Bucket List: Take WWII Tour of Europe– Done!

My husband and I just returned from a 2-week World War II tour of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany! The photo of my husband and me is on the patio of the ‘Eagle’s Nest’, Hitler’s retreat center, above the village of Berchtesgaden, Germany.

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We went with a group of 29 Americans and 3 Australians and one Chinese woman as part of World War II Tours of Europe. This photo is at the Mardasson Memorial at Bastogne, Belgium.

Talk about a whirlwind trip! Our guide, Dennis Ross, was experienced and so organized which made the trip enjoyable. We covered 2,000 km and five countries via a luxurious motor coach with a great driver named Gundolph.

It was exhausting, but so informational and fascinating. My husband has been interested in World War II for decades. I’ve only become interested since I started interviewing veterans in 2012. Put us together and we can usually spout some piece of knowledge about events in Europe and even the Pacific.

BUT…

This trip showed us how much we didn’t know. We soaked it all in, despite minds/bodies that were recovering from a six-hour time difference and 12-hour days on the road.

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This photo was taken on June 6, 2017, at La Fiere Bridge in Normandy (France) region as a tribute from French people to the efforts of American troops 70+ years ago. These and other memorials showed us how much the European Allied countries continue to demonstrate their appreciation for our efforts on their behalf during their occupation by Nazis.

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Photo: Museum at Compiegne Forest (France) where armistice was signed 1918, ending WWI with Germany’s defeat.

We visited the usual tourist sites like museums and had guided tours of Paris, Dachau, Nuremberg, Luxembourg, all of which was just up our alley (I was usually near the front to be sure to hear every word!)

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We stood in an actual foxhole in a woods in Bastogne where troops would have sought shelter from freezing weather and enemy troops.

We stood in the war room of Bastogne where in December 1944 General Anthony McAuliffe declared “Nuts!” to the Nazis’ demands that he surrender the 101st Airborne and its attached troops. Gen. McAuliffe and his troops held off the siege until reinforcements arrived from Allied troops.

Many of these and other examples of courage and determination during that mighty war that raged from 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland until 1945 when Axis forces surrendered were new to me. It was a pleasure to learn more about them in person!

 

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One of my favorite events was thanking British World War II veterans for their service. This photo was shot during an event honoring these vets on June 5 at Pegasus Bridge. I’ll save details for a later post.

It was great to get home and realize yet again what a great country we have – not perfect but pretty close in terms of helping oppressed countries in so many ways for decades.

I’ll be sharing more information about the trip here in future posts with photos (I shot 800+ and my husband took 350+).

I plan to give PowerPoint presentations on what we saw and learned, implementing quotes from veterans I’ve interviewed where appropriate. Many stories about these sites can be found in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans.

If you know of a group that would be interested in having me speak on this topic, please contact me via this site’s Contact form.

And if you’ve not already done so, please subscribe to this blog to continue to receive my posts that cover WWII and other stories about American military vets.

Remember to thank a veteran today for his/her service. They deserve our appreciation!

Soldier Fought with Patton’s Third in Battle of the Bulge

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For seven days in December 1944 Allied forces fought with German forces at Bastogne, as part of the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans wanted to control the crossroads and the battle was hard fought. By December 27, Patton’s Third Army arrived and the besieged American forces were relieved.

Beresford Clarke of Fort Wayne, Indiana, spent his 21st birthday fighting the battle. “It was a tough fight,” he said. When Patton’s 3rd Army was relieved by another division, it returned to the town of Wadgassen on the Saar River.

Eight inches of snow didn’t lessen the fighting. For a week Allies hid in buildings, shooting at the enemy stationed behind fortified structures called pillboxes.

Each morning someone from Clarke’s unit drove a jeep back to the rear where Head Quarters was stationed. There the driver picked up food, ammunition, and orders of the day. Enemy snipers hid out in elevated locales, such as church steeples, so it was a risky venture. Clarke was often the jeep driver. “If I drove fast, I had a better chance of escaping!” he said.

Sleeping in foxholes under several inches of snow was the norm. Clarke saw many casualties. “It was difficult seeing people go down,” he said.

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Clarke was born in 1923 in Evansville, IN. He graduated from Reitz High School in 1941 and completed two years as a mechanical engineering student at Purdue University when he enlisted in the US Army in 1943. “Every male who was my age would be drafted if not enlisted,” he said. “I could not swim so I didn’t want to go into the Navy.”

Clarke completed basic training at Fort Eustis, VA. “We trained on 120-mm antiaircraft guns, which were large cannons,” he said. “We also worked with rifles.”

After basic training, Clarke was sent to Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in Burlington, Vermont, for two months. It was a short-lived program based on the premise that the war might outlast the available number of college trained men needed to provide technical information. High school graduates who had tested at a certain level of intelligence were set aside for this program. By early 1944, the program was disbanded and the men re-assigned.

Clarke was assigned to the 26th Division, 328th Infantry anti-tank unit of Patton’s 3rd Army. After training in Columbus, SC, Clarke boarded a ship in New York City for Europe.

By now, it was early July 1944. The infamous invasion on Utah Beach at Normandy had occurred a few weeks earlier so Clarke and other troops went over the side of their LCI at Normandy with no opposition, though there was some trepidation. “The beach supposedly had routes cleared for mines which the Germans had put there,” said Clarke. “We hoped they got them all.”

Clarke’s unit camped in the fields of Normandy where cattle roamed and joined the fight in the liberation of the nearby town of St Lo. The city had already suffered an extensive attack by American troops during the Battle of Normandy. The city was bombed again by Germans in July. Gaining St. Lo would give Allied forces access to the opening of the Falaise Gap, a foothold to expel German forces from northern France.

Once St. Lo was secure, Allied troops proceeded along the Saar River in northeastern France. Clarke was driving a jeep with his platoon commander and a sergeant sat in the back seat using a 50-cal machine gun. Other soldiers walked along the road when Clarke saw one soldier take a direct hit. “His body was splattered across the road,” he said. “I vomited and my platoon leader did, too, but we kept going.”

 

The 3rd Army’s objective was to stop the German tanks. “There was a lot of fire from German tanks,” he said. “When their 88s came at us, they went by you or through you.”

The battle was made more difficult by the fact that the Allies often didn’t know their way. “The Germans reversed road signs so we could not depend on the signs to tell us where to go,” said Clarke. “Our military didn’t have good maps of Germany when the war started so we used some from National Geographic.”

At Metz, a city in northeastern France soldiers bunked down for the night, but were awakened and told to prepare to leave. Some troops boarded trucks while others prepared to walk to the small Belgian town of Bastogne. “We walked for two days in snow,” said Clarke.

During the spring of 1945, Allies prevailed along the Saar River, taking over towns along the way. “We told the Burgermeister (mayor) in each that they must hand over all weapons and all uniformed soldiers must surrender,” said Clarke.

In one village the Allies smelled something strange. Upon being questioned, one Burgermeister admitted to working with a Jewish concentration camp in the area. “We saw stacks of bodies,” said Clarke. “I couldn’t believe anyone could do what Hitler did and that other people could follow him.” The 3rd Army liberated the camp and left other Americans in charge.

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That was not the end of surprises. As the 3rd Army bedded in a nearby hay loft, soldiers felt lumps under the straw. When they pulled out parts of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a German fighter aircraft, they discovered the barn was part of an underground aircraft assembly plant. Again, members of the Third Army remained behind to control the discovery while others proceeded through the area.

Clarke was at Hitler’s birth place in Linz, Austria, on May 8, 1945, when he heard the war was over (May 8/ VE Day). That was when Clarke’s real work began.

Having worked in a camera store before the war, he had applied to join the Signal Corps at the beginning of the war, but was not accepted.

After VE Day, the Army confiscated hundreds of rolls of film soldiers had shot during the war. Clarke’s interest in photography was honed when he received orders to join the 165th Signal Corps in May 1945.

Since the Civil War when it was first organized, the US Army Signal Corps had developed, tested and managed communications support for the command and control of combined arms forces.

While stationed in Czechoslovakia, Clarke and another soldier set up a dark room with chemicals and an enlarger. “Our job was to develop photos from 500 rolls of film,” said Clarke. The signal corps had been made up of men, mostly middle-aged, with experience in photography, even some from Hollywood. Clarke also shot photos of troops awaiting discharge.

When Clarke received his discharge a few months later, he was shipped from Marseilles, France, to the East Coast of the US, then Camp Atterbury in Indiana where he was discharged at the rank of T5 corporal. He returned home with several items from the war, including a German flag, German daggers, rifles, shotgun, pistol, knives.

Clarke graduated from Purdue in 1948 as a mechanical engineer. He worked in Fort Wayne. In 1953 he married and he and wife Lucy became parents to three children.

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Clarke and family members have returned to Europe to trace his path as a soldier during World War II. Clarke participated in the Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2013.

“It was an amazing experience to be a soldier during World War II,” said Clarke. “It was scary and challenging to watch those poor people being released from prison camps. I made it through the war without injuries. I feel very fortunate.”

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This article first appeared in News-Sentinel.

Beresford Clarke died 10/23/15. I feel privileged to have had the chance to meet and interview him. Stories like this are available in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans which can be purchased on this site’s home page and Amazon.

Please thank a veteran today!