May 2007
Featured Articles

Memorial Day, May 28: Remembering Their Sacrifice

By Grace Smith

 
Philippe Mahieux, AFC computer services, and his wife, Donna, and daughter, Sara, traveled to Bastogne for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. The town was filled with American Flags and WWII memorabilia paying respect to American soldiers who helped restore peace.  
Ahh…the relaxation of Memorial Day! The weather is warming up, children are getting out of school for summer and much of the "working world" is anticipating its "day out of the office." This national holiday, set aside for Americans to observe the men and women killed in military action, quickly becomes a holiday jam-packed with picnics, beach visits, family gatherings and sporting events.

We all love Memorial Day, but how many times have we ever paused – even for just a moment – during that special spring day to pay our respects to those who, in serving our country, have sacrificed everything?

The reality is many of us plow right through the holiday, enjoying the much needed relaxation and the company of our loved ones, while the real meaning of Memorial Day is lost somewhere among the picnic plans and the innings of our baseball games. Sadly, I’m as guilty as the next person.

My 90-year-old grandfather, Ivan W. Smith of Billingsley, is a veteran of World War II. Ever since I can remember, he’s willingly talked about his time in the military. Many afternoons, my brothers and I would listen to his tales of sleeping in "foxholes" under the snow in the unrelenting Belgian cold, of the anxiety he and his fellow soldiers faced struggling to beat a determined enemy and of his longing desire to be back at home with his new wife, Louise. I’ve probably heard those stories a thousand times, and now, after 23 years, they’re finally starting to hit home.

 
  Ivan W. Smith, a WWII veteran, examines his military jacket as he recalls his involvement in the Battle of the Bulge. Resting on the table beside Smith is ammunition his battalion used to destroy enemy tanks.
Each month I am assigned certain articles to write and last month one was sprung on me at the last minute. I was asked to interview Philippe Mahieux, an AFC computer services employee. I had talked with Philippe several times in passing through the office, but I’d never heard his family’s unbelievable stories. I didn’t know much about him, but there was one thing I noticed immediately. Although Philippe speaks English eloquently, he has a distinct accent, so I knew he wasn’t "from the area." This unmistakable accent made his stories so real and vivid as we spoke that afternoon.

Philippe told me he was originally from Maillen, a town about 50 miles from Bastogne, the main site of the Battle of the Bulge. After joining the Belgian Air Force in 1976, he came to the United States in 1978 as a student for the Nike Hercules missile at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. While there, he met his wife, Donna Grimes, a native of Alabama, and in 1979 they were married. The day after their marriage, Philippe, along with his new wife, moved back to Belgium. But in 1985, they returned to the United States to live; and in 1987, he and Donna were blessed with a beautiful daughter, Sara.

Philippe’s story of moving to a new, unfamiliar country and finding love was interesting itself, but it was his parents’ stories that brought me to speak with him that afternoon.

Philippe’s parents, Joseph Mahieux and Marie-Josee Flahaux were born in small towns just outside of Bastogne, Belgium, in 1933 and lived there their whole lives, even during the tumultuous years of the Second World War. They were only children during those years, but even children weren’t spared the violent images of the war, leaving scars of fear and unrest in their minds.

During WWII, Joseph’s family home was requisitioned by two Waffen SS officers. You may recall from your history lessons that SS soldiers were the "worst of the worst," notorious for their commitment to Nazi ideals which they sought to accomplish at any cost. Philippe said his family did not have to leave their home, instead the officers just, in some sense, lived among his family, coming and going as they needed to. Surprisingly, they did not harm his family; they simply used their home as a retreat when they weren’t fighting to promote Hitler’s propaganda of anti-Semitism and "racial purity."
 
The family of Philippe Mahieux cares for seven American WWII gravesites in the Neuville-en-Condroz cemetery and Memorial. When Philippe married Donna, his mother specifically requested to care for the gravesite of a fallen Alabama soldier.  

Philippe spoke of his grandfather’s bravery in standing up to the soldiers. His father told him that one day one of the officers entered the bedroom before removing his muddy boots. His grandfather, sitting at the table, called to the officer and asked him, "When you are at your home, do you walk in the bedroom with muddy boots on?" The officer answered him with a "no" and proceeded to remove his boots.

Marie-Josee, Philippe’s mother, had a different story. Some of Marie-Josee’s aunts and uncles were involved in the Belgian Resistance, which was organized to combat the workings of Nazi soldiers throughout Belgium. From the beginning, her family hid guns and other weapons used to combat German soldiers, in their home.

Her family soon expanded its "resistance duties" and took in two Jewish families. This was an attempt to protect them from Nazi soldiers who sought to "exterminate" all Jews in a deliberate effort to achieve one "superior" Aryan race.

 
  The Mardasson Memorial, located just outside of Bastogne, was built in honor of the nearly 77,000 American soldiers who were killed or wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
Philippe told stories of how his grandparents feared that Marie-Josee and her siblings would accidentally tell someone about the Jewish families living in their home. His grandfather would stress to his children not to speak of the hidden families each day before they left for school. The children never did and after the war was over, the families were saved.

As the war dragged on, Philippe said his parents longed to see a cease to the hostility. But the war continued. In December of 1944 soldiers were fighting in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge, which in its entirety, grew to become one of the bloodiest set of battles during WWII.

Philippe said his parents told him of the relief they felt as American soldiers arrived in their towns. After weeks of fighting, American soldiers were able to restore peace in his parents’ towns. Philippe said his parents viewed the Americans almost as "gods" because of the role they played in ultimately winning the Battle of the Bulge and ending the violence that had become commonplace in Belgium.

As Philippe told me of his parents’ experiences during WWII, I couldn’t help but recall those stories my grandfather had shared with me over the years. Listening to Philippe tell "the other side of the story," I finally began to realize the significance of my grandfather’s sacrifices.

 
Rows of crosses blanket the Belgian countryside at cemeteries like the Henri Chapelle Cemetery, pictured above, and the Neuville-en-Condroz cemetery serving as resting places for fallen American soldiers.  
My grandfather, "Granddaddy," as I know him, was in the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He explained that his battalion was part of the "anti-tank" support for the 28th Infantry.

After speaking with Philippe, I asked Granddaddy to describe his experiences during the Battle of the Bulge and this time, I really listened.

He explained that during mid-December of 1944, his company had been in a "holding position" along the Luxembourg/Germany border. But on the evening of December 15, Granddaddy’s platoon sergeant informed his gun crew, the number 1 gun, and the number 2 gun crew that there was suspected "tank activity" on the other side of the Our River in Germany. Granddaddy and his fellow soldiers were given orders to move their guns toward the suspected "activity." So they left that evening.

"There was a little village just across the river," he said. "We set our guns up about 300 yards away [from the village] in a field. It was dark and turning cold, but we had to go ahead and dig a gun pit. We dug foxholes to sleep in; it was getting colder by the hour. The next morning at about 5:30, they [the German soldiers] started firing artillery. They unloaded heavy fire for about 30 minutes. Then they stopped. They started shining searchlights against the clouds and the elements. That made it look ghostly; people were anxious."

 
  During the 60th Anniversary Celebration, American flags flew alongside Belgian flags outside Bastogne buildings in honor of American soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Granddaddy said things had begun to quiet down that morning when Allied soldiers with three self-propelled anti-tank guns, which were smaller and more portable than Granddaddy’s "towed gun," went ahead of them toward the enemy. Later, some of those soldiers returned with one of those self-propelled guns. The soldiers informed my grandfather and his fellow soldiers that the other two guns had been destroyed and that a column of German tanks was traveling toward them on a secondary road.

Because of the size of Granddaddy’s gun, they had to dig a pit in which to set it up. Unfortunately, the gun was positioned toward the primary road, not the secondary road where the oncoming tanks were traveling. Granddaddy and his crew would have to dig a new pit to turn the gun in the appropriate direction, and they had to do it quickly as the enemy tanks were already headed toward them.

He said they were able to get their gun set up just in time for the enemy tank to come into view. They fired at the column’s lead tank, crippling its tracks, but not inhibiting its cannon. The enemy tank fired back, using highly explosive ammunition that knocked all of them to the ground. The explosion sent shrapnel flying, striking my grandfather in the ribs and sadly, killing one member of his crew. Fortunately, Granddaddy was able to keep fighting and heroically he and his fellow soldiers pulled themselves back up, loaded their gun and fired back at the enemy. Granddaddy said the fighting lingered on all day, but by the evening of the 15th, they had won the battle reportedly destroying 6 enemy tanks.

Granddaddy has told me scores of war stories like that one over the years. But it wasn’t until I listened to Philippe’s account of the chaos his family experienced that I realized the magnitude of my grandfather’s "war stories." It all makes sense now – Granddaddy didn’t know Philippe’s family and probably never even saw them while he was overseas, but he was fighting so that innocent people, like Philippe’s family, could have peace.

Philippe assured me that the sacrifices American soldiers, like my granddaddy, made during WWII have not gone unappreciated.

Philippe, along with his wife and daughter, traveled to Belgium for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. He showed me pictures of the signs and American flags that adorned Belgium buildings showing gratitude to American soldiers for the price they paid in helping to restore peace.

Philippe said Belgian citizens volunteer to take care of the American gravesites that blanket the Belgian countryside at the Neuville-en-Condroz cemetery. Philippe said his family cares for seven of the American graves there, including one that belongs to a fallen Alabama soldier.

I’ve come to realize something very important – my grandfather was one of the lucky ones. He made it back home. Sure, he lives with images of fallen brothers and a memory of the fear and terror he faced while overseas, but he has lived a happy and full life. And I am so thankful he made it home.

I have a new appreciation for Memorial Day. Philippe and Grand-daddy have unknowingly helped me realize that Memorial Day is so much more than a picnic during the seventh inning of a baseball game or a relaxing day at the beach with friends. It is a day to pay respect to those gave of themselves completely so that we can enjoy things like baseball, picnics and the beach.

This Memorial Day I hope you won’t get so caught up in holiday plans that you don’t stop to remember the sacrifices of our veterans. Remember the price they paid – they gave of themselves unselfishly so that we could have the lifestyle we experience today.

Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.