Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Our Final Day in Europe

June 15th, 2011

On our last day, we found that the tour sites did not evoke as much emotion because we did not get firsthand accounts related to them from the veterans; nevertheless, we continued to learn much about the end of World War II and the Cold War from Ray. We started at the Soviet War Memorial. We were shocked to find out that 300,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives taking Berlin while 400,000 American soldiers died during all of World War II. These statistics were staggering. Stalin wanted Berlin captured quickly and was not concerned with how many lives it took to do so. His own soldiers paid the price in blood.

Our next stop was a memorial for the people who were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall. After that, we went to the Brandenburg Gate, the center of the Soviet death strip and one of the most prominent symbols of division in Berlin during the Cold War. Within blocks of the Gate was the Reichstag, where a fierce battle between German and Soviet troops took place. We also walked to the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” which is the German Holocaust memorial. This memorial is comprised of huge slabs laid out in rows, creating a sort of maze. The designers did so with the hopes that the disorientation and confusion that visitors felt would provide a very small insight into the disorientation and confusion that the Jewish people felt as their lives were torn apart.

The stop we looked forward to most, however, was the location of the bunker in which Adolf Hitler committed suicide. The bunker was purposely destroyed on December 5, 1947, by the Soviets to prevent the site from becoming a memorial to Hitler. All that remains now is a parking lot and apartments with one sign telling the story of what happened there. Our next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, a point in the Berlin Wall where American, French, and British citizens could cross from West to East Berlin according to the terms of the Potsdam Conference. However, they were only allowed a 24-hour pass. The final stop on our tour was the Soviet Victory Museum. The Germans unconditionally surrendered to the Soviets here on May 9, 1945. This peace treaty was the second one signed. The first was in France, but the Soviets were unsatisfied with the wording of the terms, so they demanded a second treaty. For this reason, the West celebrates VE Day on May 8 and the East on May 9.

We concluded our tour with a farewell dinner at the hotel. We leave for home early tomorrow morning! See you all soon and we have so much to share with each of you!

Posted by Jessie Rogers, Ashley Workman, Shirley Rash, and Trevor Hicks

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From WWII to the Cold War

Today was our first detailed look at the city of Berlin. First, we visited the House of the Wannsee Conference, which was used from 1941 to 1945 by the SS. This is the location in which Hitler and his elite group of men discussed the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” It is hard to believe that such a cruel and evil decision could have been made at this beautiful place. This building is now set up like a museum and a memorial so people can be educated on and learn from the decisions that made life as horrible and gruesome as it was for the Jews. While visiting this memorial, we also learned about the Zionist organization that helped Jewish people of all ages immigrate to other countries where they could escape persecution. One of the exhibits displayed quotes from sons and daughters of holocaust victims and SS officers alike. If walls could speak, this one did. One quote that really stuck out to us was from the son of an SS officer: “I try not to think about what horrible things my father could have been involved in.”

The second part of our tour brought us to the Allied museum. Here we learned about the Berlin Airlift. Every 65 seconds, a plane loaded with supplies would land with food, medical supplies, even coal. This was an amazing effort by the Allied forces that overcame the Soviet blockade of Berlin while avoiding a nuclear confrontation. For the first time, we began to understand how World War II led to the Cold War. Also at the museum is the original Checkpoint Charlie—the booth that admitted people into East Germany from the American sector, one of the French planes used during the airlift, and a piece of the Berlin wall. Some of the students watched a sixteen minute video describing in detail the Berlin Airlift. We then arrived at the hotel early, which gave the students ample time to souvenir shop and enjoy some of the local foods.

Posted by Ethan Wilson and Jessica Leyva

Monday, June 13, 2011

Living With the War

Today was primarily a travel day. We left Hannover at 9 a.m. and headed to Berlin, Germany. As we drove, Ray passed around a book entitled "The Berlin Wall" by Volker Viergutz in order to enhance our understanding of the historic wall. Ray described America's post-war roles and the Marshall Plan, in which America invested $13 billion to 16 nations to help them re-build after WWII.

Later we watched a movie about the Cold War. One citizen of East Germany had a quote that moved me deeply: "The [Cold] War became part of our lives. We began to live with it." It is unbelievably sad that these people had to learn to live with a war going on in their homeland, a war not with guns but with bricks, mortar, barbed wire, and bad ideology.

As we drove through Berlin, Ray gave us a preview of the days to come. We were all amazed by the beautiful structures throughout the city. Most buildings are only ten to twenty years old because of the mass destruction from WWII and the failure of Communism to rebuild the city. We saw a few guard towers from the time when East and West Berlin were still separate, sections of the Berlin Wall, and huge construction projects, which are ever-present even sixty-six years after the war.

We had a few hours to get settled in and explore the area before dinner. After dinner we were honored to hear some of Louis Rabesa's experiences in the Air Force during WWII.

We are all looking forward to our next few days of the trip as we are historically enlightened by Ray, Cristy, and our wonderful veterans.

Posted by Emily Dickens

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the Road Again

Belgium was a lovely place. The emotions we collectively shared in this country have transformed our group into a close knit family. However, our time in Belgium came to an end and today we left for Germany. Although we said goodbye with reluctance, there was also curiosity about the next part of our journey. Now, instead of being in familiar, liberated territory, we are traveling to where Hitler’s regime first came to power. Our tour is following the conquest of the British, French, and American armies into Germany after the Battle of the Bulge until the surrender of the Nazi powers, May of 1945.
On our way to Hannover, Germany, we stopped at the Henri Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. There, over seven thousand American soldiers sleep in peace, the sea of white crosses speaking of the sacrifice that was given for our freedom. A wreath laying ceremony was held at the memorial accompanied by our national anthem and taps. We were able to visit three graves and honor those, known by members of our group, who paid the ultimate price. Most of us made a point of looking at the individual names engraved on each slab of marble, making the realization that each of these soldiers had loved ones and a life ahead of them. We left that peaceful place with renewed gratitude and the sobering reminder that freedom is not free.
Soon after our visit to the cemetery, we passed into Germany. During the next few days, we will discover how the consequences of war devastated this beautiful, pastoral countryside. Ray, our tour guide, gave us the history of Germany since World War II. We all realized very quickly that the German people are resilient, and we anticipate learning about the hope that was renewed in this place.

-Joanna Good and Arayna McElvain

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Divine Appointment

By Cailin Casey

Reg Jung, our guest tour guide, finished his detailed research on Wednesday night. His hard work allowed him to pinpoint the exact place in the Battle of the Bulge that my dear veteran Mr. Ned Knapp fought. Accomplished and determined, Reg strode in at breakfast Thursday morning and pointed at Mr. Knapp's nametag, "You're the guy I want to talk to! You fought at LaRoumiere Hill!" And in the manner of a schoolboy confessing to stealing from the cookie jar, Ned Knapp answered, "Yes."
With a special stop for Mr. Knapp planned, and Belgian waffles scarfed down, we boarded the bus. Our first stop was the memorial in the village of Buagnez, in the town of Malmedy. Here, the Belgian and American flags fly over a plaque in rememberance of a group of men that were slaughtered by the Nazis on December 17th, 1944. Out of the 150 men that the Nazis ambushed, only 40 men escaped. Bill Kamsler, one of our adorable veterans, picked up three of those bodies en route to Holland. Two died before they reached the hospital. Along a brick wall, there are plaques each bearing the name of those brutally killed by the Nazis that day.
On the bus again we passed through the site of the Battle of the Twin Villages. The Allied Defense of those villages was vital to holding the North Shoulder of the Bulge and thereby stopping German advance north. Losing that battle, Hitler changed plans and focused on Bastogne.
We arrived in Elsborn Ridge, part of the North Shoulder of the Bulge. One of the first things I noticed about the Ardennes Forest was the thick covering of pine needles on the forest floor. They cushioned my feet and put a spring in my step. Subsequently, I thought of this floor buried beneath several feet of snow, perhaps up to the knees. I watched the gold sunlight spill through the green rushes of pine needles the trees held high. The light illuminated the green of the moss that blanketed rocks and roots, and made those inches of fallen needles glow yellow. Only 67 years ago, my eyes would have seen the gleaming white and the spilled red. The gray skies surely would not have lent light to give joy to the eye. Apart from the veterans and my friends, the forest was quiet and tranquil, and if forests had personalities, I would say the Ardennes was peaceful silent in spite and defiance of a much louder time. At first glance, a foxhole is a famous hole in the ground. A tourist can stand in them for photos and comb them over for shrapnel and other war relics. Sixty-seven years ago, a foxhole was a soldier's closest thing to home, their bed, their couch in the sitting room. It was the place they left and hoped to forget, or the place they died and will never be forgotten. With all of this in their hearts, my fellow students and I moved gently about this hallowed ground, preserving memories.
We said au revior to the Ardennes and made our way to Witzfeld for luch at "The Biker Retaurant" (not kidding). It was a beautiful and family owned restaurant. I am going to miss three course meals when I go home to three packets of Ramen.
Next we visited the memorial of Lt. Richond Wiegound, 289th Regiment, 75th Division. In the field next to where the monument stands today, 18 year old Bryan Sperry stood with a 75 caliber anti-tank machine gun. German tanks on higher ground were approaching and raining fire on them. Sperry knew he couldn't take the tank out with his machine gun, try as he did. Lt. Wiegound launched a bazooka at the side of the lead German tank, where the sheild is thinner, taking it out and forcing the Germans to retreat. "I've said at least a hundred times, that man saved my life," said Mr. Sperry, after laying flowers next to his monument.
Boarding the bus, we were about to go to the place that Reg was so excited to take us, and the place Mr. Knapp had not set foot in 67 years. La Roumiere Hill carves its way up the Belgian landscape at a 45 degree angle, and leads to the highest grounds. It was here that Mr. Kanpp fought all the way up that hill, with the Germans firing down, and was the very first to reach the top. "Did you ever think you would survive?" asked one student. "No," said Mr. Kanpp, "Every day I said that no one will survive this war."

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Message of Everlasting Gratitude

By Zach Umfleet

This morning we departed from Bastogne for Luxembourg. Little did I know how full our day would be. I thought traveling to Luxembourg would take longer than it did.

- Retracing the 4th Armored Division -
On our way to Luxembourg, Ray retraced the route that was taken by the 4th
Armored to link up with the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. During the ride, Mr. Sperry remarked on battle conditions that were similar in the southern area of the Battle of the Bulge to the northern area. We went to Chaumont where there is a memorial to the 4th Armored Division in thanks and remembrance for their liberation of the town. We next moved to Clochimont, the crossroads of the 4th's push north. Here they had to decide whether to take the longer more cautious road to the west or the faster more dangerous road to the north; being in the hurry they were, they chose the northern route. As we followed north, we stopped at the exact point where the 4th met up with the 101st near Bastogne.

- Luxembourg-American Cemetery -
After we had retraced the steps of the 4th Armored we continued south towards Luxembourg. Officially named the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, we made our way to the Luxembourg-American Cemetery, the second most visited WWII cemetery in Europe. Here nearly 5100 soldiers are interred, including two Medal of Honor recipients and General George S. Patton. Here we had a wreath laying ceremony to commemmorate the brave men that are buried here and a nice little presentation about Gen. Patton. After the presentation, we had some free time where we could look around the cemetery and sign the guest books.

- Lunch -
After the visit to the cemetery we had a quick lunch at McDonald's and made our way into Luxembourg City.

- Luxembourg City -
After lunch we ventured into the city to look at a few sites as we made our way to Clervaux. There Ray showed us how the Europeans are good at melding the old architecture with modern buildings, blending the old with the new. We saw the Eternal Flame of Luxembourg, which commemorates all the Luxembourg citizens that died during WWII. We also saw Gen. Bradley's and Gen. Patton's Headquarters while they were in Luxembourg.

- Clervaux, Luxembourg -
After our brief tour of Luxembourg City, we made our way north to Clervaux. While in Clervaux we had a wreath laying ceremony with members of C.E.B.A. (Cercle d'Etudes sur la Bataille des Ardennes {Circle of Studies on the Battle of the Bulge}). Following the ceremony we had a reception with the members of C.E.B.A. at the castle in Clervaux, where the president of the organization gave a speech to honor our veterans; of all the speeches we've heard, I believe this was my favorite.

I want to close today with a direct quote from the speech we heard today:

"Dear veterans and families, when back to the States, please don't forget to convey the message of our everlasting gratitude, our admiration and affection to all the American soldiers (of) WWII and to your generous, peace loving country. Keep us in your mind futhermore! We keep you in our hearts forever. " -Camille Kohn
President, C.E.B.A.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In Their Footsteps. . .

Today was our first day in the area of the Battle of the Bulge. We followed in the footsteps of the 101st Airborne Division all over Bastogne, Belgium. To lead us were two local experts on WWII history, Reg and Phillipe, showing us around the Belgium area.
The first thing on our agenda for the day: the hospital for the 101st Airborne troops. During the War, the Airborne Div. turned a local seminary school into a hospital for any of the wounded from the battlefields. John Primerano, a veteran from the 101st Div., shared stories with the group about his experiences while in the "makeshift" hospital. In all of the bombing and shelling that was going on overhead, somehow the room of the wounded, which had a glass ceiling, was never hit. From the way John shared, you could feel the protection of God's hand during this time of the war.
After lunch we went looking in the woods. We stopped at the Peace Woods outside Bastogne and looked for the tree of John Cipolla, a 101st veteran who has traveled with CofO before. The trees planted in these Peace Woods were each placed in honor of any Battle of the Bulge veteran who has returned since the war up to 1994.
Our next stop in the woods was at the Ardennes Forest. The Forest had kind of a somber feeling to it. Once we saw those fox holes, it was hard not to imagine what we would have done in that situation. Some of the other veterans shared their stories of digging holes for protection under constant attacks from the enemy. All week long, as the veterans have shared their stories, it has been hard not to notice how hard it is for some of these guys to share what they have been keeping back for so long. We view and respect them as the heroes they are, but they still see themselves as the kids they were, sent to do the unthinkable.
We finished out our day with a wonderful dinner at the hotel and John Primerano sharing a personal story. John shared with us his account of the first jump into enemy territory of the war. One could only describe this moment as cleaning an old wound: wounds need to be clean to heal right, but opening old wounds can be quite painful.
We have been through and learned so much about this group of veterans in the week that we have been in Europe. All of us continually aspire to learn more about this group of heroes we like to call "The Greatest Generation."

-Jon Tegg