SERVING OUR VETERANS: Liberated!
I recently read the book “We Die Alone” by David Howarth. It is a WWII epic of escape and endurance. In March 1943, a team of expatriate Norwegian Commandoes sailed from northern England for Nazi-occupied arctic Norway to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. But they were betrayed and the Nazis ambushed them. Of the twelve, only one man, Jan Baalsrud, survived. The book tells of his incredible and gripping story of escape with the aid of the local Norwegian citizens. Frostbitten and snow blind, pursued by Nazis, he dragged himself on until he reached a small arctic village. He was near death, delirious, and a virtual cripple. But the villagers, at mortal risk to themselves, were determined to save him and through impossible feats, they did.
As I read this book, it became clearer that Norway was totally unprepared to defend themselves against German occupation during WWII. Their small military, topography, combined with so much isolated and rural area, made it impossible to resist the Nazi occupation. Yet, in reading this book, one got the sense of how much these people loved their homeland and how devastating it was to be overrun by the Germans. It became obvious that these local citizens risked their own lives just to save a one man, not because it would make any impact on the outcome of the German occupation, but simply because it was the one thing they could do to demonstrate their unity, their love of country and their will to do something to contribute to the war effort.
We American citizens should feel fortunate our homeland has never been overrun and occupied by a hostile country. It is hard to put into words what one must feel when the country one loves is finally liberated, like Norway was in 1945.
Reading this Norwegian story brought back a memory of a Norwegian college professor I had for a physics class back in the early 1970’s. One spring day, I am now thinking it must have been May 17th (Norwegian Independence Day), this professor stormed into the classroom ranting about a cartoon he had just read in the college newspaper. I had not seen it, but I gathered it depicted a cartoon with the words, “Stand up and drop your pants for the Norwegian National Anthem”. With anger and tears in his eyes, the professor, born and raised in Norway, spoke of how we as young Americans did not understand what it is like to have your country and freedom taken away. The only way that kept one going was the will to find a way to get this freedom back. In his thick Norwegian accent, he spoke these words, “the only thing that kept us going was the love for our country and our flag”. He was so upset he actually cancelled the class for the day. Now, looking back, I can better understand why.
Reading this book, “We Die Alone”, and recalling this college memory, reminded me of another book I read several years ago, “We Who Are Alive and Remain” by Marcus Brotherton. This is a book about veterans and their lives following WWII after serving with Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division. The TV miniseries “Band of Brothers” was based on the actual soldiers of this unit, including those in this book. I share with you the following actual words from this book as related by veteran Frank Soboleski.
“In the middle of January 1944, we went through the city of Bastogne, now secured. We were traveling in trucks and on foot. There wasn’t much left of Bastogne, just piles of bricks and rubble where buildings used to be. There was extensive damage to the town, fallen buildings, wrecked tanks, tipped over trucks, but it was quiet, no sounds of artillery or explosions. There wasn’t much snow now, just mud and water. As our group walked, Lieutenant Ron Spiers hollered at me, “How many men are in your group?” “About thirteen,” I answered. “Why?” “I’ve got a political duty to take care of,” Spiers said. “Round them up and follow me.” The thirteen of us went to what used to be Bastogne’s town square. The citizens of Bastogne had made a platform with steps up to it. A Belgian officer, a Dutch officer, and a French officer, all in uniform, and a couple of city officials waited on the platform. They marched us up the steps one at a time. The Belgian officer kissed each one of us on both cheeks and placed the Belgian Fouragere on one of our soldiers. The Dutch officer presented each of us the Dutch Order of William. The French officer awarded us the Croix de Guerre with Palm. They had a box of brass plaques and presented each of us with a commemorative plaque.
We thirteen paratroopers were given these honors and awards as representatives of the 101st Airborne. I couldn’t understand a word said during the presentations, but we had no trouble knowing what they meant. It was a highly emotional time. The people were just so appreciative for what we had done. They wanted to celebrate our victory and their freedom with us before we left the area. I still have the braids on the jacket of my old uniform and have the brass plaques hanging on the wall of my home. I have always been proud to have them as a gift from the people of Bastogne. When I returned to Bastogne in 2007, we found the people of Bastogne have a huge memorial celebration every year. They are still so grateful to American veterans, and pass on their gratefulness to each successive generation by teaching their young people to never forget the price of freedom. In 1956 the city of Bastogne built a huge memorial on a hilltop in the form of a star. It has five points, and along the top of each point are the names of all our states. In the center of the star, on large walls, the story of the Battle of the Bulge is engraved in large letters. Across from the memorial they built a museum dedicated to the battle. The whole city of Bastogne is a living memorial to their liberation by the United States. Every year during the three-day celebration, hundreds of reenactors dress in vintage American uniforms. They live in tents all over town and drive American jeeps, tanks, and trucks just as they were in 1945. In the town square, which is now named McAuliffe Square, they have a large American tank and a statue of General McAuliffe. A couple of blocks away they have a large statue of General Patton. When you are there they make you aware, wherever you go, that they haven’t forgotten and they can’t do enough for you. If you are a World War II veteran who fought in Bastogne and return in later years to visit, the people in Bastogne will plant a new tree with your name next to it on a brass plate in the Peace Woods. But what strikes me most strongly about the visit was how the people are so filled with gratitude. We often hear about how America should stay out of wars in other countries. But people who live under oppression are thankful to be freed”.
These words of Sergeant Soboleski express the feelings of those liberated from occupation much better than I could have. Let us always be thankful our country has never been overrun by another hostile nation. Let us be hopeful that our country will always be prepared to defend itself against both foreign and domestic tyranny. Finally, let us always be thankful, appreciative, and supportive of those in our military who have liberated our allies and defended our homeland. Let us do the same for those who are serving in our Armed Forces today. Help see that all these veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve for all they have done for us,both at home and around the world.
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