Belgians Recall Battle of the Bulge
By Christie Vanover
Special to American Forces Press Service
CHIEVRRES, Belgium, Dec. 3, 2009 It was the early days of the Battle of the Bulge. Germans were advancing into Belgium, and the supplies they needed to strengthen their force were close at hand, until the bravery of a lone rifle company helped to halt their advance.
Veterans of the 5th Belgian Fusiliers Battalion march down the streets of Bastogne, Belgium, in the 2008 Battle of the Bulge Parade. Marcel D'Haese, center, is the chairman of the 5th Fusilier War Veterans Association, and Robert Lemaire, far right, is a longtime member. U.S. Army photo by Cis Spook
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It was Dec. 18, 1944, in the Belgian town of Stavelot. “The U.S. Army evacuated the city, and the 5th Battalion was the only one between this treasure and the Germans,” recalled Robert Lemaire, a Belgian soldier who was assigned to the company.
The day prior, German Col. Joachim Peiper and his 1st SS Panzer Regiment were quickly moving through Belgian villages, destined to reach the Meuse River and Allied supply ports in Antwerp. His army plowed through towns like Honsfeld and Büllingen, capturing and killing unarmed Americans.
While the SS Regiment faced casualties and lost tanks and vehicles along the way, Peiper moved them on toward Stavelot. His tanks crossed the only bridge leading into the village and launched a morning attack, capturing the city. Lemaire, who was guarding the American fuel depots while his company was attached to the 1st U.S. Army, recalled that Peiper executed 132 civilians in Stavelot, including numerous children.
Americans repositioned their forces to set up a perimeter defense. However, Lemaire’s company was left behind along the Malmedy road.
“In a hurry, packed in a truck,” he recalled, “we left our billets in direction of the depot. As we came closer, our lieutenant asked for 10 volunteers.”
Lemaire was among the first to jump off the truck, along with Sgts. Harpigny, Magain, Vermeulen, Cpl. Suinen and fellow Pvts. Robert Delbois, Robert Tille, Alfred Cantigneau, Elomir Cambier, Jean Lesire, Paul Wantiez and F. Ingels. Their mission: to set fire to the fuel depot to prevent the SS from retrieving the supplies needed to rejuvenate their offensive.
“The lieutenant ordered us to set fire to the three first piles,” Lemaire recalled. “As the first attempt to shoot tracer bullets with a Bren gun failed, we then pierced jerry cans with our bayonets and spread fuel on the three first piles, as well as, a trail of fuel on the road ahead of the piles. We set the fire with matches.”
Within moments, the entire depot was engulfed in a trail of flames, stretching seven miles long. “It was impossible for the armored tanks to go through this wall of fire,” said Lemaire.
According to the Office of the Chief of Military History, as the gasoline roadblock was still enflamed, the Americans launched a full-fledged ground and air assault against the Panzer unit, reclaiming the town.
Engineers had destroyed the Amblève Bridge that would have allowed the Germans to retreat to their fuel depots to the east, and Lemaire and his company had destroyed the fuel supplies in Stavelot, preventing Peiper from advancing much further.
“We began to realize that we had insufficient gasoline to cross the bridge west of Stoumont,” Peiper said in January 1945, as reported by the Office of the Chief of Military History. The German powerhouse of heavy vehicles became meager road debris inefficient against the Allied forces. On Christmas Eve, the regiment was forced to abandon its vehicles and continue the battle on foot.
At the time, Lemaire didn’t realize the impact that striking a match would have on defeating the Germans. “We just did our job,” he said. It was a job that he had waited four years to accomplish.
Lemaire and a fellow soldier, Marcel D’Haese, began fighting the Germans in 1940. The Belgian Army had surrendered that year, and the Germans put out an order that all young men were to report to Germany as laborers. Therefore, D'Haese said the Belgians made the choice to start a resistance.
“At the beginning of the war, I received an obligation to go to Germany,” said Lemaire, “so I became a resistance fighter.”
“The resistance was really active in Belgium,” said D’Haese. “We were doing sabotage to the Germans, like cutting the communications lines.” But despite their heroic actions to defend their nation and “four dark years of underground fight and suffering”, D’Haese said, “We waited and we prayed for the Americans.”
“Americans brought power, engines and weapons. They were like God to us. They were the only ones that could help to liberate us,” he said.
After the Allies jumped into Normandy and later liberated Belgium, the Belgian government called for volunteers. D’Haese said 53,000 men answered that call and joined the newly formed Belgian army.
D’Haese and Lemaire joined the 5th Belgian Fusiliers Battalion, which was made up of six companies from the Mons, Tournai and Charleroi regions. D’Haese, who is now 84, was assigned to the Headquarters Company and Lemaire, who is now 86, the 3rd Company.
The unit was officially activated on Oct. 7, 1944, and the volunteers, who had already been defending their country unofficially, enlisted on Oct. 9.
After two months of training in Charleroi, they joined the First U.S. Army and deployed to the Ardennes where the battalion was divided amongst the American forces. The battalion had 800 men dispersed over 30 miles, according to D’Haese.
“They call us war volunteers. Indeed, we are freedom volunteers,” stressed D’Haese. “We were sick about war. We helped the Americans to finish it. We were ready to do anything we could for the Americans.”
“If the U.S. did not liberate Belgium, the Germans would still be here,” he added.
The 5th Fusilier partnered with the 1st U.S. Army until June 1, 1945. Throughout the war, five members of the battalion were killed, and 80 more injured.
The unit and its actions were recognized by Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander, on July 13, 1945, in a memo that stated: “This battalion contributed materially to the successful operations of the unit with which it served. The high Esprit de Corps and great determination displayed by the officers and men of the Fifth Belgian Fusilier Battalion enabled it to carry through to a successful conclusion each and every assigned mission, thereby contributing immeasurably to the glorious victory of the Allied Nations. The outstanding achievements of this battalion bring credit not only to itself but also to the Belgian Army.”
Since that time, many other Americans have recognized the accomplishments of the 5th Fusilier, including U.S. presidents, senators, ambassadors, generals and the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux.
The unit established the 5th Fusilier War Veterans Association in 1945, and D’Haese has served as the chairman since 1980.
“I accepted the role as chairman for six months, and I’m still here,” he laughed.
The veterans join the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux color guard on a regular basis to commemorate the American-Belgian partnership that was formed 65 years ago, but that partnership is slowly fading.
“We have 40 to 50 members left in the battalion,” said D’Haese, “but less than 10 are able to participate in ceremonies.”
In May, a small group remembered the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in Mons.
On Dec. 12, a few make the annual trip to Bastogne to pay tribute again to the cold, smog-filled days of December 1944 and the allegiance with the Americans that brought liberty to their nation.
“God bless the USA and Belgium,” said D’Haese.
(Christie Vanover works for U.S. Army Garrison Benelux.)