Historical Travels-Why We are Free

One of my favorite stops during my time in Europe was at the American cemetery in Luxemburg. The cemetery was for fallen soldiers who fought in one of the toughest conflicts of the war, later known as the Battle of the Bulge. American troops became surrounded and were outnumbered and out supplied. It was fought during winter, so the troops were fighting the elements with little supplies, as well as the Germans. This was Germany’s last chance, they knew it and put everything they had into the fight, yet the Americans held strong.

One of my favorite historians, Stephen Ambrose, wrote in the book Band of Brothers about Bastogne the following, “On the line, the days were miserable, the nights worse. The shelling was not continuous, the machine gun fire directed at the Americans was sporadic, but the snipers were active through the day. At night, the ominous silence would be broken by the nerve-racking hammering of enemy mortars, followed by cries from the wounded and calls to man the positions in preparations for attack.”

“In the foxholes, the men tried to get some sleep, difficult to impossible given the cramped conditions (usually 6 feet by 2 feet by 3 or 4 feet deep, for two men). At least lying together allowed the men to exchange body heat.”

“Shell bursts in the threes sent splinters, limbs, trunks, and metal showing down on the foxholes. To protect themselves, the men tried to cover their holes with logs, but not having axes made it a difficult task. One man solved the problem by putting two or three German “stiffs” over the top.”

“The Americans had gone through a much more miserable month than the Germans, who had an open bountiful supply line. For the 101st, surrounded, there were no supplies in the first week and insufficient supplies thereafter. Those were the weeks that tried the souls of men who were inadequately fed, clothed, and armed. This was war at its hardest, horrible to experience. The 101st, hungry, cold, under armed, fought the finest units Nazi Germany could produce at this stage of the war. Those Wehrmacht and SS troops were well fed, warm, and fully armed, and they heavily outnumbered the 101st.”

“It was a test of arms, will, and national systems, matching the best the Nazis had against the best the Americans had, with all the advantages on the German side. The 101st not only endured, it prevailed. It is an epic tale as much for what it revealed as what happened. The defeat of the Germans in their biggest offensive in the West in World War II, and the turning of that defeated into a major opportunity”

Easy Company had five men buried at the American cemetery at Luxemburg. Two of the men played a major role in the book and the subsequent HBO mini-series that followed, Sergeant Warren “Skip” Muck and PFC Alex Penkala. Ambrose described their final moments, “Suddenly a shell burst in the trees, then another and another. They kept coming. Cpl George Luz was caught out in the open. He began racing toward this foxhole. Sergeant Muck and Pvt. Alex Penkala called out to him to jump in with them, but he decided to get to his own and with shell bursts all around, splinters and branches and whole trees coming down, made it and dived in.”

“Luz went to check on Much and Penkala, the men who had offered to share their foxhole with him. The hole had taken a direct hit. Luz started digging frantically. He found some piees of bodies and a part of a sleeping bag.”

I was able to find both men’s final resting places among the hundred that laid with them and pay my respects. It was because of men like this who did what they did back then that I can spend two weeks in luxury sailing down rivers in Europe now. I knew of these two men, but I wanted to pay respects to all who had fallen in this place and even to those who made it out alive. All suffered from this battle.

Another soldier from Easy Company, PFC Weber, put it this way, “When I saw what remained of the 1st platoon, I could have cried, eleven men were left out of forty. None of them were old soldiers who had jumped in either Holland or Normandy or both: McCreary, Liebgott, Marsh, Cobb, Wiseman, Lyall, Martin, Rader, and Sholty. Although the other two platoons were more heavily stocked than the 1st, they were so understrength that, added to the 1st, they wouldn’t have made a normal platoon, much less a company.”

Along with the men of Easy and the others in the foxholes there is one much more famous man buried there. After General George Patton was fatally injured in a car accident he was taken to Heidelberg where he died. His last request was to be buried with his men and not returned to the states. His request was granted. I have written many times that I love standing in sacred places and I am thankful the tour worked this stop into my trip. May the men who gave their last full measure at this place never be forgotten.

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