Seventy-seven years ago this month, the deadliest European battle in World War II broke out, like an uncontrollable disease, just when the world was beginning to believe that the war was almost over. It would be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
In the Belgian town of Bastogne there is a Chinese restaurant named Cite Wok located near the town square. At first glance it looks pretty much like any buffet place anywhere in the world, except for a plaque on its front wall. Bastogne is an ancient city, but its most talked about history traces back to Christmas Eve of 1944, as does the writing on the plaque.
At that site there was a military aid station to which some of the wounded from the battles were evacuated, most on a stretcher attached to a Jeep. During the evening of Dec. 24, 1944, the writing on the plaque reports, “over thirty U.S. wounded and 1 volunteer Belgian nurse (Renee LeMaire) were instantly killed by a German Bomb.”
There is an episode in the HBO series “Band of Brothers” based on LeMaire, who is now remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.” In the film, she befriended an Army medic from Louisiana. They shared the French language and war stories. On the day after the bombing, the medic drove to the aid station and found it in shambles. Within the rubble he found her headscarf.
My father was a medic. He was from rural Louisiana. He spoke French. In later life he would also frequently speak of Bastogne. I would like to believe that he visited that aid station and that he had met Lemaire. The two would have quickly compared their Louisiana French with the Belgian dialect. He would have been one of thousands of young men trapped in the Ardennes Forest during one of the coldest winters on record.
He loved the holidays especially when he could look back at the Christmas of ’44 from a distance. Bastogne was critical to the battle because it was a crossroads town; whoever controlled it controlled the roads to the port at Antwerp.
Bastogne would also be the setting of one of the war’s most celebrated stories: An American combat unit, the 101 Airborne, was headquartered at a Belgian Army base in town. At the battle’s worst moment, Bastogne was totally surrounded by the German army. An envoy was sent by the German General asking U.S. General Anthony McAuliffe to surrender. Hearing the demand, McAuliffe muttered to himself, “nuts.” Told by his subordinates that he would have to issue a formal reply, McAuliffe searched for words. One of his aides suggested his earlier statement. And so it was, the word “Nuts” was sent back to the German General. Fortunately, for posterity’s sake, an American war correspondent heard the reply and reported it back home as a brash statement of defiance.
For days, the situation was bleak but then the fog lifted. American planes were able to drop supplies. A tank force commanded by General George Patton broke through the enemy encirclement. Back home, McAuliffe’s response made headlines across the country. Today, near the room where McAuliffe made his reply, there are pictures from the war including one showing a U.S. Jeep bringing “Pere Noel” to visit Bastogne.
In today’s Bastogne, the town center, now known as McAuliffe Square, is surrounded, not by Nazi tanks but ice cream shops and cafes. A bust of the General overlooks the festivity.
Most tourists are oblivious to the plaque outside nearby Cite Wok. They don’t know that at that site on Christmas Eve 1944, Bastogne got its own angel.
Renee LaMaire probably treated and made the acquaintance of many American troops. I would later learn that the medic referred to in the film was not my father but Eugene Roe, a paratrooper/medic from Bayou Chene, Louisiana who was part of Easy Company, the group depicted in “Band of Brothers.” For my father, the war would end in Belgium where he was hospitalized for severe frost bite. For Roe, the war and its aftermath would continue including treating liberated concentration camp victims.
Both men would return to Louisiana where they had been raised probably no more than 60 miles apart.
Their lives were enriched by having perhaps known Renee LaMaire. In the unpredictable ways of their war, the cross-roads truly led through Bastogne.
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