Editor's Note: New Jersey Legionnaire Tommy McArdle is a U.S. Army veteran and retired police officer who frequently participates in battlefield re-enactments and commemoration actvities in France and Belgium. Two of his family members are laid to rest in American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in Europe, having lost their lives fighting in World War II. Following is McArdle's account of the 31st Annual "In the Footsteps of the 82nd Airborne Division" march in late February, which traced a route traversed by members of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the Independent 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion in early 1945. Among the estimated 1,200 participants and guests this year were U.S. soldiers recovering from their wounds at Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe, based in Germany.
Day 1: The Arrival
Our first stop on the way to this year's march has become an annual tradition. We visit the Ardennes American Cemetery in Condroz. Each year since I became aware of Staff Sgt. Louis Feuerstein, I make a point of placing flowers at his grave.
A member of the 746th Bomb squadron, he was killed on a mission over occupied Europe on April 23, 1944. A co-worker of mine had told me about him a few years ago. The family had never been able to visit his grave in Europe. I have done so on their behalf since 2009, and have gotten to know several of Staff Sgt. Feuerstein's relatives, including his sister. It matters to me, and to them, that he is remembered.
On the long walk from the parking lot to the grave, I am struck, as always, by the simple beauty of the cemetery. It's cold, gray and snowing, as it usually is this time of the year in this part of Belgium.
After paying our respects, we return to the vehicle and head out to our home for the next two nights, St. Edouards Sanatorium, located in the small town of Stoumont. The weather continues to worsen. Snow is falling heavily.
As we pull into the parking area, I hear the voices and laughter of children. Suddenly, the doors burst open and several young students rush out. They run about the property and play in the snow. St. Edouards is now a school and a happy place for these children.
This was not so in December 1944.
Between Dec. 19 and Dec. 21, a battle raged in and around Stoumont between the Americans and Germans. Just about the entire town was destroyed. The focal point of this battle was the sanatorium, which sits on high ground northwest of the town, a location that offers a view over the entire area.
The sanatorium is heavily constructed with thick walls. It is a small fortress. During World War II, the American combatants were the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 119th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division (Old Hickory) and elements from the 743rd Tank Battalion, 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and 143rd Anti Aircraft Artillery Battalion. The German force would consist of elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, principally the third company of the 1st SS Armored Engineer Battalion.
The town of Stoumont would be defended by the Americans on Dec. 19, 1944, and fall later that day to the forces of Kampfgruppe Peiper. The Americans would counter-attack several times over the next two days to recapture the village. The fighting would center on the sanatorium. It would be vicious. And it would have moments of compassion.
The sanatorium had become a place of refuge during that winter for approximately 250 civilians from the area, including many children, priests and nuns. Hand-to-hand combat would occur on every floor of the sanatorium as the Americans and Germans battled for its control. Tanks were brought up to blast holes in the walls so that the infantry could breach the walls. The Americans used a 155mm artillery piece in a direct-fire role to knock down the walls. The dead would litter the hallways and rooms.
In the cellar, as a dying American soldier was given last rites, a German soldier knelt down to give him a cigarette. The American soldier fumbled around in his jacket and gave the German a piece of chocolate. The German soldier could not eat it, he said, because it was covered in blood.
Once the Americans had finally secured the sanatorium, they proceeded to the basement were they were welcomed by the civilians. There, an American GI took out a pair of dry socks and placed them on the cold, bare feet of a little girl.
Watching the children play, I wondered if they had any idea what had occurred here back in December 1944. We left the sanatorium and headed to dinner at Basse Bodeux, riding in a World War II vintage deuce-and-a-half.
The traditional dinner on the Friday before the march is spaghetti, some beers and conversation with old friends. Two friends and American Legion members here are retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Leicht and his son, Maj. Robert Leicht, Jr. Col. Leicht's father, Wilbur, is a World War II veteran of the 11th Armored Division, a combat veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and a Legionnaire.
The deeds and sacrifices of the American soldiers in World War II can never be forgotten, particularly here in the Ardennes, Col. Leicht told me. He and his son are former members of the 82nd Airborne Division as well and feel a strong bond to the paratroopers who came before them.
Col. Leicht told me that his father was a former commander of American Legion Post 73, East Orange N.J. "I spent my childhood at the Legion," he said. "My father was the post commander, and my mother was head of the woman's auxiliary. Every weekend we were at the post."
As we talk, I notice that the hall is full of American GIs, active-duty members of the Warrior Transition Unit, composed of soldiers who have been wounded and injured during combat or while stationed in Europe. They are here to take part in the march. I meet their commanding officer and command sergeant major. I say hello to Emile LaCroix, organizer of the annual commemorative marches, and he informs me that this year's route will cover about 14 miles.
After dinner, it's time to head back to the sanatorium for some sleep and to prepare for the march the next day. After a cold ride back in the deuce-and-a-half, I hit the way thinking of the events that occurred here just over 68 years ago.
Day 2: The March
Today, Feb. 23, 2013, is the 31st annual march that honors those who fought, and the fighting that took place, in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The weather forecast calls for snow and cold. As we make our way to Basse Bodeux for breakfast and the start of the march, snow is already falling. Inside the hall, I see many familiar faces, including my Belgian friend Erwin Peters who will make the march with several of his friends.
I greet Lt. Col. Douglas Galuszka and Command Sgt. Maj. Eugene Chance of the Warrior Transition Battalion. I join them outside where they are taking a group photo of the unit, which is in a loose formation. I notice how at ease the soldiers are around Lt. Col. Galuszka and Command Sgt. Maj. Chance. They move among one another, shaking hands, smiling and joking. There is genuine affection among them. After several photos, they move out and start the march.
In the crowd, I find Ray Fary and Dick Fields. Ray is a combat veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and fought here during the Bulge. Dick was a member of the 551 Parachute Infantry Battalion and also fought here in 1944-45. We say our hellos and plan to meet at the small village of Fosse where a memorial service is planned later in the day.
Emile LaCroix, a Belgian who was liberated by the Allies as a small boy during World War II, is organizer of these annual marches. He tells me that the route this year is especially icy and treacherous.
About a quarter of a mile into the march, the first obstacle appears – a long incline leading to the top of a hill. I see several people turning back already. As I ascend the slope I realize that this will be a very tough march indeed. The ground is covered in snow and ice. The path is rutted.
I arrive at Fosse, the first stop, in time for the memorial service. Ray Fary is there placing a wreath at the monument. An ambulance crew nearby attends to a man who has fallen on the ice and sustained a severe laceration to the side of his face. I am off to the next stop, Grand Halleux, where lunch will be served.
On the way to Grand Halleux, I meet Sgt. Alberto Armasmandragon, a member of the Warrior Transition Battalion from Glendale, Calif. He explains that he was wounded in Iraq. He took some mortar fragments to his spine. Determined to make the march, he carries a large rucksack on his back. He tells me that he won't be able to stay in the Army. He also says the Warrior Transition Battalion is the best unit he has ever been in.
The unit takes care of his medical needs and paperwork. He is married to a German national and plans to work for the U.S. Postal Service in Germany after he is discharged.
He also tells me that Lt. Col. Galuszka and Command Sgt. Maj. Chance are two of the best people he has ever served with and that they truly care about the soldiers. He says he wishes that the WTB had been around years ago so that it could have helped some of his fellow soldiers who left the Army due to health conditions they sustained while on duty.
There is a long line for food and hot drinks at Grand Halleux. I am hungry, so I wait in line and am rewarded with a cup of hot soup and a sausage sandwich. Numerous marchers are talking about their struggles with the route up to this point. Several people have fallen. Some broken bones are reported. After about a 30-minute rest, I am off to the small village of Dairomont.
On the way, I observe that the number of marchers has decreased significantly. The weather and the treacherous footing has apparently forced many to quit.
A memorial in the center of Dairomont honors those members of A Company 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion who made a bayonet assault on German positions here on Jan. 4, 1945.
Following a ceremony here, I hit the frozen trails again. This is the home stretch. It's not far to Basse Bodeux now. The terrain opens up. Wind has increased so much so that the snow is coming down sideways. There are times when I can't see any other marchers. I enter a wooded area on a very narrow trail that begins to angle down. It is solid ice, only about a foot wide.
Ahead of me, on its side at about an 85-degree angle is an M29 Weasel, a small tracked all-terrain vehicle used by the U.S. Army in World War II. It was used most notably in the Huertgen Forest by the 28th Infantry Division to negotiate the Kall River trail. This particular Weasel is going nowhere soon.
I negotiate my way around the Weasel. At the bottom of the hill, I must cross a small stream and cannot avoid getting wet. A small brook flows off to the left side of the trail and I can hear it gurgling as I continue down the path. I am almost to the finish line.
I spot the town sign for Basse Bodeux, and within 20 minutes, I have arrived at the village hall where I had started. Total time for the march: 6 hours, 10 minutes.
The hall is very crowded and noisy. Many different languages are being spoken at once, and several of the marchers are enjoying Belgian beer or other refreshments.
I make my way over to Lt. Col. Galuszka and ask him if he enjoyed the march. He explains that he did. We talk about the Warrior Transition Battalion: 305 soldiers, including cadre spread all over Europe, on 15 bases.
The WTB-Europe was activated in 2008. Lt. Col. Galuszka says its purpose is to "manage the health care for soldiers with complex care requirements and to prepare them and their families to successfully transition back to duty or into the civilian workforce."
It was created, he said, because the Army found that "no organized process and sufficent dedicated staff to rehabilitate soldiers and assist them and their families in transitioning" existed prior to WTBs. The program includes nurse case managers, along with social workers and occupational therapists.
On a daily basis, the unit manages soldier health care and organizes adaptive sports events to build physical strength and endurance. The WTB also offers spiritual retreats and helps soldiers find and get internships. Lt. Col. Galuszka said that the "goal is to rehabilitate minds, bodies and spirits, to set them up for success in the next phase of their life."
I asked Lt. Col. Galuszka what was the most rewarding part of leading the battalion. "Seeing a soldier take advantage of all the training and education opportunities and get a degree or complete a certification, they leave us with enthusiasm for their future," he said. "That is what we are striving to do."
He added that NATO soldiers who had been wounded down-range, including amputees, have shared in some of the WTB activities. "The interaction with our soldiers and cadre was fantastic," he said. "Now the NATO countries train together, fight together and heal together."
The lieutenant colonel mentioned that he is a member of American Legion Post 413, Grand Blanc, Mich. His father, uncle and great uncle are all, or had been, American Legion members.
I thanked Lt. Col. Galuszka for his time and for service to our great nation. Based on my experiences and observations of Lt. Col. Galuszka and Command Sgt. Maj. Chance, the U.S. Army could not have picked any finer soldiers for this difficult but rewarding assignment.
At dinner time, a terrific meal is served as usual by Davy Wimple, who goes all out every year for the march.
Emile LaCroix is called onto the stage. He is presented with the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. It is the highest award that the Secretary of Defense can present to a civilian.
The certificate, signed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, was presented to LaCroix by a Belgium-assigned U.S. Army colonel who served numerous tours with the 82nd Airborne Division. Only fitting that an officer of the 82nd would award the medal to Emile LaCroix, who has spent over three decades conducting these marches in appreciation for his liberation.
As he received the award, the hall erupted with applause. I could see that Emile was very emotional. He gave a short speech, and you could hear his voice crack.
The night ended with a former 82nd paratrooper standing on a table and requesting that all former members of the 82nd Airborne Division stand and sing the "All American Soldier." A rousing rendition was sung by all.
As I made my way back to the billets at Stoumont I could not help but think of all those brave Americans who had fought, suffered and died here in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944 and 1945. They overcame many obstacles and hardships. I then thought of the current generation of American soldiers, particularly those from the Warrior Transition Battalion who had come for this march and had conquered many hardships and obstacles, and considered the parallels. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.