#HenriMignon was our local guide in #Bastogne. He had spent his entire life in Bastogne. In 1944 he was six years-old during the Battle of the “Bulge”, when the Allied Forces first liberated Bastogne from Germany, then became besieged in the surrounding Ardennes by a German counterattack, before finally pushing the Germans back across Belgium.
Henri recalled the German soldiers occupying his family house, but noted a difference between the regular #Wehrmacht and the #SS. The SS were “young, arrogant, and brutal.” They did not get along with the other Germans, and were an “army within an army.” When an SS officer demanded that the Mignons vacate their house, the Wehrmacht officer, who outranked the SS officer, told the family that they could stay as long as the Wehrmacht officer said so. So they stayed, for a while…
On the last day of the German occupation, and during the Allied bombings, Henri and a friend hid in the cellars. They heard a “hello”, but they were suspicious of the accent. Through the holes, they say that it was a German officer with a lugar, possibly trying to find other Germans (suspected of fleeing to surrender). A while later, they heard another “hello.” This time it was two American soldiers. The Americans entered the cellar, looked around, then told Henri and his friend to get out of the cellar. When Henri and his friend left the cellar, they realized that the house was on fire. The Americans were “very kind” and gave him and his friend chocolates.
In Bastogne, Henri emphasizes, nobody says anything bad about Americans. If they do … he gestures by drawing his finger across his throat.
The Belgian girls were smitten by the Americans, though many had also had “affairs” with German soldiers during the occupation. All the “Belgian boys were gone fighting the war,” Henri remarked,in a matter-of-fact manner. But, he noted, after the liberation of Bastogne, those who were accused of having affairs were punished by having their heads shaved as a mark of treason.
On the other hand, when the war ended, it was a “great period” for the children. Henri became animated, and his eyes lit up, describing the crashed planes and abandoned tanks in the countryside. Decades later, Henri the grandfather would boast to his grandchildren that he “played with the real things.” Henri and two friends always went together to climb around the tanks, and play with ammunition that they found. Of course, there were many accidents. The civilians had no idea of what they were doing, when playing the ammunition. One day Henri’s friends went off without him, and were playing with ammunition they found when it went off, killing one of Henri’s friends. Today Henri sees all the video war games, and reminds his grandchildren, “#war is not a #game.”
Multiple times during the tour, Henri mentions that no American President has visited Bastogne for the anniversaries of the Battle of the Bulge. Once, there were black vehicles that went through the town. President Obama was in Europe to receive the Nobel Peace Price. The town went into a frenzy, speculating that maybe the American President was coming to Bastogne. But after the black vehicles departed and no American president was seen, the town went back to its typical business.
“I hope to see the day the President comes,” Henri says. He explains how it was personally important to thank the Americans for liberating Bastogne from German occupation, and how meaningful it would be to him, to be able to express that gratitude, in Bastogne, where so many reminders of 1944 – tanks, machine gun holes in the side of century-old homes – still litter the country side, to an American President.
I joke with Henri that I’ve heard him, and if I ever become president, I was promising then and there, that I would return to Bastogne to receive his thanks on behalf of the American people.
“It’s not political,” he adds. Then, after a pause, he carefully notes, looking away into the distance, “But if #DonaldTrump wins … I don’t know, it would be very … surprising … for us.”
[Photo of Henri from his website]