Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What a Trip: Following in his uncle’s wartime footsteps through France and Belgium

Who: Tom (the author) and Elaine Reale and their friend Bert Iaderosa, all of Anchorage.
Where, when, why: We traveled from Sept. 21 to Oct. 22, 2013, following the route through France and Belgium that my uncle, Joe Cicchinelli, took as a paratrooper in World War II. He parachuted into southern France in 1944, and his outfit — the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion — liberated several villages and towns from the Germans before going on to the Battle of the Bulge.
Highlights and high points: We visited the site where my uncle and two other soldiers captured the first German general taken alive in Europe and saw memorials to his unit as well as to him and to some of his fellow soldiers. We saw a Nazi flag from the museum in Draguignan, France, that he captured and donated to the village, and we visited the vineyard that he parachuted into. In Belgium, we were shown the spot where he was taken prisoner: He was sent to a German stalag that he escaped from as the war was winding down.
Cultural connection or disconnect: We saw several plaques with my uncle’s name on them, saw his photo displayed in several locations and met people with whom he has maintained relationships over the years. The extent to which WWII is still relevant to the people there came as a real surprise. People are still finding remnants of battles fought, including unexploded ordnance, on a regular basis. People maintain private museums of wartime mementos and photographs, and the official museums are almost too numerous to mention.
Biggest laugh or cry: It was very moving to have people thanking us for my uncle’s service and making sure that we conveyed their thanks and appreciation to him.
How unexpected: The extent to which older people are trying to convey to the next generations just how important it was that the Allies saved Europe from Nazi domination. There are even WWII battle re-enactors there, much as we have Civil War re-enactors here.
Fondest memento or memory: The most powerful memory is of walking through farmlands and pastures where my uncle fought and trying to visualize what it must have been like to have been there in the winter of 1944-45, seeing German tanks coming through the countryside and trying to stay alive in extremely difficult situations.
*Story originally published in the Washington Post, to see the full article, click here.


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