In Eschweiler church, a tribute to a GI
The grave of Pvt. George Ottmar Mergenthaler is empty, but his memory fills the town of Eschweiler like the mist and fog that come each autumn.
A bas-relief of Mergenthaler looks down on worshipers from the wall of the local church. Schoolchildren quickly learn his name. And appreciation for his sacrifice is as fresh today as it was 45 years ago, when the GI died defending the town.
Luxembourg is dotted with memorials to those who fought to free it from Nazi Germany. The northern area alone has more than 40 monuments — some to entire units, some to individual soldiers — all paid for by the beneficiaries of their valor.
But Eschweiler's effort is unique. It is believed to be the only community outside the United States to have a church dedicated to the memory of an American soldier. Outside the town is a monument on the spot where his body was discovered, and in the cemetery is the plot where he was buried.
Mergenthaler, 24, arrived in Eschweiler with about 160 men of the 28th Cav Recon Troop (Mech) on Nov. 18,1944, after bloody combat in the Huertgen Forest. No one expected trouble from the Germans, who were across the Our and Sauer rivers.
For the next 30 days, Mergenthaler and his comrades lived with the villagers, helping them with chores and sharing meals in their homes.
Mergenthaler's skill in French and German and his friendly nature especially endeared him to his hosts.
He played games with the children and was the village Santa Claus. In one month, the Princeton graduate earned the villagers' love and respect.
But it was his action on the morning of Dec. 18 that earned him a lasting tribute.
While Mergenthaler and his companions were billeted in Eschweiler, the Germans mounted an offensive. On Dec. 18, it reached Eschweiler.
As the last 60 GIs prepared to leave, Mergenthaler put his arm around the shoulders of his friend, Father Bodson, the local priest. "Don't worry, Father," he said. "We'll drive them back."
The Americans confronted the Germans on the edge of town. Mergenthaler was in the back of a jeep where a machine gun was mounted on a tripod. He fired, but the gun jammed. He worked it free and fired again. Again, the gun jammed. As his comrades ran into the woods to escape the German bullets, Mergenthaler slumped across the gun.
It was March 24, 1945, when the soldier's fate was revealed. Virginia Huberty, a friend of Mergenthaler's, .was walking through the woods when she discovered ihis body in a shallow grave, placed there by someone still unknown.
Two days later, Mergenthaler was buried in a moving ceremony that brought out the entire town. In November, 1947, his family moved his body to the family burial plot in Rochester, N.Y.
The monument at the spot where Mergenthaler's body was found is about 100 yards from a narrow road outside town. The main inscription reads, "On this place, 18 Dec., 1944, a valiant American soldier, George Mergenthaler, died for the liberation of the world." Beneath that are the words, "My Father, do not fear, I will defend you," an altered version of the soldier's last words to the priest.
Inside the door of the church is the bas-relief of Mergenthaler and these words, "This only son died that other sons might live in love and peace."
At the front of the church is the most touching tribute. A large painting shows Christ feeding loaves of bread to the poor. One of the people distributing loaves is Mergenthaler, and beneath a cloak he wears his U.S. military uniform.
His parents, Alice and Herman Mergenthaler, donated 4 million francs to repair and remodel the church after the war. Their names are inscribed in stained-glass windows, and their words are on the wall: "May the restoration of this chapel be of solace to all as it gave comfort to our son."