Lou Baczewski, the industrial tech teacher at Washington High School, feels lucky to be alive, not because his life was ever directly in danger, but because after hearing how close and how often his grandfather came to death as a tank driver in the 3rd Armored Division during World War II, he realizes things could easily have turned out very differently.
“His combat command was responsible for the destruction of more German tanks and captured German soldiers than any other combat command in the war,” said Baczewski, speaking of his grandfather, Louis “Louch” (pronounced Loo-ch) Baczewski. “They would push through. They would make in-roads into enemy lines and push through. They fought surrounded a lot. There were three different times that they fought completely surrounded . . . one of the more poignant times was on Christmas.”
Between June 1944 and May 1945, Louch and the 3rd Armored Division broke enemy lines carving a path through Nazi-controlled Europe, fighting in all five major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge.
“They had a 580 percent loss rate of tanks because they replaced tanks so many times, again and again . . . It’s amazing my family exists,” Baczewski remarked.
Two years ago, Baczewski, who grew up in Collinsville, Ill., and now lives in Villa Ridge, published a book about his grandfather’s life and war service, “Louch, A Simple Man’s True Story of War, Survival, Life and Legacy.” Now he’s taking that legacy a step further and actually following in his grandfather’s footsteps across Europe.
Next month, Baczewski will fly to France where he will begin a 1,500 km bicycle trek from Omaha Beach in Normandy, across Belgium and into Germany ending in Dessau. He is calling it “Path to the Past.”
Baczewski will be accompanied by two friends, one who will film portions of the journey for a proposed documentary and another who is knowledgeable about bicycles and the military.
They will have a lead car to go on ahead of them carrying their major supplies so they only have to carry daily items. They also only plan to bicycle through the areas where the troops saw combat and ride in the car for other portions of the route.
Why bicycle it at all?
“I thought if he made it in a tank that was poorly equipped and survived all those campaigns, which he narrowly did — he was one of only 18 of 152 men in his original company who survived that trek, I thought I had to make it a little bit difficult for myself,” Baczewski told The Missourian.
“The bulk of survivors were not tankers,” he noted. “My grandfather was one of only six tankers to survive the campaign.
“One of the main reasons I am doing this is because so many veteran’s never tell their stories, and so few families of veterans ever learn what their family members went through. I was very lucky in that my grandfather and I had a very close relationship and he felt secure in telling me about what horrible things he did and endured. So I feel a grave responsibility to tell others about this, to inform people about what combat veterans have to live with,” Baczewski added. “We talk about veteran’s on Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day, and here and there on a historic anniversary, but people who live through those things are shaped by them. Their whole lives and the lives around them are shaped by those moments.
“This is why we need to think long and hard about putting men and women into those positions, and if and when we do, what are we going to do to help them cope with those experiences and scars for the rest of their lives?”
To Honor Louch, Help Today’s Vets Too
The purpose of the Path of the Past commemorative trip is twofold: To honor Louch and those who served alongside him and also to raise money for military support charities that support today’s veterans.
Net proceeds will be equally distributed among three charities:
The Gateway Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Jefferson Barracks Fisher House and St. Louis-based H.E.R.O.E.S. Care in support of their work on behalf of military members, veterans and their families.
Baczewski has created a Go Fund Me site where people can make donations, or they can mail checks directly to the Gateway Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America at 1311 Lindbergh Plaza Center, St. Louis, MO 63132. Checks should be made payable to Gateway PVA with POTP (Path of the Past) on the memo line.
Baczewski and the two other members of his team are each paying their own personal expenses.
He’s hopeful they can raise $30,000 for the three charities to share, or if corporate sponsors join the cause, as much as $100,000.
Individuals who make a donation can, in return, provide a veteran’s name that they would like to be included during a video post Baczewski and his team will make along the route.
The team will post short YouTube broadcasts providing updates of their whereabouts and historical information about the area. The introductory video is available now at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzSqJDtfoyY.
Corporations can purchase sponsorships at the $100, $500, $1,000 or $5,000 level. In return they can receive their logos on posters and fliers, a plaque and more.
“It’s not enough to just tell the story,” said Baczewski of why he added the fundraising component to his travels.
“After listening to all of my grandfather’s stories, I just want to understand more . . . to me it just felt important to actually go and see these places and, in the process, do something good.”
Began as College Project
Baczewski was a history major in college, and part of his work involved research projects that included oral interviews.
“So I started talking with my grandfather with the idea of just getting it down for the family. The more and more he started to tell me, the more I realized he had seen just a remarkable amount of things, and his whole life in general, not just the war,” said Baczewski.
“I found out later that what we were doing is called narrative therapy. For a lot of veterans, it helps them come to a catharsis with the experiences they went through. They hold a lot of that stuff in deeply and they can’t talk about it.”
As a younger man, Louch had shown signs of post-traumatic stress, said Baczewski.
“The grandfather I knew was not the person my dad knew. It was a strained relationship. Right after the war, he was a more harsh, short-tempered person, but he had just dealt with an unspeakable amount of horror,” said Baczewski.
Louch found the experience of telling his grandson his stories very healing.
“It was a way for him to tell the stories about the guys who didn’t make it and also expel those demons and really deal with the stuff he had repressed for so long,” said Baczewski.
At some point, Baczewski decided he wanted to compile all of his grandfather’s stories into a book, but not just an oral history of one man’s perspective and memories. He wanted to write something more comprehensive.
“I wanted to back him up as much as I could,” said Baczewski.
Initially Baczewski was just taking notes from his grandfather’s stories, but later he began recording them. Around 2005 he began gathering even more information, reading dozens of books about the war and battles. By 2010, he began writing.
Ten percent of all book sales are donated to veterans charities.
“My grandfather carried a lot of guilt about his survival. Yet telling his story helped him, and I know he would have been very proud that the telling of his story would one day raise money for military families,” said Baczewski. “The over-deployments and conflicts faced by our present soldiers weighed heavily on my grandfather and his thoughts were always with our young men and women in harms way — because he knew what it was like.”
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps across Europe is something Baczewski had long wanted to do. Having done all the research and listened to so many stories inspired him to go and see the places as they are today for himself.
Starting on the shores where the Allied forces landed in Normandy on the beachhead, Baczewski will follow the path marked on a commemorative map created in 1945 by the 3rd Armored Division.
From Omaha Beach they will ride to St. Lo to Mortain to Falaise.
“Basically they pushed south, southeast, then trapped some Germans near Falaise. That was a gruesome battle. They actually trapped 10,000 Germans in a narrow corridor . . . 50,000 surrendered. Most people don’t even know about that particular battle,” said Baczewski.
From Falaise, they will take the car to Tilley and get back on their bicycles to cross the Seine River, ride into Belgium, stopping in Mons and heading east.
“We will explore Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge area out of sequence from what they did (in World War II). We will push south of Liege and explore the Bulge area and then go back up to Stolberg and Cologne. Then we’ll take the car for a bit in a congested area,” said Baczewski.
The route will end in Germany.
Baczewski noted that his grandfather was there when they liberated the Dora-Mittlebau concentration camp and V2 missile factory.
“At the end of the war, my grandfather helped a lot of starving Polish people because he was able to speak Polish. His parents came to America from Poland. He did not know how to speak English until he went to school,” said Baczewski.
“At the end of our trip, hopefully we’ll find those Polish people he helped, to make some connections.”
Baczewski doesn’t have a set schedule for the trip. He said the team will make plans day-to-day, looking for places to camp and hostels where they can get a shower.
“We’re trying to keep it cheap. All of the money raised is going to veterans, so everyone of us is paying our own way,” he said.
The plan is to ride about 50 miles each day, which would mean it will take the team around 20 days to complete the 900 miles (1,500 km) on the route.
“That allows us some days to do some research, try to meet people who may be survivors or descendants,” said Baczewski, who has photos that he’s working from to look for specific people, like a young girl featured in a photo with some soldiers.
The ride will be a challenge, but Baczewski is a regular bike rider. He used to ride his bicycle to work regularly, and he has all the gear he needs.
He will be riding a 21-speed Trek, a hybrid between a road and mountain bike. He is taking his bicycle with him but plans to leave it behind.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all of it . . . Some of it I’m not looking forward to seeing so much, like the concentration camp, but I feel like we have to,” said Baczewski.
People can follow Baczeski’s progress in the Path of the Past on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/lousride?ref=hl.
Donations are accepted at the Go Fund Me site at www.gofundme.com/potpdonations.
The documentary the team is creating on the trip is expected to be ready by early next year.