To stand among the trees in Belgium or gaze to the distant other shore of the Rhine puts into perspective just how much logistical difficulty the war presented. I feel as if I have a much larger appreciation for the adversity everyone experienced, that went beyond fighting a determined enemy, and included battling the terrain around them. As we leave this area behind us on our push into Berlin, I give the entirety of my respect to those who had to endure bitter cold, muddy hillsides, and raging rivers to carry on and bring the war to a close.