BASSE-BODEUX, Belgium — Snow was beginning to fall on the men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion as Staff Sgt. Paul Costino handed out cardboard-wrapped “D-rations” to help them get through the long day ahead.
The fading palm trees painted on the soldiers’ helmets appeared misplaced as they shivered in wintry Belgium, thousands of miles from the Caribbean battle for which the men had trained.
But that’s just what happened to these men — well, not these men, exactly.
The men of this 551st PIB were re-enactors. They were among some 1,200 people — World War II re-enactors, history buffs, soldiers and ordinary civilians — who struck out Saturday from Basse-Bodeux on a 13.5-mile trek in the footsteps of the 82nd Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge.
The walk, held each February, drew its largest crowd ever despite weather that was, as historians among the throng noted, about as authentic as you could get.
“It gives you a huge appreciation,” said Air Force Capt. Jessie Stewart, during a break near the walk’s midpoint. “No matter how cold and wet you get out here, you can be reminded that there’s guys who are walking around here that went through a lot worse than we are today. It is a good reminder that things were rough back then.”
Snow blanketed the fields and made the going tough on footpaths and forest roads, where trodden snow had turned to knobby ice. The slick soles of the jump boots worn by the re-enactors weren’t made for this. Marchers — even those in modern gear — slipped and fell often as they hoofed it from one town to the next, following paths taken by various elements of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 551st.
Snow fell most of the day, much as it had 68 years ago, blown at times by a chill wind ripping over the open hills and pastures. The World War II uniforms worn by many made for an uncomfortable day, but few would have exchanged their gear for modern equipment.
“Doing it that way is to experience the way they experienced it,” Rik Brandjas, a Dutchman in a decades-old American uniform, said, referring to the men he was here to commemorate. “I have no 21st-century clothes on. So when I am cold, they were cold, too. So that makes it special.”
As in previous years, most of the participants were Europeans who swept in from across the Continent to memorialize American feats during the war. Those playing the part of the 551st came from the Netherlands, England, Belgium, France and Switzerland.
British re-enactors Glen Mallen and Ian Saunders, portraying a U.S. Army captain and first sergeant respectively, led that group on a slightly different path from the main march. They’d pored over maps and scouted in advance to follow as closely as possible the routes taken by the three different companies of the 551st during the battle.
The path of the official march had to differ slightly from the actual routes taken during the war, largely to accommodate the size of the crowd.
“But we’re not doing that,” said Mallen, from Leeds, England, standing in his authentic 551st uniform.
Still, “it’s good that everyone comes to remember and commemorate,” he said. “Everyone here is united and actually commemorating the 82nd Airborne and their attached units. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing if you’re doing that.”
Machine gun positions and friendly encampments dotted the route as restored jeeps zipped back and forth. Re-enactors manning security positions pointed the way for civilians and modern soldiers who appeared out of place among what was otherwise a vintage scene.
“The most fascinating thing is that Americans here are the minority,” 2nd Lt. Jeremiah Paterson, a member of the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, Germany, said as a unit of re-enactors made up entirely of Europeans formed up for a ceremony honoring the 551st for its heroics and sacrifices in taking back the village of Rochelinval.
“This is history that you wouldn’t find in Wikipedia or Google unless you went to page 8,” Spc. Mario Maximiliano, also of the 54th Engineers, said. “These stories are just passed on through what people actually experienced.”
There are hikes like this throughout Europe commemorating American exploits during the two World Wars, but this was Maximiliano’s first. Despite the freezing temperatures and frequent falls on the ice, he said he’s already excited about a 17th Airborne Infantry march next month.
“I’d do it again,” he said. “Every time.”