I received an email in mid-April from Ms. Nikki Koves, the managing director of a company called Procom America that organizes historical tours to Europe. Koves explained that she had a special group of World War II veterans returning to their European battlefields 1-8 May. She asked if Paris Post 1 would be available to meet the group. The returning veterans would visit Paris, Normandy, Luxembourg, Bastogne, and end with a Rhine River cruise in Frankfurt. The tour was called “Beyond Band of Brothers.” For more information about the tours see the website, www.beyondbandofbrothers.com.
The veterans and their families arrived in France the morning of 1 May and began their tour with a morning visit of Paris.They then proceeded to the Normandy beaches, the World War II museums and the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. I couldn't meet the group in Paris because of work requirements, but our Auxiliary president, Beth Herwood, did meet and help the visiting veterans.
Herwood helped arrange for the group to have lunch in a Parisian restaurant and assisted with the bus tour of Paris, including the Arc du Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. This was a great example of the Legion Family supporting visiting veterans.
I was able to join the group in Bastogne on Sunday, 5 May. I also brought my post adjutant, World War II veteran Maurice Sperandieu. Sperandieu, 88 years old, was assigned with Gen. Patton's 3rd U.S. Army in C. Company, 512th Military Police Battalion. Together we met the veterans at the Best Western Hotel Melba (the same place we held a 3rd DEC meeting several years ago). I introduced myself to the group during dinner. I explained how the Department of France and the Paris post was honored to assist during their visit. I explained that we hoped to help with more veteran visits to Europe.
The 11 veterans were:
-James McWillie, 97 years old, who served in the 9th Air Force, Army Air Corps on 23 missions with the 386th Bomber Group, 553rd Squadron, as a radio operator and aerial gunner on A-26 and B-26 aircraft. He was stationed in Belgium and France. McWillie flew at the Battle of the Bulge and Remagen Bridge.
-Baron Wilkes, 96 years old, who served with the 30th Infantry Division and the 9th Air Force, Army Air Corps. He joined the Army Air Corps and graduated from pilot training. He was told they didn’t need any more pilots, so he was sent into the Army. Wilkes was injured on the way to the Battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart. After recovering from his injury he was sent back to the Army Air Corps.
-Hulan Roberts, 92 years old, who served with the 8th Air Force, Army Air Corps, 452nd Bomber Group, 730th Squadron, as a B-17 bombardier on 32 missions including the Battle of the Bulge.
-William Travis Hawkins, 91 years old, who served with the 612 Tank Destroyer Battalion, Bravo Company. He went in at Normandy and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. He was a POW at Stalag XIII-C at Hammelburg east of Frankfurt, where Patton’s son-in-law was also held. The 14th Armored Division liberated Hawkins on April 6, 1945.
-Vince Rowell, 89 years old, who served in the 29th Infantry Division, arriving in France with the second wave at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Rowell served as a machine gunner and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
-Will Day, 87 years old, who served in the 26th Infantry Division, 328th Regiment. He arrived through Omaha Beach in August 1944. He was captured just before the Battle of the Bulge and was held as a POW at Stalag XII-A as a transit camp in Limburg, near Koblenz. He then was transferred to Stalag IX-B in Bad Orb, near Frankfurt. The 44th Infantry Division liberated Day on April 2, 1945.
-James Melbourne Bennett, 87 years old, who served with the 2nd Infantry Division, landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day and receiving a Purple Heart.
-William Drewry, 87 years old, who served in more than 30 missions as a B-24 tailgunner, including over the Battle of the Bulge.
-Richard Fuessle, 87 years old, who served in the Navy on LST 60 during the Normandy D-Day invasion.
-Glenn Johnson, 86 years old, who served as a U.S. Navy gunner assigned to the Merchant Marine ship USS West Honaker at Utah Beach on D-Day. West Honaker bombed into the night of 7 June. It was one of the “Gooseberry” block ships scuttled on 10 June for the Mulberry Harbor and served as an anti-aircraft platform until 14 June.
-Elvis Chambers, 86 years old, who served with the Big Red One, Golf Company, 26th Infantry Division as a “Replacement.” His service brought him through France to the German Black Forest region.
I couldn’t tell which veteran was in their 90s because they were all in great health and good spirits. Monday morning, we all began with breakfast and then boarded the tour bus at 0830. The first visit was at McAuliffe Square and memorial. The tour guide was a Belgian man from Bastogne who was a witness to the war as a young boy. He gave a firsthand view when talking about the Sherman tank on display at McAuliffe Square. We then visited the General Patton memorial. The group made photos with the wreath placed to honor the Battle of the Bulge veterans. The Mardasson Memorial was the next visit location. Again a wreath was placed in honor of the veterans and photos were made. We then boarded the bus and visited the nearby forest that still has actual foxholes remaining from the war. Some of the veterans did not want to go in the fighting position – “once was enough.” The Bastogne Hotel de Ville (City Hall) welcomed the group with a champagne toast, words of honor and remembrance, and gifts of thanks for the veterans contribution to freedom. Each veteran signed a special book that is being created by the City of Bastogne. The book will include a photo of the veteran at the age he fought in the war, and a photo when he returned to Bastogne for the visit. The Bastogne Barracks was the final stop for the tour. Belgian Army soldiers welcomed the American veterans on arrival. The veterans received a special briefing about the Bastogne Barracks detailing Gen. McAuliffe’s historical service there, including his “NUTS” reply to the Germans when asked to surrender. Each veteran received a framed Christmas message composed by McAuliffe in December 1944. We then toured the general’s basement headquarters offices where history was made during the war. The Bastogne Barracks soldiers also repair and refurbish World War II military vehicles in direct partnership with the Belgian War and Military History museum. We were offered a tour of the vehicle warehouse that held many different tanks, trucks and artillery pieces.
The veterans expressed thanks to each group who thanked them. The Bastogne tour ended with lunch and the afternoon for free time to explore the town. Maurice and I returned home grateful to meet the fellow veterans. We hope to do more for the next planned tour of veterans.
If the department, posts or individuals would like to assist with future World War II veteran visits, the contact information for Koves is email@example.com.
Click here (http://www.legion.org/fodpal/photos/217230/devotion-mutual-helpfulness) for a photo album of the tour.