A woman in Parfoundry, Belgium, who was 3 years old in December 1944 when German soldiers gathered her family and neighbors and shot them all, cried tears of relief this summer when she met Lou Baczewski, an industrial tech teacher at Washington High School, who in 2013 wrote the book, “Louch, a Simple Man’s True Story of War, Survival, Life and Legacy,” about his grandfather’s experience as a tanker in the 3rd Armored Division during World War II.
Baczewski was in Belgium as part of his 1,500-kilometer bicycle “Path of the Past” journey, following the footsteps of his grandfather’s unit during the war. The trip was a way to celebrate the service of his grandfather and all veterans, but also to try to gain a little bit more of an understanding of the World War II soldier’s experience.
As the woman shared her story from that December 1944 day with Baczewski, he realized it was familiar to him. His grandfather, Louis “Louch” Baczewski, had told him about being in Parfoundry on Dec. 24, 1944.
“My grandfather’s unit was pushing its way in . . . , and when they came into a town, they were used to hoopla and people greeting them, but this one was strangely quiet, and they figured out why when they started going into the houses,” said Baczewski. “The people were all dead . . . shot or bludgeoned to death . . . It was a gruesome scene.”
The woman told Baczewski how the SS, “Hitler’s Own Division” or Schutzstaffel which were considered “the worst of the worst,” had shot her family, but the bullets missed her. She ran to a nearby farm and hid there. Later in the night, she heard cows crying out from being killed, and the experience had haunted her ever since. She never understood what had happened, until Baczewski relayed the story from his grandfather.
His unit had fought near there and for a time was surrounded. By night, all of their infantry had been killed and they expected the Germans to return for another attack.
“They thought they would be over run by (German) tanks, so they strung up grenades around the perimeter . . . All of a sudden the grenades started going off late at night and they thought, ‘Here they come’ . . . but it actually was a bunch of cows that hit the grenades, so the American soldiers were laughing, because they were so relieved.”
For the woman who had heard those cows crying out when she was just 3, finally knowing why the cows were killed was cathartic.
“It was still such a vivid memory for her,” said Baczewski. “She gave me a big hug with tears in her eyes. She was thankful to know because for her whole life she was very scared of cows, and whenever she heard cows groan, it brought her back to that moment. So it was the first time in her life that she understood why the cows were screaming.”
One of Many Similar Experiences
The Mons woman’s story was one of many that moved Baczewski on his “Path of the Past,” which had him traveling from Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, through Belgium and into Germany from June 14 to July 14.
He blogged about his journey on a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/lousride?ref=hl, where you can still read about the experience and see photos.
The trip, which also served as a fundraiser for American veteran charities and to gain footage for a documentary, wasn’t expected to be as fruitful as it was.
“Almost every day or every other day I ran into something special, where I thought it would be more like once over the whole trip,” said Baczewski.
“The first city I was biking to, I was asking a guy on the street something in my broken French, and I had a copy of my book, ‘Louch,’ in my bag, and pointed to a few pictures, and he understood that my grandfather was in the war and I was trying to find this bridge.
“There were a few of them, but I wanted to go to the specific one where they started fighting. It was a pivotal battle against the Panzer-Lehr division, an elite German division, and he biked me right to it,” Baczewski said. “He actually hopped on his bike and took me right to it. Showed me right to a monument where there was literally a picture of a Sherman tank crossing the bridge. And it was dedicated to the 3rd Armored Division, my grandfather’s division, for them liberating the city.”
A couple of days later, as Baczewski was having trouble pinpointing the specific location of another battle, he stopped in a café to ask for information.
“I was talking with the owner, and he ended up being an enthusiast of the battle, so he started pulling out all of these photos and artifacts from the battle that he had right there, and the pictures were of my grandfather’s division,” said Baczewski.
In another town on the journey, Baczewski was having a beer in a local bar, and in talking to people in his search for a hill where his grandfather’s unit launched a counterattack, he met a husband and wife who were building a hostel nearby and invited him to stay at their place for a couple of days to explore the area from there.
“It turned out that their neighbor had unearthed all these helmets and shells in her garden — American, French and German,” said Baczewski. “ . . . so I’m assuming that this is the hill where my grandfather was surrounded.”
The neighbor, who worked as a translator, volunteered to go with Baczewski on her days off to be a translator for him as he followed the “Path of the Past.” She was one of two people who volunteered to travel with Baczewski for portions of the trip, serving as translators and helping him search for people who lived through the war.
In a town near Parfoundry, Belgium, Baczewski stopped in a museum searching for people to talk to about the war, and the staff directed him to one man who lived nearby. Baczewski recognized the name as one he had read in books about the Battle of the Bulge.
“So we walk out and the guy is sanding his fence in his yard. He’s in his late 80s. We walk up and (the translator) asks if he’d be willing to be interviewed by the grandson of a 3rd Armored Tanker, and he agrees,” said Baczewski. “We walk into his house, had a formal interview. He had a copy of the same (3rd Armored Division) map I did, and he was wearing a 3rd Armored Division bolo tie.
“He studied the 3rd Armored Division, knew everything about it.”
‘Everybody Is Connected to It’
Throughout the trip, Baczewski was amazed at how often people he met by happenstance would drop what they were doing to help him or even come along with him in his travels. It made him realize that for many people living in Europe, World War II isn’t just history.
“For Americans, this can feel like ancient history, because we are so removed from it, but over there, the history is still alive,” he remarked. “They have a different connection to it. Everybody is connected to it in some way — either they were or their parents were.
“We have no comprehension what they went through because it was there, not here, and it was so ghastly, that our soldiers, like my grandfather, didn’t want to talk about it until he was in his 80s,” said Baczewski.
“You can point to places there — ‘that steeple was destroyed, that house caught on fire, that street was occupied, this was ruined’ — they can point to that all through their town.”
Baczewski, who has studied the history of World War II, said even the European photos that he saw of the war were far more graphic and destructive than anything he had seen.
“I think most of the photos here were not released for morale purposes. They didn’t want to show the destruction that was so pervasive,” he commented.
“I couldn’t believe the pictures that were on the front pages of their magazines commemorating anniversaries. It was just utter destruction on a scale that we have no concept of. It was really surprising.”
Baczewski said it gives him goose bumps to think about how many things came together and fell into place, seemingly happenstance, on the trip.
“It’s a testament to how considerate those people were and how they were so interested in helping me that they would drop everything to help me right then, they made an effort to help me,” he said.
In the town of Cherain, Belgium, Baczewski met another American from Florida who also was doing research on his grandfather’s World War II service. He too had written a book, which had many of the same photos in “Louch.” It felt a little like destiny, said Baczewski, that the two young Americans were in the same small town for the same reason at the same time.
He also was excited to learn about a celebration held in Mons, Belgium, each year, Tanks in Town, a yearly event that gathers some 60 to 80 Shermans and Stuart tanks from all over Europe to re-enact the 3rd Armored Division’s push through Mons and help in liberating the city.
“There the 3rd trapped a significant amount of Panzergruppe West which was pushing toward the Siegfried Line,” said Baczewski. “The 3rd captured 10,000 German soldiers at Mons and some 17,000 more were rounded up by the 1st Infantry in the days that followed.”
Baczewski met the organizer for Tanks in Town, who showed him to specific locations where his grandfather’s combat command was engaged.
Second Book, Documentary Planned
With all of the new information, stories and video footage he gathered on his “Path of the Past,” Baczewski is planning to put together a second book. He’s also hopeful that a full-length documentary of the trip can be made.
“These elements will further bring to light the sadly unsung contributions of the 3rd Armored and the experiences of the everyday civilians as well,” said Baczewski.
The documentary is a long way off however, and Baczewski is looking for a production studio that is interested in completing the project
“We are just getting a trailer together now, and I’m hoping a production studio will kind of take it the rest of the way,” he said. “I will get all the elements together and get it well organized because there is so much footage.”
Looking ahead, Baczewski sees opportunities for more “Paths of the Past”-type trips, not necessarily following veteran experiences, but any historical account, with his “Path” serving as a how-to model. Ideally, they too could be the subject of books, documentaries or fundraisers for worthy causes.
One idea he already has is to work with friends at Missouri River Relief on a project involving Missouri River history stories.
‘The Fury’ Similarities
Baczewski has another blog that he started, one that outlines the disturbing similarities between his book, “Louch,” published in 2013, and the 2014 Hollywood movie, “The Fury,” which starred Brad Pitt.
On the blog, http://furyfactorfiction.blogspot.com, he lists 43 distinctive similarities, but he stops short of making any accusations.
“People can make their own opinions or assumptions,” he said. “My hope is just to inform people about the facts.
“The facts are that my grandfather was one of 18 out of 152 in his original company who survived (their trek from Normandy to Germany). And in all the research that I did, I can find no other case where a tank crew survived the entire war,” said Baczewski.
“My grandfather survived from Omaha Beach to the heart of Germany before his tank crew was split up, but even then elements of his crew stayed together until the end. That was extremely rare. Most tank crews only lasted a few weeks, at best.”
On the blog, Baczewski notes that his book, “Louch,” is a tribute to his grandfather’s “life and the service of many of his boyhood friends and comrades in the 3rd Armored Division during World War II.
“I want to find out why so many intricate details of his life and unique experience in World War II are remarkably similar to events depicted in the World War II tank movie ‘Fury.’ . . . make your own conclusions and please spread this info to others.”