Over seven decades ago this past week 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. This past Thursday, Christmas Eve, marked 71 years since a disaster in the Belgian town of Bastgne that would cause a local nurse to be immortalized in her hometown lore as a saint. Notably, there was also a Louisiana connection.
In downtown Bastogne there is a Chinese restaurant named Cite Wok located not far from 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 most of its history that's still talked about 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 injured American were evacuated, most moved on a stretcher attached to a Jeep. During the evening of Dec. 24, 1944, the writing on the plaque explains, "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 series “Band of Brothers” based on LeMaire who is now remembered as “The angel of Bastogne.” In it 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 head scarf.
That medic has since been identified as Eugene Roe from Bayou Chene, Louisiana. My father was also 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 too befriended Lemaire. The two would have quickly compared their Louisiana French with the Belgian dialect. All I know is that he would be 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 1944 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: The 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. On Dec. 22 an envoy had been 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 and 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 a bit of Christmas spirit showing a Jeep carrying Pere Noel though Bastogne.
On this an anniversary anniversary of the events in 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 outbreak of peace.
Most tourists are oblivious to the plaque outside nearby Cite Wok. They don’t know that at that site on Christmas Eve 71 years ago this past Friday, Bastogne got its own angel. Five months later the war in Europe would be over, but on that evening in Bastogne the silent night was overcome by the horror of battle.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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*Portions of the above blog were based on a 2013 New Orleans Magazine “Streetcar” article by Errol LaBorde