Zutendaal, Belgium, –
CHIÈVRES, Belgium -- On a cloudy October day, World War II vehicles entered the streets of Zutendaal, Belgium, making their way to a wooded area. There was no pomp and circumstance such as commemorations or remembrance ceremonies in the quiet Belgian town. Instead, the drivers and passengers of the vehicles were on their way to meet a special visitor.
Carol Street and her husband Brent waited at a café on Zutendaal Army Pre-positioned Stocks site for their company. Coming all the way from Lexington, Kentucky, the American couple brought gifts for their guests. The guests arrived to the café, and the couple presented them the gifts such as the Kentucky Bourbon, which is a special spirit in their hometown and a favorite of General Patton. After some light conversation, the guests told the couple that there was a surprise waiting for them outside.
A TRIP YEARS IN THE MAKING
Earlier this year, Carol began planning her vacation in Europe. Planning a trip 20 years in the making, she knew it was finally time to visit Zutendaal. Her dad Herbert Street, a farm boy from a small town in Indiana, had a special connection to the Belgian town.
"I always thought about Belgium. I always knew that my dad was in World War II. He died when was I was 17. I didn't have a chance to talk much [to him] about his experiences in the war and I wanted to know more," she said.
Shortly after graduating high school, Herbert enlisted in the U.S. Army. His service took him to England where he felt "electricity in the air" as he saw ships and airplanes en route to D-Day. He then made it to Belgium where he was stationed at Zutendaal Air Base.
A then private first class, Herbert was on the air base when its airfield became the site of a major aerial battle during Operation Bodenplatte. On New Year's Day in 1945, a 19-year-old Herbert was on the ground serving as anti-aircraft artillery personnel in the 784th Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion Battery B. The operation, commonly known as the Legend of Y-29, resulted in the Allied Forces defeating the Luftwaffe, the German aerial warfare branch during WWII, as they attempted to gain air superiority while advancing to the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne.
Herbert saw a lot during the war but only shared little with his family. Carol grew up knowing about her dad's involvement in Operation Bodenplatte and few war stories from Europe. Before his untimely passing, he recorded an oral history on cassette tape. Only recently, Carol recovered the tape and listened to it, over 30 years after it was recorded.
Carol, an archivist at University of Kentucky, began putting the pieces together of her father's experiences in the war. As an archivist, she works a lot with historical documents and knew to utilize resources such as the National Archives to find her father's military records. Unfortunately, the records were destroyed in the National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis in 1973. She continued her research using records at the Eisenhower Library and with the help of others who also had parents in the same Battalion. Fortunately the 784th created a book of remembrance after the end of the war, which was very helpful. Compiling the information from the oral history and official records, she connected the dots and was ready to take the next step in planning her trip to Belgium.
A SURPRISING RESPONSE
Over the summer, Carol discovered that the Y-29 Memorial was located in Zutendaal near the U.S. Army's APS site and storage depot for the Belgian Army. The memorial, located in the woods surrounding the military installation, was not accessible to the public.
"Once I realized that the Y-29 Memorial was on the Belgian Army base, I knew that I needed to connect with other people [so I could visit the memorial]," she said. "I didn't know if anyone would answer my messages."
However, the response was surprising. Carol contacted U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, Hell on Wheels, a historical group based in Zutendaal, and Jan Landmeeter, a Y-29 historian in the area. All responded to Carol immediately and wanted to help by giving her a tour of the memorial site. Unbeknownst to Carol, Jan and members from Hell on Wheels, Willy Leys and Dirk Thielens, along with members of the Belgian Army met to plan a full program related to helping her understand the history of the base and her father's experiences there.
A MEMORABLE VISIT
On Oct. 24, Carol and her husband arrived in Zutendaal. After waiting at the café with Belgian Army Maj. Erik Adang, base commander, she met Willy, Jan, Dirk, and a group of historians and reenactors dressed in WWII military uniforms. After introductions, the group went outside to begin their journey to the memorial site. To Carol and her husband's surprise, they would not drive to the memorial site in their rental car. Instead, by the group's insistence, they hopped into the WWII vehicles.
The group first visited the Y-29 Memorial where Jan explained the significance of its location. He showed Carol photos of the air base during the war, particularly the airfield, which is barely recognizable today. Carol then pulled out a photo of her father and placed it on the memorial site to symbolize that he has returned to the place where he served. After visiting the memorial, Jan informed the group that he had another surprise for Carol.
Everyone hopped back into their vehicles and made their way to another part of the woods. A ten-minute journey with endless trees in sight, the group finally approached an area where the remains of the war structures still existed. The historians believed to have found the spot where Carol's father fought during Y-29. For Carol, it was a surreal moment as she walked around the grounds and thought what her father went through at such a young age. While some remains were now buried in dirt, it was evident that the war had left its mark on the land.
"It was as close as I'll ever get to the actual experience of being there with him," she said.
After the tour, Carol and her husband joined the group for coffee and pie at Hell on Wheels' clubhouse. Decorating the clubhouse with war memorabilia, the historical group is dedicated to remembering the war's history and impact on its town. Meeting the descendants of those who fought for their freedom is an incredible honor.
Reflecting on the event, Carol and her husband were in awe of the group for giving them a once in a lifetime experience.
"I am very humbled by their generosity," she said. "My father died when I was really young, and this was a way to be closer to him. It couldn't be more incredible."