CHIEVRES AIR BASE, Belgium – Staff Sgt. Sean Whittaker, a member of the Air Force honor guard at Chièvres Air Base, is used to representing the U.S. military at World War II remembrances in Belgium. However, he never expected those duties would allow him to pay tribute to his own family’s legacy in the war.
On Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, the towns of St. Vith and Schönberg hosted ceremonies commemorating their U.S. defenders during the Battle of St. Vith – including Whittaker’s grandfather. As part of the events’ joint color guard, he was able to honor his grandfather’s bravery firsthand.
“[My grandpa] played a very, very large role in my life,” said Whittaker, who also serves as the 424th Air Base Squadron fire department station chief. “To be able to live here and be able to take part in the ceremony is a bit of a dream come true.”
Whittaker’s grandfather, Charles Whittaker, was drafted into the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion in 1944. His unit, which fell under the 106th Infantry Division, arrived in the St. Vith area in early December – just days before Germany would attack the region as part of a wider campaign aimed at cutting through Allied lines in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg.
The ensuing battle, which lasted from Dec. 16 to Dec. 23, 1944, saw U.S. troops in the area pitted against a German force almost four times their size. It was a grueling onslaught, with the 106th Infantry Division alone losing two-thirds of its Soldiers as casualties or prisoners of war.
Despite the odds, the U.S. defenders were able to hold the area for almost a week before the surviving troops, including Whittaker’s grandfather, were forced to withdraw further west. The prolonged resistance was a major blow to Germany’s offensive timeline, eventually contributing to the collapse of the German campaign, now known as the Battle of the Bulge, in January 1945.
While his grandfather shared some stories about his time in Belgium with his family after the war, Whittaker didn’t truly understand the impact of the battle until began researching it on his own later in life.
“I was speechless, finding out the stuff that he went through,” he said. “I was always super, super proud of him and thought he was the coolest person in the world for doing that."
“That was the reason I even put Belgium down as a base [to live at] in the first place...I’m very happy to be able to live in the country where he defended.”
That admiration ultimately shaped a large part of Whittaker’s own military journey.
“My grandpa was actually my inspiration for wanting to join the military, starting when I was about five years old,” Whittaker said. “By serving, I feel like wherever I go I am following in his footsteps.”
During Sunday’s ceremonies, local Belgian and U.S. military representatives laid wreaths at monuments commemorating the 106th Infantry Division and POW/MIA service members from the battle. They were joined by World War II reenactors, as well as Whittaker and his fellow color guard participants.
While the ceremonies held special significance due to their connection to his grandfather, Whittaker was excited to honor everyone who fought in the Battle of St. Vith.
“I know he wasn’t alone in the unit, and there were a lot of people just like him going through the same stuff…all of them were heroes in different ways for doing what they did,” Whittaker said. “I’m glad I can help honor all of them.”