Walk in Belgium honors WW II U.S. paratroops
Stars and Stripes February 23, 2011
For nearly three decades, Americans, Belgians and residents of other nearby lands have met in the Ardennes each February to symbolically march in the footsteps of the 82nd Airborne Division paratroops who fought and died there in World War II.
This year the objective is an old battlefield south of Liège, up the road from Bastogne. While the commemorative march, scheduled for Saturday, begins and ends in Manhay, the day — and the battle of yesteryear — highlights the hamlet of Fraiture. In the present, it’s where lunch will be served. In the past, it’s where Americans and Germans bitterly fought over a strategic road junction during the Battle of the Bulge.
“The high point of the walk is the crossroads,” said Emile Lacroix, a Belgian and founder of the memorial march, now in its 29th year.
Lacroix means that literally and figuratively.
Baraque de Fraiture is one of the high points in low-lying Belgium. During the battle, the crossroads just south of Fraiture was so vital the 82nd commander ordered the junction held “at all costs,” though it eventually fell. Years later, that commander, Maj. Gen. James “Slim Jim” Gavin called the stand “one of the great actions of the war.”
“It was a very complex battle,” said Lacroix, who was 4½ years old at the time.
In the thick of it was the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, the unit of focus for this year’s walk. The 82nd Airborne unit and elements of the 3rd Armored Division and other armored units helped blunt the German offensive, enabling reinforcements to enter the fray and deny the enemy a primary objective — reaching the Meuse River.
The Battle of the Bulge lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. Lacroix said organizers hold the annual march each February so as not to interfere with the holidays and the 101st Airborne Division commemoration in Bastogne in mid-December. Every year a different section of the battle area is traversed.
This year’s march stars at 9 a.m. in the village of Manhay, though participants are asked to arrive early to register and witness a short ceremony honoring the airborne unit. The 6 euro fee covers logistical support, a soup lunch, hot wine and a souvenir certificate.
Like many of these events there will be an abundance of WW II-era vehicles and re-enactors dressing and acting the part. Some of the re-enactors are coming from as far as Poland and Denmark, Lacroix said.
“These guys lovingly restore this stuff as a way to restore history,” said Thomas Goode, a Ramstein High School teacher and a regular participant and volunteer. “If they didn’t make it there, it would be a different atmosphere.”
For more information on the walk, see http://82airbornefootsteps2011.blogspot.com/