A March Through History

For the past six years, several friends and I have traveled to Belgium to march “In the Footsteps of the 82nd Airborne Division.” This annual Battle of the Bulge anniversary event honors a different U.S. Army infantry regiment and its attachments of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 2010 march was conducted in memory of the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the area of La Gleize and other smaller villages. The march is organized by Emile LaCroix, a Belgian from Namur who has devoted his life to the memory of U.S. soldiers who fought to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany during World War II. Following is a firsthand account of the commemorative trek through history.Saturday morning, Feb. 20, 2010. Several friends – Jeff Nichols, Tony Antonucci, Dominic Colasanto – and I arrive at La Gleize, Belgium, to participate in the 82nd Airborne march. We spend the first hectic minutes saying hello to old friends from throughout Western Europe and getting introduced to many we did not previously know. After we speak with march organizer Emile LaCroix, I spot Maj. Kelly McCay and Capt. Bob Leicht; we met on the march last year. Capt. Leicht was accompanied by his father, retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Leicht. We greet them, swap some war stories from the 2009 march and set out.The 2010 march will be challenging. Fourteen miles, a good part of it uphill. We march our way up and around Mont. St. Victor, south of La Gleize – the same route that Kampfgruppe Peiper took on the night of Dec. 23-24, 1944, to retreat from the La Gleize pocket.As we ascend the steep slopes, groups of marchers begin to thin out. Step after grueling step, we make our way to the first checkpoint: the tiny hamlet of Brume, where the ground is patched with snow, ice and mud in places, making the climb tortuous. Through the trees, I glimpse several buildings. Soaked through our 1944 paratrooper uniforms and cold with perspiration, we have at last reached Brume. We carry our gear and weapons past the checkpoint and see a small break area set up with refreshments. After a drink of water from the canteen, I purchase a Coke and relish it.Several English girls are here, dressed up in wartime Red Cross uniforms. They hand out doughnuts and coffee, and we pose for photos with them. I spot Emile LaCroix and Ray Fary, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and of the Battle of the Bulge. During World War II, Ray served with Battery C 80th Antiaircraft Anti Tank Battalion 82nd Airborne Division. I have known Ray for years; he is always present at the marches. This year’s march will take us to the area where he fought in December 1944. We exchange hellos and he tells me that he will see me in Rahier for lunch. He slowly pulls away in a jeep. We remove some of the clothing layers and start out again, destination Rahier. This part of the march takes us through the Bois De Rahier, a heavily forested area where, unfortunately, the sun has not been able to penetrate the forest boughs and melt the snow. The ground is frozen in places, and footing is tricky. The pace slows down considerably, but we plod on and on, thinking of what it must have been like for the paratroopers in 1944, carrying much more gear than we were, facing injury or death around every bend.We slowly emerge from the forest and descend into the village where a large barbecue is going on. All kinds of sausages are grilling. Pommes frites are cooking. I see a good friend, Dave Wimple, a Belgian dressed in his U.S. Army attire. The official cook for the event, Dave tackles the job with great enthusiasm. After a nice hot lunch, I am informed by my good Belgian friend, Erwin Peters, that Ray Fary would like to make the march from Rahier to Cheneux with us.I find Ray and confirm that he plans to march with us to Cheneux. Rahier had been the staging area for the 1/504 PIR on Dec.20, 1944. From Rahier, the 1st Battalion of the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment would attack elements of KG Peiper in the vicinity and in the small village of Cheneux to the east.As we come to the east edge of Rahier, I remember a photo taken on Dec. 20, 1944, that shows a group of paratroopers from the 1/504 on their way to Cheneux. On the side of the road, you can see a 57mm anti-tank gun from Battery C. Shortly after leaving Rahier, we enter a muddy trail leading east to Cheneux.As we near the town, the fields on our left come into view. They are crisscrossed with barbed-wire fences as they were in 1944. Across these fields the 1/504 PIR attacked elements of KG Peiper in and around Cheneux on Dec.20, 1944. The Germans used multi-barreled anti-aircraft weapons in a ground-defense role.The paratroopers came across the open fields and got hung up on the barbed wire. They took heavy casualties but continued to advance on the enemy. The fight for Cheneux was at close quarters with many hand-to-hand engagements. The Germans were defeated here, and the survivors retreated back to La Gleize. An excellent account of this fight is in Ross Carter’s book “Devils in Baggy Pants.”We emerge from the muddy trail onto a hard-surfaced road. We stop and gather around Ray. In his gentle soft voice, Ray tells us that we are standing at one of the collecting points for paratroopers who were killed in the fight for Cheneux. He informs us that when he came upon this location with his 57-mm anti-tank gun, approximately 30 dead paratroopers were here, about to be removed by a 2.5-ton truck.We look down at our feet and shuffle them and then take steps in all directions. What had seemed an insignificant spot on the road was a place Ray could never forget. We move down the road to the east about 50 meters. Here, Ray explained, was the location of his 57mm ATG. They had to maneuver the gun into position around a knocked out German halftrack. The group around Ray is growing. More marchers have arrived in Cheneux. The veteran speaks softly of the battle here. Listeners are spellbound, trying to catch every word. “Over there to the left in those fields,” he explains, “there were more dead paratroopers. And I observed a artillery shell tumbling through the air. It must have been a ricochet.”We enter the center of the village of Cheneux, and Ray is joined by another veteran, Dick Fields, who served in the 551 Parachute Infantry Battalion in the Battle of the Bulge. Ray and Dick place a flower arrangement on a memorial to the 504 PIR inside the village. As I watch Ray, I see his steps became slower as he approaches the memorial. After placing the flowers, his shoulders drop for a second. Dick Fields touches Ray’s left shoulder and speaks into his left ear. Ray’s back immediately becomes rigid, his shoulders square, a position at attention. A fitting tribute to his comrades.What was it Dick whispered? I could only wonder. I am able to speak to Ray following the placement of flowers. I thank him for his service to our country. Local Belgians are now surrounding us, taking photographs. I am always amazed at how these veterans are treated by the Belgians. They are still held in awe and high esteem for bringing their freedom more than six decades ago. Ray and Dick leave the march. They have other ceremonies to attend.We exit Cheneux and come down the long road to the Ambleve River. On this stretch of road, on Dec, 18, 1944, KG Peiper was attacked by aircraft from the U.S. 365th, 366th and 404th Fighter Groups.We cross the bridge over the Ambleve, and are now on the final few miles, leading into La Gleize. As we start uphill once again, our steps become slower and slower. The open countryside around Cheneux gives way to thick forests on our left and the railroad tracks in a deep cut on our right. We discuss among ourselves the incredible good luck we had to hear Ray’s experiences. He gave us a picture of what took place here better then any book could have.We enter a field with a narrow, muddy trail wide, enough for only one person. This is the trail to the finish point. We can see La Gleize in the distance. Our one paramount thought is to finish the march. Upon arrival, a sense of accomplishment sweeps over us. As I walk to the center of town, I gaze out over the quiet field surrounding it and try to picture what it had been like in December 1944. My mind conjures images of those brave paratroopers running across open fields under fire, moving, always moving. The snow and cold must have been terrible. I take one last look and say a prayer of thanks for those men who did not return, and for Ray Fary, who did.