BASTOGNE, Belgium — World War II veterans were surrounded by service members, political leaders and appreciative citizens when the city of Bastogne commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge Dec. 12-13.
The U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, two of Gen. George S. Patton's grandchildren and Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's nephew were among the dignitaries who came to render honors.
"We honor those lucky enough to be able to be with us today through whom we will forever owe a great debt, and we honor those especially who are not lucky enough to be with us today," Ambassador Howard W. Gutman told a crowd gathered at the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne.
In early September 1944, Allied forces liberated Belgium, but days later, Adolf Hitler devised a counterattack to cross the border once more. His objective was to occupy Antwerp and to again reach the English Channel.
After three months of planning, on Dec. 16, 1944, more than 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched the planned offensive, catching the Americans by surprise. On Dec. 18, the town of Bastogne found itself at the heart of the war in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
More than 600,000 American soldiers deployed to the frontlines in the Ardennes to fight off a fierce Nazi offensive that surpassed 500,000 troops. At the end of the battle, which lasted 41 days and spread over 85 miles, more than 19,000 American soldiers and 3,000 Belgian civilians lost their lives.
"For those who died in the Battle of the Bulge, they remain on active duty," said Gutman. "Their mission is for us to remember them. And every soldier is entitled to his mission. So we have our part to do. We will always remember them."
Today, although the number of surviving veterans is dwindling, the support for their sacrifices continues to grow. During this year's annual historic walk, approximately 4,100 people trekked the defensive lines held by Americans in 1944. It was the largest turnout to date.
As snow fell on the city and temperatures dropped below freezing, American and European children and adults lined the narrow main street of Bastogne, anxiously awaiting the annual parade.
This year's parade, however, was unlike any other. The U.S. Army Garrison Benelux has been celebrating the liberation of Belgium throughout 2009. Through that commemoration it has rekindled the Belgian-American partnership by allowing a Belgian soldier to carry his nation's colors with the U.S. color guard in official ceremonies.
The 2009 Battle of the Bulge parade was the first time a Belgian 1st Field Artillery soldier joined with the American soldiers to lead the parade through Bastogne.
"For many years, the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Color Guard has carried the national colors of Belgium and the United States while our 1st Field Artillery Regiment friends paraded individual flags of the 50 American states," said Col. James Drago, USAG Benelux commander.
"Now, a soldier from the Belgian unit marches alongside the U.S. soldiers, forming one team - one USAG Benelux Color Guard."
The parade continued as the Belgian 1st Field Artillery Regiment marched in formation behind the Color Guard followed by Headquarters and Headquarters Company USAG Benelux, a local band and surviving Belgian World War II veterans of the 5th Fusiliers Battalion.
Following the parade and official wreath layings at Patton's monument and McAuliffe Square, the ambassador joined the Benelux Commander, the 1st Field Artillery Commander Lt. Col. Henri Badot-Bertrand and Bastogne Mayor Philippe Collard as they signed a formal partnership, culminating decades of friendship.
To conclude the commemorative events, an official 65th anniversary ceremony was held at Mardasson Memorial, the colossal monument in Bastogne that pays tribute to America's Battle of the Bulge casualties.
Gutman joined Belgian Minister of Defense Pieter De Crem, Luxembourg Province Governor Bernard Caprasse and Mayor Collard to render their final honors.
Unlike past commemorations, there were less than a dozen U.S. veterans present, a sign that the men, who are now in their 80s, are slowly joining their fallen brethren.
The veterans joined local children in the center of the monument and placed individual roses into a display to spell out the word "freedom."
Caprasse presented his remarks to the crowd and then turned directly to the veterans and assuredly announced, "We will never forget."