Belgian Residents Thank Battle of Bulge Vets
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
HOUFFALIZE, Belgium, Dec. 17, 2004 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge got a hero's welcome today from local residents who endured some of the most brutal fighting of the battle between U.S. and German troops here 60 years ago.
Schoolchildren from Houffalize, Belgium, join veterans of the
Battle of the Bulge during 60th anniversary ceremonies in their town Dec. 17.
Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Memorial ceremonies and a special Mass here commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and civilians as well as troops who died here during the fighting.
Houffalize, on the banks of the Meuse River north of Bastogne, was a highly strategic crossroads during World War II. German troops fought bitterly to maintain their hold on the town, which was virtually destroyed during the battle and endured the deaths of some 200 of its citizens within just a few hours.
However, the U.S. 2nd, 3rd and 11th Armored divisions finally were able to break the Nazi stronghold here, after which Houffalize became a linkup point for the 1st and 3rd Armies as they forced the Germans to retreat to the east.
Sixty years later, residents here clapped as American veterans returned to the city to attend a church service and waved U.S. and Belgian flags during wreath- laying ceremonies at memorials to local citizens killed here and to their American liberators.
Local schoolchildren presented the veterans certificates declaring them honorary citizens of the town and expressed personal thanks on behalf of their townspeople.
"We salute you and pay respect to our American friends," Mayor Jose Lutgen told the veterans during a reception following the ceremonies. He recalled "those terrible days" when Houffalize had reached what seemed like rock bottom, then to be freed "by young soldiers who landed in the midst of enemy fire."
"You all were heroes," Lutgen said. "And today, 60 years later, we welcome you again as the heroes who helped us retrieve our lost freedoms."
Daniel Denning, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, whose father was among the soldiers who fought at Houffalize, praised the veterans for overcoming severe hardships as they continued the fight in the Ardennes.
"You fought for freedom and for the people of Belgium and Luxembourg," Denning said. "But you also fought for each other." He likened the Battle of the Bulge soldiers to the 101st Airborne Division's Easy Company, popularized in the "Band of Brothers" book and television miniseries.
Denning called the 60th anniversary observances a fitting time "to commemorate the valor and sacrifice of those who fought here" and particularly to remember those who paid the ultimate price. Their sacrifices, he said, "will never be forgotten."
"I, like you, will never forget," agreed U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Tom Korologos. "And I assure you that the American people will also never forget."
Herbert Ridyard, who fought here as a private first class with the 94th Infantry Division during the battle, said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of appreciation the veterans have received throughout their visit to Luxembourg and Belgium.
"The love of these people is what I'm going home with," he said. "It's been absolutely incredible."
"I'm very humbled and honored and overwhelmed by the Belgian people," agreed Charles Nelson, who 60 years ago was a private first class with the 87th Infantry Division. "This has truly been a mountaintop experience."
Nelson received a big hug during a reception here from Josiane Pelzer, a Luxembourger whose family was part of the resistance movement against their German occupiers during the war.
"My family was on the list to go to a concentration camp," Pelzer said. "I owe so very much to these soldiers. If it hadn't been for them and what they did for us, I would never have been born!"
Nelson said it's been an enlightening experience to return to the Ardennes with the fellow soldiers he served with six decades ago "to reconstruct what happened here and to see it through the eyes of the local people."
Reliving his person history, he said, "has been very emotional."
Army Maj. Gen. David Zabecki, commander of Task Force Ardennes 60, said he wants to ensure the 60th anniversary commemoration activities are "as meaningful as possible" to the returning veterans.
"This is the last major milestone when we will be able to thank many of these heroes face to face," he said.
In addition to helping the U.S. ambassadors to Belgium and Luxembourg maintain strong, positive relations between their host countries and the United States, Zabecki said he has his own personal agenda for the 60th anniversary activities.
"I want to expose as many young soldiers to these old soldiers as I can," he said. "The old guys love it, and the young guys need to be exposed to their heritage as soldiers."
Zabecki said it tickles him to watch the interaction between local children and the Battle of the Bulge veterans. "These young guys treat them like rock stars," he said. "It's really wonderful to see."