In the footsteps of the 17th Airborne

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In the footsteps of the 17th Airborne

Post  Gina_Costina on Thu May 09, 2013 9:32 pm

Here’s a short write-up on March's trip back to Bastogne as we portrayed the 193rd G.I.R 17th Airborne Division

The full Photo album can be found on my photobucket page-
http://s1341.photobucket.com/user/Norristown1863/library/

For the last five years, the Belgian Friendly have organised the “Dead Man’s Ridge” walk, where they portray elements of the 17th Airborne Division. I have always been interested in participating in the event, particularly due to the obvious effort the group put into the event, every aspect of what it seemed to offer, clearly had me sold on attending for 2013. Others were also keen on the idea, the group of UK participants included Me, Glen Mallen, Mark Almond, Rob Grover, Pete Skillman, Tony Dudman, Val Czerny, Darren Parker and Keith Major.

This year we were going to portray a Platoon of the 193rd Glider infantry regiment. A veteran of this regiment; PFC Melvin Lagoon and his family were going to be present during the weekend, as were the son and daughter. It would be the first time he had returned to Europe since 1945. He was a 60mm mortar man in the company E, 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment. Before Varsity, when the 193rd was disbanded, he was transferred in the company E, 194th Glider Infantry Regiment. He fought in Belgium and in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the Operation Varsity on the 24th of March 1945 and fought in the Ruhr area in Germany until the beginning of May 1945. He went back to the United Sates at the end of August 1945. 68 years later, he was returning to show his three children and us where he fought.

During the weekend, the son, (John Caskey Jnr) daughter and the grand-daughter of Lt John Caskey would also be present. Lt Caskey (2/193rd GIR) had been killed during the attack of January 7, 1945.

Our weekend started at 0327 on Friday 22nd March as we drove on to the Eurostar and headed down to down to the area around Basse-Bodeux, a place we had visited a month earlier when we walked in the footsteps of the 551st P.I.B. We had unfinished business as we made our way to parts of the area we had not had a chance to visit before. This enabled Glen to at least solve a few more puzzles in respect of the positions of the Germans and 551st during the fighting in January 1945.

When we arrived at around 1030 the weather was really good, in contrast to what was going on in Britain and also what we had experienced a month earlier. Our position enabled us to have a clear view of the open green fields of the farm land we had crossed as 551st. It was a complete contrast to my memory of the same place, our experiences in the snow, and the wind chill that came with it.


Once we had finished visiting the 551st locations we headed to our hostel in Bastogne. We unloaded the mini-bus and meeting up with all our friends from the continent, people that I have come to know very well in the last 5 or 6 years. Always great to meet up with them, the language barrier seeming to be less and less of a problem the more I get to know them.

Our evening was to be spent at the pub “Le Carre” In Bastogne, where Melvin’ and his family would be in attendance as well as John Caskey’s family.


All of us were given T shirts commemorating the weekend’s activities and the 17th Airborne. During the evening our American friends arrived and Melvin was given some items as a gesture of our appreciation, this included jump boots and a special bracelet with jump wings made by Mark Almond. Melvin was also asked to unveil a picture of him as a serviceman, which the staff at “Le Carre” had placed on the wall amongst pictures of other veterans.



I had found out earlier that Mark Glen and I were an early start breakfast detail the next day! I was completely shattered from the drive down from Calais, but I still had a great evening, enjoying the fine Belgian beer and company, especially as Val had offered to drive back to the hostel. As the evening progressed a plan was hatched to obtain some items to cook a hot English” style breakfast in the morning, and with the help of Laurent Olivier and Clement Derbau’, we managed to source some Eggs, Bacon, Beans and bread for a decent meal in the morning. I had no intention of enjoying fine Belgian slices of cold meat and cheese slices. I even managed to convince some our continental friends that this breakfast plan was a good idea.

Having been separated from my British Buddies I joined Laurent, Clement and others for an evening meal at a restaurant in the Square in Bastogne. There a bet was also struck that if I didn’t enjoy the huge lump of hot gammon on the bone I had ordered, at the recommendation of Serge “McLos” Loslever, he would have to forfeit, by eating an English breakfast. Despite my best efforts trying to convince him that the jamboneau was disgusting, he was having none of it.

AS the evening drew to a close, I was shattered, but it was great to be back amongst friends and I was looking forward to the events planned for Saturday. Returning to the hostel and going to bed I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Saturday
We got up early and prepared a half-decent hot English breakfast, and laid out the cold ham and cheese for those who couldn’t stomach something better! We formed up outside and practiced some drill before making our way to a ceremony at the 17th Airborne monument a few miles outside Bastogne in Flamierge. It was cold and there was a biting wind and light snow started. As we started the ceremony and we were joined by Melvin and honoured guests, I noticed that the weather calmed considerably, the wind and snow stopped, and, despite it still being cold, we were able undertake the ceremony and lay wreaths. After the conclusion of speeches by those present, oddly, the weather worsened again.






At 1100 we were invited to the town of Bertogne, where we shared a glass of friendship with Melvin and our other honoured guests.

I was looking forward to a “Free lunch” in Bastogne which our itinary promised. Unfortunately it wasn’t free; it just meant we had free time in Bastogne to enjoy a lunch! This gave e the chance to speak a little longer with Melvin and his family.
In the afternoon we all made our way to the unveiling of a plaque and tree in honour of Melvin at the “Peace Wood” just outside Bastogne. As we formed up and awaited the arrival of Melvin the biting wind and cold hit us, but gain briefly stopped as the unveiling proceeded.



After that we had the chance to visit various areas that the 193rd GIR served and fought at. It was very sobering when Laurent took us to an area where Lt John Caskey was likely killed in action. Explaining what had happened, I felt very humbled listening to his Son John Caskey Jnr talk about how he felt visiting for the first time in his life the place where his father had died. A father he had never known. A tour of an area where the guide is a former veteran who fought there 68 a years earlier is an experience I have not had before. I can only imagine some of the thoughts that Melvin must have had. He recounted one story when he and some buddies came under fire from a German barrage, they took shelter in a log covered bunker near to where we were. There was only room enough for three inside the bunker, the 4th GI took what cover he could but died from concussion, Melvin recalled that his buddy had been right next to him when killed and yet Melvin had not even suffered a scratch. Fate seems to lend its hand in a very off way some times.

Once we had finished our tour, we had a chance to go to Tony McAuliffe’s HQ in the old Belgium army barracks in Bastogne. I’ve been there before. It’s an excellent museum run by very dedicated volunteers, and it’s one of those iconic places especially with the many photographs taken in WW2 during the time the 101st were there. I particularly like the recreation of the Christmas meal enjoyed by McAuliffe and his staff, in the very room they sat in some 68 years ago. Great place, the only thing missing from the table was a Costino D Ration which I was happy to offer General McAuliffe!






In the evening we had a fantastic meal at our Hostel with our honoured guests Melvin and his family, John Caskey and his family. The first course for them was a plate with a D Bar! Melvin recalled how he had given a D ration bar to his sister many years before, “..She ate it, but didn’t like what it did to her”!



As the Belgian beer flowed, I was offered some more helpful Belgian phrases to learn, by our Belgian Buddies. Always useful to know, even though I’m not sure they translate exactly what I’m asking.



Sunday
We made our way to Champs where our 9 mile march walking in the footsteps of the 17th Airborne was to start. Overnight we had experienced a light snowfall and it was a treacherous drive to the start point. As an experiment to “live history” I wore an M42 jump jacket. Photos of the time had revealed that some troopers still were seen wearing them amongst the majority wearing M43 jackets. The experience for me was that did they do this by choice, or necessity? I had ensured I had layered clothing on, undershirt, wool shirt and jumper, and an extra HBT jacket. It was cold standing still but as we marched I warmed up sufficiently.

At the start point, the snowfall was getting heavier, we participated in a ceremony and then the march, proper, started.

During the course of the march Melvin would join us and explain what had happened at various locations. This was a really interesting aspect of the march. Standing adjacent to some woods, I learnt that near that location many years earlier, Melvin was with a buddy, who received some mail announcing the birth of a daughter. They celebrated the news, but an hour later his buddy was killed in action. Life would go by until 68 years later Melvin would meet the daughter at a reunion of the 17th Airborne.





During the morning the weather was atrocious; high winds and horizontal snow, for some of the time it was a white-out. Whilst I marched I continued to remain room still wearing the M42 jacket, but I concluded that form me it wasn’t an item of choice, given the chance.








The weather in the afternoon gradually improved, my squad was tasked to flank a small village and await the arrival of the rest of our company. Making our way across fields and around the edge of the town, we slipped over and under barbed wire fences. Pvt Davey Aerts and I were lucky to decide to go under one particularly fence and didn’t touch it, unfortunately Pvt Nicki Putzey did, and got n electric shock as a result. We knew we had a special mission to make our way ahead of the company but I didn’t think it would involve shock treatment. Eventually we made our way into the village, ahead of the company, our brief had been to recon a church, which we did, although I still debate whether it was a church or not.



All of the squads made their way through the village, locals looked on with interest, but nothing more and it always strikes me as very odd, as there is no way similar could be done in England!

We eventually came to the end of the march where we had a chance to have a photo with Melvin. Then returned to Champs for a rest and hot coffee. Whilst with Melvin I asked him what he thought of the experience, and if he felt we did justice to the men he served with many years before, he replied, “I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but you guys did a great job”. This is very important to me , to always endeavour to accurately portray the citizen soldier of WW2, so it’s nice when a Veteran pays a compliment like that.



Once the hall had been tidied up we headed back to Bastogne, and the hostel, where we ditched most of our webbing. That evening we all went into McAuliffe square for a last meal with Melvin and his family. It was a great final chance to recount the experience the day had offered. We might have been tired, but it was a good feeling, one of accomplishment. We later returned to the hostel and prepared for our departure back to England the next day.

Monday
There was sufficient eggs and bread to have a hot breakfast, Saying our goodbyes we headed off with the intent of visiting the Museum in Bastogne. A word of warning it is shut on a Monday, undeterred we decided to visit “Stock Ardenne” in Salmchateau, which on arrival was also closed!!
The detour had cost us in time, and with a speed restrictor of 62mph on our minibus, our predicted arrival time at Calais was much later! It seems to be standard practice that we never arrive home early on these trips, but I don’t really care. They are a great experience, which other types of events don’t really offer. What can be better than being in the right place, at the right time of year, in the right clothing with like minded people?






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Gina_Costina

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Re: In the footsteps of the 17th Airborne

Post  samharris45 on Fri May 10, 2013 9:09 pm

Nice report paul and good pics! Keep em coming!
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Re: In the footsteps of the 17th Airborne

Post  Bazooka Joe on Fri May 10, 2013 9:22 pm

Nice write up and nice photos!
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