“It’s amazing we weren’t all killed,” he mumbled with a heavy sigh. Through a light rain falling since morning but now easing as the afternoon waned, he surveyed the dense forest surrounding him and was surprised by how little it had changed. The forest floor, with only hints of sunlight even on the brightest days, was littered with pine needles, wispy ferns and the dead branches of ancient pines stretching skyward ninety feet or more, standing testaments to the creep of time in these woods that Frank McClelland had come to visit on the outskirts of Doncols, Luxembourg. He came here to remember certainly but also to forget and with the hope of finding the answer to a question that had remained stored but never really forgotten in a corner of his mind for more than thirty years.
He was a solid-framed man, whose sixty-two years was marked not by his thick, barrel-chested build, but rather by thinning black hair mixed with threads of white, and by a rounded, time-lined face upon which sat a pair of rectangular, golden wire-rimmed bi-focal glasses. As the distance between the now and then of the war grew, Frank had always wondered what, if anything he could he have done differently back on that bitterly cold snowy December day in 1944. It was a painful question he repeated to himself through the years, as time tried to heal his emotional and physical wounds. Frank knew he would never find the answer to the question, at least not without going there, being there and standing in those woods once again. He knew that if he could return to this stand of trees in this patch of woods it would somehow take him back in time, slicing through the layers of years to December 21, 1944, when twenty-nine-year-old Sergeant Frank McClelland led a small group of MPs and soldiers out of the town of Wiltz for the last time. The MPs had been the last of the rear guard of the American 28th Infantry Division ordered to hold the town as long as possible against the attacking Germans, buying time for the rest of the soldiers to withdraw. Once the town was clear, Frank and his men were to move along any of the available roads snaking through the Ardennes ahead of the swiftly advancing Germans and get to the town of Bastogne in Belgium a few dozen miles to the west. It was the beginning of the last major German offensive of World War II…an offensive that Army Command had deemed highly unlikely. The German army was said to be on the defensive, retreating into Germany and fortifying its defenses for a final stand against an Allied push. The fall of Berlin and the end of the war were forthcoming. There was a chance that the war might even be over by Christmas but certainly by the New Year.
What command hadn’t told them was that Army Intelligence had information to the contrary — information asserting that the Germans were amassing troops in the Ardennes. The commanders at Division Headquarters had also ignored information from townspeople living near the front lines. Local people had been detained, questioned by the Germans, and then released. They had risked their lives to tell the Americans what they had witnessed—the build-up of German troops, armor and artillery — but the information was set aside.
It was here in the Luxembourg hills, along a front thinly protected by American troops, that the Germans launched a surprise counterattack and pushed through the American lines in an effort to reach Antwerp, thus splitting the Allied forces. In some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the 28th Division Headquarters in Wiltz had been overrun by the German spear-head. The Battle of the Bulge had begun.
Frank and the other MPs, along with a handful of soldiers who volunteered to stay behind, held the town until the morning of December 20. When it was finally cleared of troops and any civilians who wanted to leave with the American troops, Sergeant McClelland and his men assembled behind a light armor tank and followed it out of Wiltz ahead of the Germans. They had gone only about a mile toward Bastogne when they were spotted by a group of German infantry. The Germans quickly opened fire disabling the small tank with a rocket from a Panzerfaust Anti-tank gun. Machine gun and small arms fire followed and Frank and the others were forced to scatter and retreat into the thickly wooded hills. For the remainder of the day and into the night, the men managed to dodge German troops by moving carefully and quietly through the woods. Heavy snowfall and blankets of think fog slowed their progress but also provided some extra cover. The following day, however, the same snow and fog that had helped hide the MPs now caused them to walk right past a group of German soldiers. The weather conditions had concealed the Germans so well that Frank and his men didn’t see or hear them until they yelled and opened fire.
The peaceful forest suddenly erupted in gunfire. Frank and his men instinctively dove to the ground for cover. Bullets ripped the air, splintered trees and threw up tufts of mud and snow. Then as the shooting abruptly stopped, Frank could hear someone yelling in German. He cautiously lifted his head and spied several German soldiers approaching through the smoke and trees. The Germans were yelling commands as they slowly advanced, their weapons trained on the MPs. Although he understood only a few words and phases in German, Frank knew he and his men were being told to surrender. He looked around to check on the other men. Most only looked scared and confused, but two of them weren’t moving, the snow around them melted and mottled a reddish-brown. Frank again looked up at the advancing Germans as they continued shouting, their weapons ready to cut into the American soldiers. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Frank put his head down in the snow, breathed deeply taking in the scent of fresh snow, wet earth and cordite. He slowly rose to his knees, tossing his Thompson submachine gun to the side and cautiously raising his arms, all the while holding his breath. He said nothing as he surrendered. His men looked at each other for a few moments, and then reluctantly mimicked his actions. For the rest of the day the men now POWs were marched east through the Luxembourg countryside and deeper into once again German held territory. They had no food and little water and ate snow to keep up their strength. By nightfall the cold, hungry, thirsty and exhausted soldiers were taken to barn just outside the small farming community of Nocher. After sitting in the barn for several hours the Germans began interrogating the soldiers, trying to glean any information they could about Allied troops movements and strengths. The interrogations started with Frank. He stood while they fired question after question at him but he repeatedly offered only name, rank and serial number. Even when the German Captain leading the interrogation delivered backhand blows to Frank’s face and head, he repeated only his name, rank and serial number. The Captain’s frustrations grew until finally he pulled his pistol from its holster and barked out commands. Three German soldiers grabbed Frank and pulled him outside the barn while the Captain barked. Frank didn’t understand the German officer but as he was hurried along he suddenly realized what was happening. He was about to be shot. Stepping out into the cold, snowy night, one of the German soldiers, the oldest looking of the trio, whispered to Frank in broken English, “no shoot”. Frank was scared and now stunned. He glanced at the German whose grizzled, battle-soiled face showing a reassuring countenance. Frank’s fear quickly abated along with the knot in his stomach. It was all a ruse designed to entice the other POWs to talk. None did.
Frank would spend the next two months as a prisoner of war. He was moved to three different POW camps in Europe, then finally to a camp in Poland. By that time, the German army was back on the defensive. Their advance through Europe had been halted by the heroics and tenacity of the Allied forces. Frank’s POW camp was eventually liberated by the Russian army as it advanced on the Germans from the east. For Frank the war was just about over, but in those two months as a POW and in the tormented night-mare filled years that followed one question lingered—what, if anything, could he have done differently to prevent his capture and the death of two of his men?
Now, after returning to this forest, Frank realized that nothing would have changed the events of that day. He and his men had been unlucky, plain and simple. Despite all their training and caution, the woods had been too overgrown, the fog too thick, the snow too heavy, and the Germans too well concealed. There was no way he or his men could have avoided them.
After more than thirty years, Frank finally had his answer. He took a deep breath, the moist evening air filling his lungs. He saw everything differently now. Everything in his memory was clearer. He scanned the surroundings once again. “It’s a wonder we made it this far.”
He stood with his hands fisted, buried deep in his jacket pockets. Sunlight strained against the steel-grey clouds. He took a deep breath and slowly, deliberately, gave the wooded hillside a final look. As he peered through the trees, he could feel his eyes begin to swell with tears. He looked down for a few moments and thought about the war and in particular, the friends who never made it out of these woods. “Such a waste,” he whispered. He cleared his throat. Another deep breath then he turned and headed back to the car. He hiked the few hundred yards back to the rain wet logging road, one of many that now weaved through the forest. As he left the tree line he spotted his navy-blue rental car parked along the edge of the road, just as he’d left it hours earlier. He didn’t have a planned itinerary, but he knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to see while retracing his steps from three decades ago. Eventually, he would have to drive to the airport in Frankfort for the trip home, but for now, he had the entire week to relive the war, and that was fine with him. Tomorrow he would drive into Germany, to the site of the first camp where he had been held prisoner. But tonight he’d head to Wiltz. As far as he was concerned, his POW ordeal had begun there when he and his men were ordered to hold the town. Besides, Wiltz was the closest town where he knew he’d be able to find a hotel for the night.
He angled himself into the small European car, and then chuckled at his absent-mindedness. He’d left the keys dangling from the ignition on the dashboard, but at least he hadn’t locked himself out of the car. He started the engine, carefully maneuvered the car around on the dirt road, and headed east. A few minutes later he rounded a bend and saw the sign reading “WILTZ 6km”.