It was ten in the morning when I stepped off the bus with
forty-three fellow veterans of the Third Armored Division. A
large crowd waving American and French flags had gathered in
front of Town Hall, even before our buses had stopped. "Vive
les Americans!" they shouted. "Welcome back Lafayette!"
The day was warm and bright in Maubeuge, France that September
morning of 1994, and we had come for a nostalgic tour of old
battlegrounds; but we had no idea of the emotional experiences
that awaited us.
In town after town, village square after village square, we
were greeted as if we had helped liberate Europe yesterday, not
fifty years ago.
At a time when American towns have a difficult time mustering
a good crowd for a Veterans Day parade, this trip reminded us
all of how fragile and costly freedom could be.
Maubeuge's mayor greeted us in perfect English as the crowd
swarmed. "Your tanks entered Maubeuge around that corner
fifty years ago," he said, pointing. "The town went
wild with joy, but you never stopped."
"There wasn't time," one of our group replied. "So
now we come to celebrate."
Just then a band came marching down the street, followed by
a color guard of Resistance fighters, their lined, well-weathered
faces locked in serious expression. Holding their colors rigidly,
they wore suits, ties and shining medals of valor on their left
I was standing with fellow tourist, Jim Howard - a Silver
Star recipient - who back then was a tank commander from Texas.
As a Sherman tank roared past, he lifted a finger to his eye.
Jim had five tanks shot out from under him and lost seventeen
Parading behind the band, the mayor led us down the street
lined with people, past the stone houses with U.S. and French
flags fluttering in the windows.
Later, we walked back to Town Hall where we were invited for
a champagne lunch. It was an unusual time for champagne-eleven
in the morning. But that was to happen often on our tour through
France and Belgium
-- AGED FARMERS WAVE --
The next day they piled us in the backs of restored American
half-tracks, ammo carriers, trucks and jeeps and paraded us over
the same route we took fifty years ago (only in reverse) from
Fourmies to Hirson.
Aged farmers at the end of their pasture lanes waved as we
passed. Hundreds of people lined the route, especially in the
small hamlets, but when we arrived at the open Market Square
in Hirson, more than a thousand had gathered.
We stepped down and mingled with the crowd, grasping outstretched
hands. Some of the young asked for autographs. An elderly woman
said: "You sacrificed your youth for us. We will never forget."
Many in the crowd wept. It was hard to maintain a soldierly
composure, but we managed.
Many Resistant fighters spoke to us. After sadly mentioning
their comrades who had been killed, tortured or deported to German
slave factories, they proudly related their heroics: the enemy
ammunition dumps they had destroyed, bridges and rail trestles
dynamited, communication lines cut, and other acts of sabotage
against the Nazis.
Exactly ten-minutes-to-four, church bells across the Square
began chiming. Everyone grew silent.
"Why are they ringing the bells?" I asked a Resistance
"Because it was the exact time your division came here
fifty years ago to give us back our freedom," he replied.
-- HELP FROM THE BOMBERS --
At Normandy we visited the areas around the landing beaches.
The hedgerows - tall, tangled and thick at the base, which once
contained Allied armor and infantry for 49 days - looked the
same. If a tank found a lane through the thick earthen walls,
it was quickly blasted by a waiting German 88.
Seemingly for days without end, because of the shelling and
non-stop machine gun fire, it was not possible to walk across
a field at Normandy; you crawled along the hedgerows and, like
a groundhog, napped in holes dug under them.
But at eleven a.m. on the 49th and final day of the invasion
battle, the piper cubs appeared over the front, as we were told
they would, to sprinkle the air with strips of tin foil to foul
enemy radar. Then came the heavy bombers from England, more than
2,000 of them, to carpet bomb an area five miles long and a mile
wide, stunning the enemy long enough to allow us to break through
at St- Lô. It gave us blessed freedom of movement from
the confining hedgerows.
-- 9,386 GRAVE MARKERS --
At the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, lined in long
rows in perfect military precision, there are 9,386 white marble
Latin crosses and Stars Of David. More than 300 of the headstones
mark the graves of unknown soldiers. We walked down the long
hushed rows. Many of the markers identified the soldiers as those
of the 1st or 29th Infantry Division-the two units that stormed
That afternoon at the ancient Abbaye-aux-Dames in Caen, we
were presented the Medal of Normandy in a solemn ceremony.
-- REACHING SOISSONS --
As our buses passed near Soissons, I remembered an incident
from the war. We had stopped for the night in a large field close
to the Soissons airport. We set our half-track on the outer rim
of the coiled-armor. At dusk a German half-track came out of
the woods a thousand yards away and raced across the field. We
opened fire, the 37 mm and .50 caliber tracers glowing like flaming
chestnuts in the fading light. Our firing was accurate and the
half-track exploded in flames.
After dark, the Germans began evacuating heavy bombers that
were clearly silhouetted in the moonlight just above our armor.
It was a tenuous situation, however, they never bombed our position.
-- QUICKLY SURRENDERED --
On the move again, one night we stopped in a sugar beet field
to wait for fuel. As usual, we positioned our half-track as outpost.
Our seven-man crew had a system for guard duty. We placed
our bedrolls in a line and the man with the watch stayed up for
two hours before passing the watch to the next man.
But that night, after two days of non-stop moving across eastern
France, someone in the middle of the line fell asleep with the
watch. Luckily, toward daybreak, I heard the crushing of the
sugar beets - like a cow walking through a cabbage patch - and
looked up to see eight Germans 30 yards away, clearly visible
in the moonlight, their rifles held before them.
Seeing our half-track, they paused, not sure if it was manned-deciding,
I had supposed, whether to attack or retreat. I barely lifted
my head and spoke quietly to the fellow on the other end of the
line. We decided to jump up and rush them. They quickly surrendered
without a shot being fired. At daylight we sent them to the rear.
-- BELGIUM, A BATTLEFIELD --
After what Belgium has been through there is little wonder
that many mayor's speeches held a variation of the phrase: "Those
who do not remember their past are condemned to relive it."
And what a tumultuous past the small country (slightly larger
than Maryland) has experienced.
Because of its location between two antagonistic neighbors
(France and Germany), it has supplied battlefields for many of
the world's greatest conflicts, and its citizens are always in
the middle of the path each time the soldiers come.
Since Julius Caesar started the parade with his legions in
57 B.C., foreign armies have entered, retreated, made stands,
crossed, crisscrossed and double crossed Belgian territory so
often that the custom has become habit forming. Twice this century
Belgium has been invaded.
-- FLOWERS CONVEY MESSAGE --
In one hamlet an elderly lady approached my wife and presented
her with a bouquet of flowers and a note. She spoke no English;
we speak no French, but that wasn't necessary. We communicated
with our eyes. The story was clear. She was there fifty years
ago as a young girl, and you could tell by the moistness in her
eyes that she remembered. My wife read the note:
"This bunch is for you. It is not well made nor the prettiest.One
flower is still missing. It is the one my heart is trying to
pick. Accept these flowers and there won't be any one missing."
-- Georgette Chardin, 5 September, 1994
The two women wept and embraced.
* * * * * * * *
We visited the Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge was
fought through the coldest winter in memory-1944 -1945. But 50-years
later, traveling past lush, green fields, I could identify only
a few familiar battlegrounds.
-- SURPRISE IN A DUGOUT --
When our buses crossed the German border, the celebrations
Many German citizens were appreciative of the Allies ending
Hitler's reign of fascism and destruction. At Stolberg, in the
city council chambers, we were honored with a plaque dedication
and reception, but without champagne.
But for the most part, understandably, the citizens didn't
rush our buses waving flags.
Approaching Cologne on highway E-40, there is an embankment that
looks like an abandoned rail bed. It was there in late February1945
that our attack force bivouacked for the night. I positioned
the half-track on the embankment with a good field of fire across
the large field below. We dug individual dugouts into the side
of the embankment.
I was down in that field looking for a turnip to boil for
supper when the bombers came over. There was a low cloud cover
but we were sure from the sound of the engines that the planes
were friendly. Later we learned we were right; they were twin-engine
B-26 Mauraders that had mistaken us for the enemy, not realizing
that we had advanced so close to Cologne.
I fell between rows in the turnip garden, and for the first
time was caught in the middle of a heavy bombing. The explosions
picked me up and slammed me back to earth, then rolled me from
side to side.
I managed to run away and dived into my dugout. What I saw
there made me think I was suffering from concussion: an attractive
blond wearing a tan trench coat. She was sitting on an empty
5-gallon water can. "What are you doing up here?" I
Her name was Iris Carpenter and she was an English war correspondent
for the Boston Globe. She wanted an interview. She lit a cigarette
and after I recovered from the shock, I lit a cigar.
We talked for an hour. She was the first English-speaking
girl I had seen or talked to in nearly a year. It was a very
pleasant interlude. The bombers had passed over, but the shelling
was heavy, coming in from the river toward Cologne.
I think the cigar smoke finally drove her out of the dugout.
I told her to be careful as she ran for her jeep. My folks mailed
me the piece from the front page of the Globe dated February
-- A LEADER LOST --
As our bus passed a certain crossroads outside of Paderborn,
Germany, I grew silent as I thought of what had happened there
March 30, 1945.
We, in the Third Armored, were to leave Marburg (Germany)
at daybreak and in a four-pronged attack capture Paderborn, 90
miles away. There, we were to link up with an attack from the
north. The idea was to encircle the Ruhr, and deny the enemy
vital war equipment.
Nearing Paderborn, the lead vehicles of Task Force Welborn
got through the crossroads, but then the Germans' Tiger tanks,
waiting in ambush, knocked out seven of our lighter Shermans
50 yards apart, broadside. Then one of the Tigers began zigzagging
up the column.
Before it was knocked out - in the rear vent - by an infantryman
with a bazooka, the tank had crushed half-tracks, trucks and
jeeps as if they were papier-machè floats in a holiday
Just after that action, we set up at the crossroads next to105
mm howitzers of the 391st FA. They began lobbing white phosphorous
shells at the Tigers that were by now below in the woods, where
Colonel Welborn was cut off. We could hear the battle raging
below without letup. It was what it must have sounded like the
third day at Gettysburg. We waited and prepared for an attack.
Late afternoon, the colonel from artillery (Lt. Colonel George
Garton - as I remember) came to our half-track and told me our
light equipment would be no match for the Tigers and that we
should perhaps fall back. I mentioned our automatic 37 mm cannon
and twin .50 caliber machine guns would be effective against
infantry or lighter vehicles that might accompany the Tigers.
He left the decision up to me. I reported back to the crew. To
a man, we decided to stay and immediately began cutting brush
to camouflage the sharp lines of the half-track.
The sound of battle below was a cacophony of savage fighting,
and occasionally we could hear the roar of a tiger when it accelerated.
We waited. At dusk a lieutenant came up out of the woods and
came to our gun site. He was obviously disoriented. He kept repeating:
"I lost them all. I lost them all."
I urged him to sit on a water can and gave him a drink of
water, but he soon got up and walked up to the road to the rear,
repeating 'I lost them all' as he walked.
Our division leader, Major General Maurice Rose, was killed
by a Tiger that night when his jeep came face to face with it
a few hundred yards below on a narrow road. The terrible news
quickly spread down through the ranks. America and the division
had lost a great leader.
On the morning of the second day, I was standing on the hood
of my half-track, watching a tank battle1,000 yards across the
long field with my glasses. I was trying to find a target suitable
for our guns, when a large armor-piercing shell slammed through
the hood of the half-track, passing under my boots and above
the engine, but touching neither. Another in a series of lucky
The Tigers were finally knocked out and what was left of our
attack force moved toward Lippstadt, where we linked up with
the Second Armored Division, completing the encirclement of the
Twenty-one Nazi divisions - over 350,000 soldiers and 23 General
officers - were captured in the Ruhr pocket. But the price of
victory was very heavy.
-- MOVING EAST --
At Nordhausen, Germany our division overran the factory that
built the V-1 and V-2 rockets that plagued London and other cities.
The factory, a 2-mile tunnel, 600 feet under the Harz Mountains,
was dug by forced labor. In April 1945, when we approached the
slave camp, the released prisoners-those who were strong enough
to walk-came flooding across the field toward our armored column.
We gave them every bit of food we were carrying on the half-track
and all our cigarettes. I even parted with a box of my prized
cigars. (The next few days, we lived on preserves confiscated
from cellars of deserted German homes until supply caught up
I entered a shack that housed the starved inmates. The horror
I witnessed was so staggering that it still torments the memory.
I hope it is understood why I choose not to describe it in this
-- ALWAYS THE CHILDREN --
Our buses stopped at a tavern on the Mulde River near Dessau.
The tavern, under a canopy of poplar trees, was near a bridge
over the brown, narrow river. It was the last familiar place
on our pilgrimage-the last point of the divisions' penetration
into Hitler's Germany. We all went into the tavern for a final
salute to the old days.
Someone asked me what I would remember most about this trip.
I remember the children.
In every city, town, village and hamlet we visited, schoolchildren
lined the streets as our two buses rolled by.
The youngsters, with their teachers, stood along the narrow
roadways, waving small flags and shouting, "Vive les Americans!
Welcome back, Lafayette!"
I asked a teacher. "The children are allowed to be released
from school for this?"
"Oh, yes," she answered. "This is their history
* * * * * * *
After a tour of Berlin, we flew to London's Heathrow Airport,
where we transferred onto a B-747 for the seven-hour trip home.
Once out over the ocean, after the big plane leveled at 35, 000
feet, there was time to reflect on all we had seen.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *