A veteran back to Gouvy
I left for Europe from Boston, Massachusetts 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 idea 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 safely in England where I did my initial training. I remember the roars of our military-issue Harley motorcycles competing with the German Bedcheck Charlies that flew over the English terrain during the late afternoons. Over the next year and a half, I took in enough sights and sounds for a lifetime. I traversed the streets of Paris, laid boots on the beaches of Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was even awarded a Bronze Star for my heroics in Bastogne. And even with all my military accolades, the fondest memories I have from that time 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 named the Lallemands. I will never forget the kindness shown to me by Joseph and Maria Lallemand and their daughter Gabriella.
They put me up on the third floor of their flat in the middle of town and I eased into their home like their long lost American family member. They cooked me meals and embraced me as one of their own. Occasionally I would escort Gabriella to her various social functions and would fraternize with her friends in the houses of the local townspeople. We were embraced more as acquaintances rather than soldiers… Foreign law enforcers for 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 European towns.
I remember eating wild boar from the neighboring Ardennes Mountains expertly prepared by local chefs 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 I 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 year 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 and 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 I had to leave my newly adopted town. My time in Gouvy had come to an end and, as we were on the German - Belgium boarder, 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. I left Gouvy before our Allied rearguard was ordered to destroy the stores and rations in Gouvy.
After leaving Gouvy, I was sent to Bastogne, Belgium which was the location of the 8th Corps 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 GI 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 thru the besieged town of Bastogne.
After Bastogne we crossed the Rhine river and liberated the Ordruff concentration camp. We pressed across Germany, continuing to guard large concentrations of POWs. I was in the town of Zullenroda, 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, I was informed by Mr. Lallemand that Gabriella was off to school and that my belongings had been buried along with other items as not to be seen as a threat to the Germans that had taken over. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Lallemand for all the kindness they had showed me and hopped a train to Marseille, France. It would be the last city I would see in Europe.
**George Merz continued to write to the Lallemands for many years after the war. He still lives in Louisville, Kentucky and is a father to 7 children and grandfather to 12 grandchildren -- One of which is named Gabriella.