Pulling off of the road, I was not sure what to expect. As ‘war memorials’ go, usually there is some sort of informational signage or plaque to help guide you around. Here I was in what was maybe the most anticipated historical place of my entire life and I wasn’t sure if the small gravel area was for parking or a place for tractors to turn around. But there across the street I was justified: a small stone monument to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR; the names and service numbers of 14 boys, all more than ten years younger than me, who had died in the forest behind me. I stood and read their names. Some I recognized from the series: Warren H Muck, Alex M Penkala, Donald B Hoobler, but most I did not. Their sacrifice would not be known to Hollywood.
Bastogne was a thorn in the side of the entire German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. This offensive that Hitler had thrown more troops into than that of the initial invasion on the Western front in 1940 which brought on the downfall of France: it was Hitler’s last gamble of the war and totally caught the Allies by surprise as they made preparations for the final push into Germany. The thick red and blue arrows on battle maps indicate the movement of these massive armies into Belgium and the Allies’ attempt to halt them. These lines and maps have always fascinated me. To visualize the handiwork of brilliant military minds maneuvering armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the fields and forests of Europe. But not until walking through this forest had I appreciated what it looked like to be a soldier on the ground fighting for their life in this massive chess game. This forest could have been the backwoods of Meadowcrest at my childhood home in Cincinnati (and many times as a kid I ran around those woods pretending it was), but to see the foxholes, the perimeters, the field in front of Foy, the makeshift crosses set up in the forest; it made the whole battlefront seem much more human.
Breaking down my tripod, I made my way back towards the edge of the woods. Still the needles created an unusual silence as I walked. It reminded me of the silence that settles in after a newly fallen snow and how the Bois Jaques in December 1944 must have been similarly silent during the intermittent breaks between the artillery fire. How it must have made the onset of such a deafening assault all that more terrifying. I lit a cigarette (sorry Jenn) and thought about those men as I hiked down the little road through the forest back to the car. Even those that survived never got to leave Bastogne peacefully walking down this road like I was: they left by charging down the field at Foy, on to their next trial, digging in again against a fierce and determined enemy who had nothing to lose. Pushing back at that thick red arrow on the map as the Fifth Panzer Army attempted to break the Allied lines and reach the sea. They never would. And the men at Bastogne, the heroes now etched into the stone on that little monument next to the nondescript gravel pullout where I now met my car will always remind us why.