Did you catch Part 1 of my day in Luxembourg on 15 October? If not, you should read that first so the rest of the day and the Sauer River crossing makes sense.
As I write this post I have to tell you, the guys buried in Luxembourg are planning something else for me. I had not intended to go visit them again in May but it seems I will. A new soldier, who I am fairly certain I must have walked past at the cemetery when I visited other graves near his, has taken up residence in my house. Pvt. Charles P. Becker, KIA 10 January 1945 (a day before my James) and who was part of F Company 328th Infantry Regiment 26th Infantry Division. I’m currently waiting to receive his IDPF and Morning Reports. If I’m lucky, his OMPF also. You’ll have to come back to my blog late May to see how that turns out!
Now, back to our Journey to the Sauer River Crossing sites and the death of Paul Gurgone. Sometimes the dead return to help provide answers or closure to someone they loved. I believe Paul showed up to help bring closure to some members of his family who always wondered if it was really him who was repatriated after the war. Through the research into his death and the documentation that showed how he was identified, he and I were able to do that. Paul was also about to bring his experience and that of men who attempted the river crossing, to me so I could on some level, experience it and then write about it.
It is one thing to read about WWII and battles. Another thing to do in-depth research into the lives of these men and their deaths. It is a complete other thing to go stand where they fought and died and attempt to absorb it. The Sauer River Crossing sites were mind boggling. If you read the histories, you’ll learn that after the harsh, terrible, frozen winter the men experienced, the snows in the mountains began to thaw quickly due to an early warm-up.
As the snows melted in the mountains, the water flowed into the streams and rivers and caused flooding. In Luxembourg where the men were stationed, the meadows were melting and turning into swampy mudpits. The Sauer River rose and flooded the surrounding areas. Rivers were wider, deeper, and had a fast flow. That’s what we read.
As I stood in various locations at the crossing sites, looking at them from high above on a ridge, from a meadow, or a bridge over the river, I still had trouble wrapping my mind around just HOW wide, deep, and fast the river was flowing. I took my journal with me everywhere on this trip and I had to sketch out what the area between ridges would have resembled during the crossings. The photos I took do not capture this as well as I’d like. You really must stand there and experience it.
The photos here show Tom and I looking out over the ridge to the river. He’s explaining what the men were doing. We were standing on the American side. Across from us, Tom pointed out areas where the Germans had their guns placed. You could feel the energy of the soldiers there, on both sides, waiting. Some asked for forgiveness, some just wanted to go home in peace. They still roam those hills.
Now, to get to the river, the men had to move boats down from the top of the ridge where they were stationed in meadows near farm houses. The roads were steep and I couldn’t believe it when we drove down one and then made it back up. How did our troops manage this in inches deep mud when I was honestly a little concerned that we were driving on slightly wet leaves and a solid ground?! Once they managed to get to the meadow below, there was little to no cover. They had to make it to the river, which had flooded its banks and made them even more exposed to the well-aimed German guns. Few made it across. Many died. Some were never recovered. Some floated so far they ended up in other rivers far from where they actually died.
This brings up a good point when we talk about research. We should never take the word of one record to tell a story. The IDPF may say a soldier was found (probably KIA) near one area, when he actually died in another. Always look for other sources and check the histories.
Later I stood at another crossing site, first on the meadow then the bridge. I walked across into Germany to look at a pillbox. When you look at these photos, imagine the river flowing over the bank to the footpath. What is difficult to see here is the steep slope from the path to the river. The view from here was wide, deep and fast in 1945. Again, the men were exposed and fought under incredible odds.
Tom and Doug took me to several other places that day, but the cemetery and river crossing sites were the most impactful. The soldiers gave me a new perspective on their stories. One I am supposed to share with the world. Their stories are not just about one document or photograph, but a collection of sources and perspectives. Often we view war or conflict from only one angle. In reality, we should view it from all sides so we have a complete picture. Then we have more information which allows us to heal ourselves, them, and the world. Tell the stories of your soldiers, but consider all sides when you do.
Next to this river crossing was a monument to the 5th Division. We are forever grateful for your sacrifices.
Our day ended with coffee and more talk about the history of various divisions and the battles fought. I hope to meet up with Doug and Tom again in 2016 to hear more of their stories. Only this time I’ll bring my digital recorder and video camera so we can all experience a little bit of what happened.
I returned to Hotel Melba in Bastogne, enjoyed a beer before dinner, and wrote my thoughts about the day. The day was incredible and the lessons provided were true blessings.
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