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Remembering the Battle of the Bulge

Two men who were there reminisce

      The Battle of the Bulge was the last major offensive push of Hitler’s war machine. What happened in the six weeks between December 16, 1944, and January 28, 1945, ranks among the most significant battles of World War II. 
      U.S. casualties reached 89,500. With 19,000 killed, 47,000 wounded, and 23,000 either captured or missing, it was the bloodiest battle American soldiers have ever fought on foreign soil. All that carnage ended as a costly victory for the Allies — and a demoralizing defeat for Germany.
      The consequences of that battle for one young Belgian boy were small on a scale so vast, but they will never be forgotten. Tears still well up 74 year later, as Paul Goffin, a Belgian, now 94, recalls the Battle of the Bulge.
      “We endured the German soldiers for four years,” Goffin said last month, visiting Fort Meade for a ceremony of sorts. “They conquered our land, took our possessions, and killed our family members and friends.”
       Goffin was only 15 when the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium. First they took his father’s car. They then took the farm’s horses and the wheat. Finally they took his 18-year-old cousin, whom the family never saw again.
      “A few months before the battle, I was taken by the Germans and forced to build bunkers for their defenses around an airfield,” Goffin remembered. “When the allies first came I ran away in the confusion and hid at my uncle’s farm. When I saw Americans I thought they were British, because we had only received radio reports from the BBC. I went up to a soldier and announced in broken English, God save the Queen!”
     “The soldier looked at me funny and said, the hell with the Queen! God save President Roosevelt! It was then I knew the soldiers were American. They were very funny boys.
     “When the American soldiers came, we were conquered in a completely different way — in our hearts and in our minds. We are forever grateful for how determined they were to fend off the Germans, as well as compassionate, helpful and understanding to us. They were just young boys themselves, but they were extremely gracious and generous, and many gave their lives so we could be free.”
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      In the Belgian city of Stavelot, German SS troops massacred 157 civilians in the first days of the U.S. attack. Soldiers from Fort Meade were part of that American force. Stavelot and Fort Meade are now twinned as sister cities across the Atlantic.
        Fifty years later, the Belgians returned a gift of remembrance. In 1994, a commemorative table and chairs were presented with great fanfare by Stavelot to the Anne Arundel County base. 
       The conference table was constructed from oak trees hand-selected by veterans from the battleground and handcrafted by Vincent Gaspar, a cabinetmaker from the city. On the top of the table are inlaid the 45 military insignias of the American units that fought in the battle. Along the rim of the table are carved 157 pine trees representing the massacred civilians.
      In last month’s ceremony, Goffin traveled from Belgium to see the table transferred to the Pentagon, where it will be seen by tour groups in display rooms prepared by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
       Joining Goffin to assist with the re-commemoration of the table was Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Alfred Shehab of Odenton. Shehab was a second lieutenant at the time of the battle. At age 97, he is the last living member of the Fort Meade contingent. His platoon was the first to encounter the attacking Germans.
       “The battle for us actually began the night before December 16,” ­Shehab said. “German paratroopers landed near our position at an abandoned hunting lodge. Luckily the 1,000 or so paratroopers were strung out over 20 miles. We captured their renowned leader, Lieutenant Colonel Baron Friedrich August von der ­Heydte, who was hiding under the hay in a barn. That was the easiest part of the battle for my guys.”
      The next day, 38 divisions of approximately 400,000 German soldiers, 1,400 tanks, 1,200 anti-tank guns, 2,600 artillery pieces and 1,000 aircraft attacked a 50-mile-wide, sparsely defended safe zone. The Allied soldiers holding it were exhausted veterans plus green troops who had yet to see a German. The veterans — who had fought in the Normandy invasion as well as landings in Africa and Italy, plus a trek across France and Belgium — had hoped in vain for a break in the action. It was pandemonium at first, but then steely resolve set in to halt the enemy’s advance.
       “We had all thought the war would be over by Christmas,” Shehab said. “But they attacked, and we did what we had to do to stop them.
       “Much later in my life,” the old soldier reflected, “I realized the importance of that battle to the overall picture of the war. To me, at the time, it was just another fight. But it did ultimately shorten the war, and for that I’m grateful. We lost a lot of fine young men.”
      For that sacrifice, the Belgians say they shall never forget. Goffin’s eyes glistened with tears as he ran his hand across the table.
     “It is a great honor for me to be here as a part of this commemoration,” he said.