Bastogne to mark 65 years

A wreath-laying ceremony on Bastogne’s McAuliffe Square will be one of the events marking the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge on Saturday, Dec. 12.

Battle of the Bulge commemoration takes on special significance this year

By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2009

The annual Battle of the Bulge commemoration in Bastogne, Belgium, starts Friday, and while the remembrance typically follows a set pattern, this year’s event could have as many wrinkles as a walnut shell.

If you plan to attend, be aware that this is the 65th anniversary of the battle and that hotel rooms anywhere near the city will be hard to come by. Driving and parking will be a bear, too, though it won’t keep thousands of people, mostly Belgians, from attending the three-day event.

"The city is a very important place historically," said Belgian army Lt. Col. Henri Badot-Bertrand, commander of Heintz Caserne, the local garrison.

It’s historic because Bastogne has long been the focal point of the largest battle involving the U.S. Army and its commemoration. It was in Bastogne that elements of the 101st Airborne Division defended the city and a strategic crossroad despite being encircled by the German army. And it was here that Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe defiantly rebuffed a German ultimatum to surrender.

The cellar where McAuliffe issued his legendary retort, "Ah, nuts," is on the Bastogne caserne. Though typically closed to visitors, the cellar’s small, modest museum will be open to the public 1-6 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

Heintz Caserne has been in the news this year because the Belgian military intends to soon close it and 22 others as part of a restructuring effort. That means this likely will be the last year a military unit calls Bastogne home.

Throughout the years, Bastogne has attracted many U.S. veterans of the battle, but with the passage of time fewer have been turning out each December. Only a handful, maybe a half-dozen at most, are expected to attend this year, event organizers said.

There are five main events planned. They involve a walk, wreath laying, a ceremonial nut toss, vintage vehicles and a re-enactment. Veterans of the 1944 battle, so named because of a bulge in the 80-mile front, will most likely attend the wreathing-laying events and the nut toss from the city hall balcony.

Those two afternoon events, 2:30 and 4 p.m. respectively, are sandwiched between the symbolic perimeter walk that starts at 8 a.m. and the official ceremony at the Mardasson Memorial at 8 p.m. An hourlong sound-and-light show in Vaux sur Sûre, a town 10 miles south of Bastogne, starts at 5:30 p.m. and transportation to the site will be provided.

On Sunday afternoon, World War II-era vehicles will move in a convoy through Bastogne after a late-morning parachute drop near the Mardasson Memorial, situated on the outskirts of town.

Additionally, Bastogne holds its annual Christmas market this weekend.

Of course, the whole itinerary will be turned upside down if President Obama accepts the mayor of Bastogne’s invitation to attend. Obama will be in Norway two days earlier to claim his Nobel Peace Prize. No sitting U.S. president has ever visited Bastogne for the annual commemoration.

But no matter who shows up, one tasty tip is to try the chocolate moelleux at the Au Coin Fleuri on Chaussée de Houffalize.

Know of Go

For a list of events scheduled for Friday through Sunday along with a historical map of troop movements during the battle of the Bulge and photos from 2008 events, visit the Web at www.usagbenelux.eur.army.mil/sites/local/pages/65_index2.htm.

As in past years, the Patton monument in Bastogne will be the site of a wreath laying in this year’s observance.