By Ray Johnson, IMCOM-Europe Public Affairs OfficerDecember 13, 2019
BASTOGNE, Belgium -- Twelve years ago, standing next to the killing field where he once found himself face down in the snow - surrounded by the dead and dying - Ted Paluch said his return wasn't as emotional as it once was, especially having visited three other times.
His resilience and composure quickly crumbled, though, when asked to honor 84 U.S. Soldiers murdered in nearby Malmedy during World War II.
As the then 85-year-old from Philadelphia gingerly stepped on the frozen turf - the ground as hard as it was 75 years ago when he served with the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion - Paluch's eyes brimmed with tears. Clutching a wreath, and almost whispering to himself, he said: "One of my guys was found here, in this exact spot. I wish he was standing next to me now instead."
Similar sentiments were heard 50 miles away in Bastogne, a Belgian city forever linked with the massive World War campaign officially tagged Battle of Ardennes - but better known as Battle of the Bulge.
Invited to the 2007 dedication of Baugnex 44 Historical Center, a museum that recounts American prisoners of war executed in 1944 by a German SS Panzer unit, Paluch was one of several hundred veterans and U.S. service members commemorating Battle of the Bulge ceremonies, much like the ones planned again this year, including Malmedy at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec.15.
Also scheduled this year is the 42nd annual Bastogne December Historic Walk on Saturday Dec. 14, which follows the footsteps of the 101st Airborne Division as part of the Battle of the Bulge 75th anniversary.
During Paluch's participation a dozen years ago, it was the walk's 30th anniversary and it paid tribute to the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, kicking off three days of remembrance. Roughly 3,000 participants, including 900 U.S. servicemembers, marched along the outskirts of Bastogne and through the villages of Hemroulle, Champs and Longchamps, where the Five-Oh-Deuce fought and bleed.
Following a narrow road reduced to muck in places, marchers went past grasslands and thick forests. It is here where great tank battles took place in the open, while hand-to-hand combat spilled from one foxhole to another.
Carl Dalke, then 82, who served with the 101st Airborne Division's 506th PIR, recalled the first 24 hours of the fight as being the toughest, with his unit surrounded and trapped in arctic-like conditions. He labeled it "gut wrenching," especially when his best friend died - one of 19,000 Americans killed, along with another almost 60,000 injured.
"But at no time did we ever think that we would lose ... even though we were outnumbered seven to one," said Dalke, outfitted in 1940s-era military clothing and sporting several rows of medals, including the Bronze Star with valor.
At a small memorial hugging the road, Dalke, like Paluch, laid a wreath to personally recognize those who didn't survive the costly month-long struggle.
Along the walk, marchers passed by several such memorials and realistic scenes of uniformed re-enactors digging foxholes, stealing through the woods, manning crossroads and driving authentic vehicles of that era. Adding to the setting: 22 parachutists jumping from a C-47 Dakota transporter.
Later in the day, a formal wreath-laying ceremony was held in Bastogne's McAuliffe Square, named after Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, who famously replied "Nuts" when asked to surrender by the Germans.
Prior to the ceremony, an Army color guard led a parade formed by dignitaries, beret-wearing veterans, and Belgian troops.
The procession, with a sidewalk-lined crowd tagging along, made its way from downtown to a small park and monument dedicated to Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the Third Army, which relieved besieged 101st AD forces. Afterwards, the parade returned to McAuliffe Square, where U.S. and Belgian officials, military leaders and Battle of the Bulge survivors remembered those who fell.
Near the end of the ceremony, Drago took a deep breath, emotions and memories returning in floods - much like that for Ted Paluch a few miles down the road.