I left for Europe from Boston two days after my 19th birthday on February 25, 1944. We set sail off the coast of New England and my young mind raced with manifestations of the old world waiting for me across the pond. Like the very ship I sailed on, I seemed calm and steady on the surface but had propellers of nervous excitement violently churning below. I had never lived outside my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and the thought of leaving the only place I had ever known was already intimidating enough without adding to it the thought of war.
After seven days at sea, we landed safety in the British Isles (at the Firth of Clyde in Scotland) and from there we took a train to Solihull, England. Then off to Northwich, England where I did my initial training. My training involved learning how to maneuver a ’45 Harley because I was a ‘lightweight’. I remember the roars of our military-issue Harley motorcycles competing with the bed check Charlies (German bombers) that flew over the English terrain during the late afternoons. Over the next year and a half, I took in enough sights and sounds to last a lifetime- including landing on the Normandy beaches (Operation Cobra, 26Jul1944), to the Cotentin Peninsula, to Brittany (Brest Peninsula), through Paris and Northern France to Neufchatel (near Bastogne) and then the Battle of the Bulge. I was attached to the First Army in the Cotentin Peninsula and the Third Army while in the Battle of the Bulge—and both Armies saw plenty of action.
Even with all my military accolades (including the Bronze Star), the fondest memories I have from my time at war stem from the two quiet months I spent living with a family in the small Belgian town of Gouvy during the fall of 1944. As part of a unit assigned to guard the divisional food ration depot of Gouvy, I handled police duties as well as kept traffic flowing through the town. I stayed in the home of a local family called the Lallemands. I will never forget the kindness shown to me by Joseph and Ida Lallemand and their daughter Gabriella.
They put me up on the third floor of their flat in the middle of the town and I eased into their home like a long-lost American family member. They cooked me meals and embraced like as one of their own. Occasionally I would escort Gabriella to her various social functions and would fraternize with her friends and my fellow US soldiers in the houses of the local townspeople. We were embraced more as acquaintances rather than soldiers … Foreign law enforcers tor a community that had never really needed policing in the first place. The father, Joseph, ran a sort of bistro outside of the building and was popular among the townspeople. He took a liking to me and was happy when I would take Gabriella out for the night. I believe he secretly wanted me to marry her, but my role was reserved to that of a guardian… A big brother to the young 14 year old girl growing up war-exposed and restless, in what should have been the sleepiest of small towns.
I remember eating wild boar from the neighboring Ardennes Mountains, expertly prepared by local chef, and drinking Belgian beer with Gabby’s friends and my fellow soldiers as we sang songs into the autumn night. The best times were the accidental moments when they forgot we were strangers and we forgot we were, too.
Like me, the Lallemand family was Catholic and attended mass on a regular basis. I would go to church with Gabby and felt comforted by the fact that the mass was the same in Belgium as it was in the United States. We may not have shared a language, but we knew how to follow the Latin proceedings of a Catholic service. If nothing else, this bit of familiarity would set my 19-yea-old mind at ease, if only for an hour of the day.
On the chilly nights during that autumn of 1944, the cold air would creep into my room on the third floor of the home, Gabriella or Maria would be bring me a hot brick from the fireplace wrapped in a towel to put in my bed. These little comforts made me feel at home and homesick, all at the same time. I truly was lucky to find a peaceful refuge during these violent times in Europe.
After one of those chilly nights in Gouvy, I awoke to new orders that we had to leave. My time in Gouvy had come to an end and as we were on the German-Belgian border, we had to evacuate in such a manner that the Germans could not get access to any of the rations that had been stationed with us. We were ordered to destroy all the rations in Gouvy. It was indeed devastating, but necessary in such a violent time. After leaving Gouvy, I was sent to Bastogne, Belgium. This was the location of the 8th Corp Headquarters before, during and after the Battle of the Bulge. I was sent to various roads around the Bulge area and patrolled for enemy soldiers dressed as GI’s. They would speak English and drive captured Gl vehicles. I would also direct traffic for military vehicles making their way through the town. I received my Bronze Star Medal Citation for withstanding enemy artillery fire and blizzard weather to insure the safe and speedy movement of essential traffic through the besieged town of Bastogne.
After Bastogne we crossed the Rhine river and liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp. We pressed across Germany, continuing to guard large concentrations of POWS. I was in the town of Zeulenroda, Germany when the war ended. I made one trip back to Gouvy before leaving to go home. I had left a duffle bag of items in my old room on the day we had evacuated. I hoped to retrieve it and catch up with the Lallemand family. When I arrived at my former home, I was informed by Mr. Lallemand that Gabriella was off to school and that my belongings had been burned, along with other items, so as not to be seen as a threat to the Germans who had taken over. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Lallemand for all the kindness they had shown me, and hopped a train to Marseille, France. Marseille would be the last city I would see in Europe.
NOTE: George Merz continued to correspond with the Lallemands for many years after the war. He still keeps in touch with Gabriella’s son (who lives in the Briton Peninsula). Currently, George lives in Louisville, Kentucky and has a family of seven children and 12 grandchildren—one of whom is named Gabriella.
Exactly 70 years later (December 2014), while participating at the commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxembourg, George returned to Gouvy for the first time since he left Europe after the War.
He and his grandson Steve visited the exhibition of the local tourist information center, trying to discover any souvenirs of his time in Gouvy. He was very surprised to find a photo of him and three of his fellow soldiers, standing at the remainders of a V1 rocket. He shared his personal story about the Lallemand family with the staff of the tourist information center. They were very grateful to George and his family for visiting and sharing his story.
submitted by Patrick Brion, Associate, Belgium