Story and photos by Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown
***image1***Downtown Bastogne, Belgium, sporting many shops and restaurants, is noisy and colorful. The sidewalks of this 900-year old town are full of people taking in sights and sounds. Scooters buzz by, horns honk and sidewalk cafes are full, as shoppers peruse establishments from ice cream shops to jewelry stores.
In the center of Bastogne’s busyness is Place McAuliffe, a square named after Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, who became near and dear to the town’s populace during World War II. The square is home to a Sherman tank named Barracuda, now a playground of sorts for children, as they hang on its 75 mm gun, and scramble onto and into its turret.
However, the senior citizens of this town know Barracuda is anything but a novelty. Rather, it is a sober testament to late December of 1944 when Bastogne’s air was filled with machine guns and tanks firing. A time when the sidewalks were littered with rubble, shell casings and the dead. A time when a desperate battle raged in and around the town, as Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division stemmed the tide of the last major German offensive of the war. Unfortunately, Barracuda did not survive the battle, evidenced by jagged holes in its rear and left side armor plating.
During the war, Roger Scohy, 78, lived in Auvelais, about 15 kilometers from Bastogne. He said when American troops occupied the area in September of 1944, the locals became very “festive.” He still has a picture of himself atop a Sherman with smiling American Soldiers. “They were very friendly and brought chocolate and chewing gum. Things we did not have for years,” he said.
***image2***The merriment changed, though, on December 16, as the Germans attacked with tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks, pushing through the Ardennes Forest, heading for the port of Antwerp, Belgium. They hoped to split the American and British forces closing in on Germany, and Bastogne was a prime target, as it joined several key roads. The GIs there knew they would soon be in for a rough go.
“I was in school at the time,” Mr. Scohy said. “I came back home one evening by bicycle and the American troops stopped me. They were making sure no one was a German spy.”
On December 21, the Germans surrounded Bastogne and pushed further west, but they never occupied the town, thanks to the dogged efforts of General McAuliffe’s GIs. As the temperature dipped to 10 below zero and American supplies ran thin, the German commander, General Heinrich von Luettwitz, demanded the Americans’ surrender. To this, General McAuliffe retorted his now famous and somewhat humorous “Nuts!”
The German siege continued, but was broken on Dec. 26, when elements of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, attacking from the south, reached Bastogne. With a three-hour drive from Ramstein to Bastogne, Airmen and their families can hear more about these and many other stories about the battle and some of the individuals involved.
***image3***An information center stands behind Barracuda, where maps show a variety of attractions in Bastogne, a town of 14,000 residents. Sherman tank turrets sit at each end of the town and one of them rests near a Catholic church, Bonne Conduite, built in 1673. Especially interesting is the Bastogne Historical Center, which features a monument, museum and gift shop. Taking Rue Gustave Delperdange from downtown, the center is just a few kilometers outside Bastogne. Signs clearly mark the roads to the center.
The museum has several American and German uniforms, weapons and other artifacts from the battle, and takes about one hour to go through. A 30-minute film on the battle is also available.
For more information, visit www.bastognehistoricalcenter.be or call (0032)061/21/14.13. The center can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Museums in Ettelbruck and Diekirch, Luxembourg, both short drives from Bastogne, feature thousands of artifacts from the battle, including tracked vehicles and various weapons. The General Patton Memorial Museum in Ettelbruck can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (352) 81 03 22. Their website is www.patton.lu. Diekirch’s Musee National d’Histoire Militaire can be contacted at email@example.com or at (352) 80 89 08.
(Sergeant Brown, a public affairs specialist with the Air Force Reserve’s 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo., is TDY with the 435th Air Base Wing’s public affairs office.)