By Ms. Julie Piron (IMCOM EUROPE)January 16, 2020
ZUTENDAAL, Belgium -- On January 10, 2020, a rainy winter day over Zutendaal, also called the Groenste Snoepje (the greenest sweet) van Vlaanderen, the crowd has gathered at the entrance of the Zutendaal Army Prepositioned Stock site.
Local officials, children from local schools, Belgian and U.S. military members, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux personnel and citizens of Zutendaal answered the invitation of the Zutendaal mayor, Ann Schrijvers, and of the Koninklijke Vereniging van Oud-strijders Verbroederingen (KVOV) or, in English "Royal Association of Former Fighters," a veteran association from Limburg, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of one of the major aerial battle of World War II in Belgium.
The group starts to slowly make its way through the Wiemesmeerse woods, on the ground of the former Airfield Y-29. In the middle of the woods, right outside the surrounding military installation, a small brick memorial seems to be the only remaining mark of the airfield and of the battle that happened there.
Airfield Y29 was carved out of the bush in 1944 by the 852nd Engineer Aviation Battalion to be an advanced landing ground. The airfield was home to the 352nd and 366th fighter groups, who were supporting missions, patrolling roads in front of the beachhead, and dropping bombs on gun emplacements, anti-aircraft artillery and concentrations of German troops when spotted.
At dawn on January 1, 1945, the Nazis launched Operation Bodenplatte as an attempt to gain air superiority during the stagnant stage of the Battle of the Bulge. Operation Bodenplatte assigned over 900 German aircrafts to attack Allied airfields in Belgium, the Netherlands and France and destroy their air power. Luckily the operation was a failure and is nowadays considered as the last large-scale strategic offensive operation of the Luftwaffe during WWII. That day, the 487th Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group in Zutendaal executed an amazing feat by shooting 23 enemy fighters while only suffering two damaged aircrafts. They became the unforgettable actors of the epic battle known today as the Legend of Y-29.
Herbert Street, who was a private first class at the time, was on the air base the day of the attack. He was only 19 years old and was serving as anti-aircraft artillery personnel in Bravo Battery B, 784th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. As he recorded on a tape,
"The weather around this time was really cold," Street had said in a recording. "It was down around zero. The Air Force had given us some flight suits, which were pretty nice. It was leather with a fleece line in the inside. They were really good to pull guard in. If it wouldn't been for those we would probably have frozen to death."
The battle of Y29 made an impact on his memory for years as he recorded a tape about the events of that day shortly before his death. Seventy five years after the battle, as more than 200 people were silently standing on the grounds, his voice rose from a speaker.
"Next move was up to an airfield called Y29," Street said in the recording. "That was all about 30 miles from Liege. We had our gun right there in the airfield at that time. This was long towards in December. Of course in December that's when the Battle of the Bulge started. At this time we've had several air raids at night with one or two airplanes come over and dropping few bombs and things, and it really didn't matter too much.
"It was on New Year day in 1945 that we had our biggest air raid that I have ever been in in the war," Street's recording continued. "We had a 50-planes raid on that field of ours. They were all fighter planes, ME109s and FW190s. They are coming over on us and really, before I knew what was happening, they were just swarming all over the field. So our airplane is trying to take off right in the middle of them. We've finally done pretty good. We got five of them and the Air Force they got 35 of them. That was a pretty good day of work."
After a few speeches and historical explanations, the ceremony ended with the local children laying flowers on the memorial as a promise to always remember the Legend of Y-29.