By Jim Davis
It is a cold December afternoon in southern Belgium. The icy wind is whipping through the trees as I sit shivering in the backseat of an olive green 1944 U.S. Army Willys Jeep, in the middle of a long convoy with hundreds of other U.S. Army vehicles – tanks, trucks, half-tracks, jeeps and motorcycles - for the signal to advance into the town of Bastogne. Each vehicle is filled with uniformed men, excitedly waiting to enter the city to celebrate the liberation and the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Suddenly, the rumbling sound of incoming planes can be heard. Everyone looks up and breaking through the clouds, in close formation is a squadron of U.S. Army Piper Cubs that will lead the way. As the planes pass overhead, we get the signal to ‘move out.’ Engines rev up, up and down the column. At the head of the procession is a Sherman tank with the words, “First in Bastogne” scribbled in chalk on the sides. The tank shifts into gear and the parade begins.
The streets are lined with thousands of cheering people awaiting us. Church bells ring out. They wave American and Belgian flags and hold up young children so they can see the vehicles and soldiers pass by. Candy is tossed from the jeeps and trucks. A tremendous feeling of pride wells up in my chest as our jeep makes the turn onto Rue de Sablon, the main street of Bastogne. Locals reach out to shake my hand and yell ‘thank you’ to me, an American. But, a powerful sadness also comes over me because there is someone missing in the seat next to me, my Father. It is my father, Melvin Davis, a member of the 811th Tank Destroyer group who fought and was injured here during the Battle of the Bulge.
It is December 14, 2019, the 75th Anniversary Remembrance of the Allied victory. This parade featured the returning army veterans, active U.S. and Belgian military, hundreds of fully restored WWII vehicles filled with reenactors from across Belgium. These reenactors are wearing original WWII Army uniforms complete with helmets, boots and even canteens. I have been told this is the largest number of WWII U.S. Army vehicles assembled in Bastogne since the end of the war.
A few years ago, before my father passed away, he asked me to promise him I would return here for the 75th Anniversary. He had attended the 50th Anniversary events and had hoped to be here today. Before he passed away a few years ago, he asked me to return in his place. Today, I am thrilled to honor my father along with all the other soldiers and civilians who fought in this battle.
The night before the parade, in the nearby city of Manhay, I sat in a huge, crowded festival tent with my Belgian friends Paul Van Daele, Michel de Wolf and Eddy Monford (Eddy organized the events in Manhay) listening to tributes to the Battle of the Bulge veterans from Belgian and American dignitaries followed by the Manhattan Dolls, a female vocal trio singing the songs of the 1940’s in the style of The Andrews Sisters. Between songs, we talked about the battles, the intense fighting in the freezing weather of 1944, and how different the world would be if the American soldiers had not defeated the Germany army in the battle. Only a handful of World War II veterans were able to make the trip from the U.S.A. this year and those who came were treated like the heroes they are. When they entered the tent earlier in the evening, they were greeted by a standing ovation that lasted at least 10 minutes. Children came up to shake their hand, get autographs and selfies.
Paul, the President of the White Star Ardennes organization, arranged for me to attend a number of special events over the weekend including this veteran’s tribute and concert. The next day, it was Paul’s beautifully restored Willys jeep that I rode in during the parade through Bastogne. We also attended a wreath laying ceremony at the Patten memorial and at McAuliffe square, a visit to the impressive Bastogne War Museum and that evening we attended a spectacular sound and light show at the Mardasson Memorial followed by a huge fireworks display.
Paul and I also made a stop after the parade at the Hotel de Ville where Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ronald Gidwitz, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Benoît Lutgen, the mayor of Bastogne and other military and governmental dignitaries in attendance tossed packets of walnuts from the balcony to the crowd below. This annual tradition honors General Anthony McAuliffe. In December of 1944, when the Germany army surrounded Bastogne, they demanded General McAuliffe surrender. His one-word response was, “Nuts”.
Today, as we ride slowly down the street in Paul’s jeep, I feel my Dad sitting right next to me, overwhelmed by the gratitude of the people of Belgium. My father once said “When people ask me why we American soldiers went to fight far away in Bastogne, I tell them the Belgian people were are friends and when friends are in trouble you help them.” I, too, have been very fortunate to find great friends in Belgium.
After the parade, Paul, Michel and I went into a café on McAuliffe Square, where a Sherman Tank sits as a memorial to the soldiers who fought there. A tank like the one my father drove. We shared a glass of wine and toasted to my father and all those who fought here and thanked them for their sacrifice.