Thursday, December 23, 2010

A GI's Christmas in WWII Belgium, 1944

Belgium was especially cold in the winter of 1944 / 1945. Chilled rain fell on the coast near Antwerp and snow showered the interior of the country. Coal to heat people's homes was very much in demand. It was common for a train carrying coal to Antwerp to loose tons of it's cargo due to pilfering. Trains in Allied service were better protected. Military supply routes from Antwerp to the front lines were guarded by port battalion troops. Don Hemphill, in the 284th Port Company, 517th Port Battalion was one of these train guards (the guy in glasses pictured above).

These photos were snapped in January, 1945 by a man in his guard detail. It must have been an unusually warm day since he is seen without a jacket and the girls aren't bundled up. Hemphill and three other GIs had been guarding a train to the supply dump at Charleroi, close to the front lines. As detailed in chapter 12 of my book, local Belgians usually hung out at the station to offer the Americans a place to stay. It was often several days or even a week before the guys found a truck headed back to Antwerp. Don and I got in touch after my book was published, so I am happy to add his story here.

After this particular train run Don and his fellow guards were invited into the home of the Diesbeck family ("Disbecq" in French). They lived in the suburb of Marcinelle, just outside Charleroi. Eleven-year-old Renie (the young girl pictured with Don in the white socks) had an interesting story to tell the GIs. Don shared with me her dangerous activities during the German occupation: "Mr. Diesbeck was a baker and several people could visit his home without raising the suspicion of the Germans. Reine said that often she would carry guns to school in her backpack to be passed on to the underground." Men from the Belgian resistance delivered weapons to the bakery, Renie brought them to school, and passed them on to other resistance men before she came home. To this day Don and Renie still exchange Christmas cards.

Don recently shared another train-guard story taking place on Christmas, just a few weeks before meeting the Diesbecks: "We were somewhere on the Belgium-German frontier, cold and lost. Oh! It was so cold, and it was snowing. Night found us in a railroad yard, and one of the men said he could smell smoke from a coal fire. Aware that we had an opportunity to get warm, it did not take long to find that this smoke came from a small building, approximately 12 x 20 ft., that was part of the yard complex. After we made our way inside, we found 25 or 30 men who were in the same predicament as we were. These men were silent, and it did not take long to find the reason. We could hear the voice of a soldier, seated on his helmet, beside a small stove. This soldier—with the aid of a flashlight—would read from a Bible, explain what he had read, and answer questions that came from the men around him."

"I do not remember why we left that warm place, but I do remember there were men in that building who came to know Christ, and something there touched us all. Outside the ground was covered with snow, the air was cold and crisp, the silence was overwhelming, and the sky was filled with stars. There was one star, in the East, that seemed to be the brightest of all. Five men, a long way from home, knew something special happened that night."

Last year I posted a story of a GI's Christmas party in Antwerp from veteran, Dave Weaver.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment! You can email me too (see at right).