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Returning to Bastogne for the 75th Anniversary Remembrance of the Battle of the Bulge.

By Jim Davis

Helen Patton, WWII witnesses, and American veteran, Mel Davis, were honored at the Ardennes – White Star banquet to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Helen Patton, Granddaughter of General George Patton, was the featured speaker at a lavish banquet organized by the Ardennes-White Star organization to honor the American soldiers and the Bastogne area witnesses who lived through the Battle of the Bulge on October 20, 2019 in Clochimont (Vaux-sur-Sûre). Helen shared stories about her Grandfather’s life, his experiences during the battle, his liberation of Bastogne, and his love of the Belgian people.  

During her speech, Helen spoke to each of the survivors in the audience and thanked them for attending and told them how honored her Grandfather would be that they would attend this event.   Helen also talked to the young people in attendance and explained the importance of remembering the past and how they must guard against hatred of other people that can lead to war.  Helen, an accomplished actress and singer, ended her speech by singing “Try to Remember” and many in the audience of over 100 people sang along with her. 

U.S. Army soldier, Melvin “Mel” Davis, was honored for being one of the soldiers who fought in the battle.  His son Jim Davis spoke about his father’s experiences.    Michel de Wolf, who handles translations for the Ardennes White Star organization translated Jim’s presentation for the audience.

Jim explained that Mel Davis was a tank driver in General Patton’s Army.  Mel’s squad of four tanks was sent up to Bastogne in early December.   The night the German army invaded Belgium, Mel received a command to drive his tank toward the German attack and “stop the Germans.”  Mel’s tank ran out to fuel about 20 kilometers outside of Bastogne and he was told that no more fuel was coming and he and his crew should get out of his tank, dig fox holes, grab rifles and “Stop the Germans”.  

He and his crew got out of the tank, dug fox holes and waited. Mel said it was very cold, as cold as he had ever been in his life.  

A few hours later, the German army came charging over a hill and when they saw Mel’s tank, they started to shooting 88 millimeter shells at it.   Mel began firing his rifle at the German soldiers and he was wounded when one of the shells exploded near him.   He remembers a German tank driving right over his fox hole as the Germans moved toward Bastogne.   Sometime the next day, Mel was picked up by some U.S. Medics, who brought him back into Bastogne. 

Mel returned to Bastogne for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and was honored with a tree planted in the Peace Woods outside the city.   Every visit Mel made to Bastogne, he would always go see how tall his tree was growing.  Mel hoped to return to the 75th Anniversary remembrance; however he died a several years ago.   

In addition to Helen and Jim, there were a number of other speakers including several witnesses (now in their 80’s and 90’s) of the local battles, the mayor Mr. Yves Besseling, Delphine Van Daele, public relations director of Ardennes White Star, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel William K. Bergman, 101st Airborne Division, (Recon 2/17 Cav) and Paul Van Daele, President of the Ardennes White Star organization.   Gifts of thanks were presented to Helen Patton, the witnesses, Jim Davis and Lt. Col. Bergman.  At the end of the ceremonies, Helen led the audience in singing the America’s National Anthem – the Star Spangled Banner.    

Following the dinner, Helen, who also owns the General Patton wine company, shared bottles of her wines with the guests, posed for photos and signed copies of her book about her grandfather for those in attendance.   Guest swarmed around the witnesses to hear about their experiences during the war and thanked Paul, Delphine, Regine and the rest of the Ardennes White Star organization for putting on such a wonderful event. 

Returning to Bastogne for the 75th Anniversary Remembrance of the Battle of the Bulge

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.