(Image right) Belgian civilians in Aywaille, Belgium, watch the start of an air battle in late December 1944, just north of Harzé, Belgium. Cpl Ralph Salmon of the 54th Signal Battalion took the photograph.(Belown, same place today).
(Image) Army Sgt Thomas E. Warner at the Pironboeuf farm in Harzé, Belgium, Christmas Day 1944. At this point, the 54th Signal Battalion already had driven its trucks north through Bastogne. (bellow) the same building in August 2000.
On the far end of the sunny farmhouse courtyard, I saw what I had most wanted to see in Belgium. It was a spot where my father stood during the Battle of the Bulge. It seemed not to have aged. From the old pictures, I recognized the large stone house across the quadrangle. Easton native Thomas E. Warner, now 78, had been here more than half a century earlier, in the bitterly cold last winter of World War II.
Long before my trip to these battlegrounds, that soldier, my father, told me about one particularly noisy night here in a snow-covered barn. On Christmas Day 1944, an old farmer invited Sgt Warner’s battle-weary company, part of the 54th Signal Battalion (XVIII A/B Corps – Ridgway), to stay at his farm. That evening, the soldiers settled down in sleeping bags, above the cows, to keep warm.
As they slept in the hayloft, German V-1 buzz bombs flew over, many of them heading for Allied supply depots. It was funny to listen, my father said. In the middle of the night, you could hear all these guys in the hayloft snoring away. When the V-1 engine went quiet, they would all stop snoring. And when the bomb blew up, they would all start snoring again like nothing happened. There is poetry to snoring through a buzz bomb attack, and it deserved thorough documentation. I had to see Harzé.
(Images) December 1944, Army Sgt Normand Spottiswoode and Angela Dubart, a maid, at the Pironboeuf Farm (Ferme) in late December 1944. In the door behind them is Joseph C. Fischer. Spottiswoode and Fischer were with the 54th Signal Battalion. (Right) Mrs Angela Dubart-Wuidar, visits the Pironboeuf Farm in August 2000. She now was living in a town nearby.
My father, who lives in Stowe, Montgomery County, with my mother, Bangor native Georgiana (Dorsey) Warner, made the Army his first career. In 24 years as a soldier, he went to war in Europe, got married, took part in the Nevada atomic tests and went to war in Vietnam. In 1966, he settled with his wife and four sons in Pottstown, where he had a 20-year career with AT&T. He didn’t take the trip to Belgium. He said his knees weren’t up to it. But he was interested in what I’d find. He wondered what Belgium was like today. He also wondered why I cared.
I took a lot of research with me. And thanks to Annick Petit, a kind resident of Liège, Belgium, whom I met through the Internet, I found many landmarks of my father’s war. Finding Harzé might have been a problem. All but the most detailed maps of Belgium omit the tiny village.
Only a few months ago, Harzé seemed to me as unreachable as Mars. But Harzé is the place where Salmon snapped the only picture ever taken of my father in a combat zone.
(Above) Army Pfc Thomas E. Warner, 54th Signal Battalion, in a jeep during training at Camp McQuaide, California, in May 1942. Warner was from Easton, Pennsylvania. (Below) Army Cpl Thomas E. Warner (right) with Delbert E. Craft, in Iceland, 1943. Albert Riley stands at the door of 54th Signal Battalion headquarters Nissen hut.
The photograph, which Salmon’s widow, Sarah, sent me from her Rockville, Md., (the first photo of this archive) home in 1994, shows my father, 22 years old, tired, unshaven, helmet off and a carbine slung over his right shoulder. In the unfocused background is a building of stone with windows and an odd dark design on the wall, impossible to make out through the blur. For six years I studied that 2 by 2 inch photograph. Where was it taken? What was to the left and right of the picture ? My father wasn’t exactly sure. He hadn’t seen the photo until 50 years after Salmon took it, and Salmon died in 1986.
On the back of the photograph, Salmon had typed the first clue. Sgt Tom Warner looking a little the worse for wear at Harzè, Belgium. No date is given, but 54th Signal Battalion records indicate the battalion arrived in Harzé on Christmas Day 1944 and left January 7, 1945. I had dozens more of Salmon’s pictures. Some helped me decide whether I could ever find this place in Harzé. One shows an American soldier and a young woman leaving a stone building from a snowy doorway.
On the back, Salmon wrote, Spottiswoode & Angela in Harzé, Belgium.
(Image) Frank Warner of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, stands in the courtyard of the Pironboeuf Farm in Harzé, Belgium, in August 2000 during his tour of the places that his father, Sgt Thomas E. Warner, saw during World War II. His father, who died in 2004, was in the 54th Signal Battalion.
My father remembered his good friend, Sgt Normand Spottiswoode of Haverhill, Mass., and vaguely recalled an Angela, who was a maid at the farm. Spottiswoode died after the war, but I wondered where Angela was. Another photo captures a scene of what appears to be soldiers playing in the snow. In the background is another stone building, with an arched opening wide enough for a car to ride through. Harzé, Belgium is the caption. My father wasn’t sure which building this was, but it was clear to me the building was big and sturdy enough to last the five and a half decades since the war. Still another photograph shows an older man, M. Grodent Harzé Belgium, next to a stone building in the snow.
He looked like someone who might own the farm. I examined the photographs closely. With each one, I asked, what is its story?
I enlarged the pictures. Then I blew them up bigger. I pondered facial expressions, the stones on each building, signs on the roads, the depth of the Belgian snow. One enlargement revealed, in a haunting street scene, the grainy faces of Belgians watching the sky as German fighter planes attacked American bombers. On the back of the original, Salmon typed, Civilians watching start of air battle at Aywaille, Belgium. In another picture, Salmon caught a flash he identified as a bomber exploding in the sky. It was hard to tell what was in the blob of smoke.
Last May 15, I went to the Internet for help. On a Usenet bulletin board, soc.culture.belgium I posted a message labelled Does Harzé exist?. In the posting, I explained what I was looking for, and as is common on the Usenet, a stranger volunteered an answer. Annick Petit offered to help me find the places in the pictures, so I e-mailed her a few of the old Harzé photos. In the meantime, I booked a flight to Paris, figuring I would take a train up to Belgium and track down Harzé, Aywaille, Bastogne and the other battle sites on my own. Then, on Aug 24, two days before my flight, Annick wrote me to report a major breakthrough. She had published the photos of Angela and M. Grodent in Les Annonces de l’Ourthe, a Harzé area newspaper, and three people had responded to her request for information.
Nice news for you before you travel, she e-mailed. The farm is the Pironboeuf farm and the lady in the picture is Mrs. Wuidar. She phoned to the newspaper office to give her phone number. It’s cute, no? she wrote, referring to what she had uncovered for me. It was much more than cute. It was astounding, and unbelievably good timing. I was so charged up I told just about everyone I saw that day.
The farm had a name. Angela had a last name, and she was alive.
I was on my way.
(Image) The hayloft at the Pironboeuf Farm in Harzé, Belgium, where Sgt Thomas E. Warner and other soldiers of the 54th Signal Battalion slept nights for about a week in the early part of the Battle of the Bulge.
On August 29, Annick met me at the Railroad station in Liege. Immediately, she took me to the city’s historic St. Bartholemew’s Cathedral, with its 12th-century baptismal font. She wanted me to hear about the cathedral’s building restoration effort, and I heard a lot more. After Annick told a small group of church volunteers why I was in Belgium, one of them pulled me aside. Michelle Lewalle had something important to say.
In 1944, I was 8 years old, Lewalle told me. One day, my older brother and I were standing in the doorway of our house when we saw a tank coming up the road. I said to my brother is that a German tank or is that an American tank? my brother said I don’t know. But then he said look! I see a little flag, stars and stripes! It is an American tank! Then I knew I was free, Lewalle said.
The story choked me up; she told it with such emotion. Then she grabbed my arm and added gently you tell your father thank you! That was a welcome I’ll never forget, and it happened so fast. I gave Lewalle a big hug. I assured her my father would hear every word she said.
The next day, I was in Harzé. Annick had arranged a meeting at the Pironboeuf farm, and it seemed awfully likely that this was the farm in the pictures. But I had to see for myself. As she drove, I looked up a hill on the west side of the village. On the edge of a pine forest, cows and goats were grazing next to a gathering of buildings. My eyes widened and my heart beat faster when I noticed the central buildings had castle-like walls of stone. It was the farm, I was sure now. This will be a feast of discovery, I thought, and then my thoughts jumbled.
Where do I look first? I wished I spoke French. Here was Angela (Dubart) Wuidar. She smiles! I thought. She didn’t in the picture. Here she was, the real person, a fellow human, in living color. Here was the new farm owner, Gustave Grenson. Here were his sons, farmers Philippe and Pierre, and former farm owner Clément Grodent’s granddaughter.
Here also was Renée Toussaint, a woman who knew another American GI in Harzé.
Annick’s newspaper notice brought out all these people, and a few relatives, to talk about a noble past. Everyone was smiling and effervescent, and everyone but me was speaking French as we walked into the courtyard toward the two-story farmhouse where Angela’s picture was taken so long ago. The building had a stylish hipped roof, and each of a dozen front windows had a flower box full of brilliant red geraniums. I focused on the house doorway, front and center, with its triangular cap sheltering the front steps.
When I turned around to inspect the three other buildings on the quadrangle, I was stunned. Here was Salmon’s photograph of soldiers playing in the snow. No soldiers or snow in August, of course, but it was the same space, the same corner, the same wall, the same arched gateway through the wall. I had just walked in here through the arch. For six years, I had wondered what that opening led to. Now I knew. It led to the road, and to a cow pasture across the road. I also saw what was left and right of the old photograph. Along the dairy building on the left, a black and white border collie was barking in a big cage. On the right, two new cars were parked, one in a lean-to structure, the other in the stone barn.
The air smelled of waffles. Philippe Grenson’s wife was cooking inside. Angela Wuidar talked of American soldiers going out on patrol in the daytime and coming back to rest at night. She also remembered making french fried potatoes – except that they were Belgian fries, better than french fries – for the GIs here on Christmas Day 1944.
Gustave Grenson, who was 7 and living on a nearby farm during the Battle of the Bulge, recalled getting jeep rides and chocolate from the Americans. Annick revealed that her French-born parents both were in the D-Day Normandy landings – her father in the first wave June 6 1944; her mother the next day, when the beaches were secured. The two didn’t meet until an Allied victory party in southern Germany, July 4 1945.
And Renée Toussaint told us about the American soldier she befriended in Harzé in December 1944. His name was Warner, too. When she saw Annick’s newspaper notice, she said, she thought I was this World War II veteran’s son. To my amazement, I found out that this Warner – Charles L. Warner, now of Lompoc, California also had a son named Frank. I asked Angela if I could take her picture. She moved to the front door of the farmhouse. She was as slim as she was in 1944, and looked more cheerful. She no longer had the tall rolled brunette hairstyle of the ’40s. Her hair was shorter, neat and blondish-gray. She smiled for my camera in the same spot Salmon’s lens caught her.
(Image) The dollar bill that Sgt Thomas E. Warner carried with him through World War II, jotting down each stop of the way, from his leaving the United States on June 30 1942, to Iceland to Scotland to England to France to Belgium to Germany and, finally, to his leaving southern France in September 1945.
Angela turned her eyes toward the barn and was telling me something in French. Annick translated. Angela said my father would have slept in that barn. Into the building Philippe led me, past the parked car and beyond the stainless steel cow-milking machines. At the rear of the barn, he pointed to a second-floor opening in the stone wall, a doorway without a door.
Is this the hayloft? I asked. Oui (yes), he said, and with a sweep of his arm he encouraged me to climb the steel ladder. My left knee was not really fit for a climb. I had strained it two weeks earlier in Pennsylvania. Go ahead, Philippe urged me. I took three steps up, and the knee was killing me.
If it hurt this much going up, I thought, how was I going to come back down? Vous pouvez le faire, Philippe said (You can do it). Then it hit me. How could I even hesitate? I had come 4000 miles to see this farm, and the story of the hayloft was one big reason. Of course I was going up. At the top, I swung to the right and through the doorway. Then I stooped through another passageway into the hayloft. On this floor, hay bales were stacked three and four deep from one end to the other, and against the wall they stepped up to eight bales high. Two tiny windows dimly illuminated the room.
Now I could picture my father in the hayloft. He’d be in the far corner, bundled up well, snoring with the best of them. Getting down from the hayloft wasn’t worth the worry. My knee was fine. Philippe and I returned to the courtyard, where I told Annick the stone work was so similar on all of these farm buildings that I probably would never know exactly where my father’s wartime photo was taken. Too little wall is showing in the picture, I said, and besides, that part of the picture is blurred. Philippe opened my picture book and looked for himself.
Il était ici, he said, gesturing toward the front door (He was here). My father was near the front door? Philippe must have misunderstood, I thought. He must have been looking at Angela’s picture. So I checked. He was looking at the picture of my father. How can you be certain he was standing here? I asked. Philippe nudged me a few steps over so I’d have the proper perspective. He pointed to the two windows and the roof line on the old photo. Then he rubbed his finger on the dead giveaway. It was that black blurry figure on the wall behind my father’s head. That dark blur was in exactly the same spot, in relation to the second-story window, as a black iron ornament still hanging on the farmhouse. Shaped like a fancy X, the ornament is the visible part of a beam iron, an iron device anchoring a roof beam to the stone wall. X marked the spot. I gasped. This was the place. I was in the space.
This was where my father stood, tired and unshaven, probably as the 54th Signal Battalion arrived in Harzé on Christmas Day 1944. This is why I came here. I wanted to be in precisely this spot. I wanted to breathe the same air he did during the Battle of the Bulge. I wanted to hear some of the same sounds, smell some of the same smells. I wanted to sense a third dimension of the battle. The son of an American soldier, I was honored to be here. Eight years before I was born, my father was here in the biggest battle ever fought by the US Army. In this campaign, 19.000 Americans died defending freedom in its darkest hour. Six-hundred thousand more GIs put their lives on the line here, and he was one. He was here.
In his spot of free Belgian soil, I took a deep breath. I looked around at what he saw here. The old picture had a third dimension. After waffles and a hundred au revoir, Annick and I left for the village of Aywaille, a few miles north. In downtown Aywaille, we found the street where the townspeople witnessed the air battle in late December 1944.
Flower boxes decorated the sidewalks. The buildings at the center of Salmon’s old picture now were a shoe store and a cell phone dealership. Aywaille was bustling with activity.
The next day, I saw Francorchamps, where my father saw truckloads of frozen corpses on their way to burial; and Baugnez – Malmedy, where Germans massacred 84 American prisoners on December 17 1944.
And just inside Germany, I saw Mulartshutte, site of the 54th Signal Battalion’s first headquarters on enemy soil, February 7 1945. They were 300 miles deeper into Germany when the Nazis surrendered three months later.
The Ardennes of Belgium was quiet now. I was here long after the battle, long after the harsh and deadly noises. I could walk in my father’s footsteps, but in the Belgian summer of 2000 I could not sense war’s fourth dimension, its life-and-death uncertainty. I could not feel the anxiety, the fear, the aches and pains, and the cold of the winter of 1944-45. Instead, I enjoyed what the Allies won. I felt a Belgium at peace, a Belgium friendly and free.
Considering everything, that made the trip worth taking. When I returned to Pennsylvania, I showed my father the new photographs of Belgium and relayed the many kind messages. He said he was surprised at how orderly Belgium seemed today. It wasn’t that he imagined the country frozen in the chaos of war, but he expected the Ardennes to have been overrun by suburban sprawl.
Then he asked me, what do I owe you? What? I said, puzzled. What do I owe you for that trip? he said. I feel like I owe you something. I was floored. It was my vacation, I told him. You don’t owe me a thing. I came back with wealth that can’t be measured. I have new friends in far away places. I have answers to questions I once thought unanswerable. I am in awe of the sacrifice it took to win World War II. And I’m prouder than ever of my father.
I’m free, Pop. You paid my way a long time ago.
(Image) The 54th Signal Battalion’s command post in Mulartshutte, Germany, in February 1945. This was the 54th’s deepest penetration into Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. The unit would pull back for a month and then return to Germany, where it would push east until Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
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One last word, if you find my English a little strange, this is entirely normal. I speak French, German, and Dutch but I learned English with World War Two Veterans during the last 35 years while touring our Belgian Battlefields (Bulge). The way these old men used to talk is not always the same as the one they use in a Bank or some Official Office. It’s even some kind of SNAFU.
Anyway, thanks for your visit. I hope you enjoyed the trip and you will come again to read another archive.
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Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
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(NB : Published for Good – October 2019)