The city of Neufchâteau, Luxembourg, has a new citizen — an honorary citizen, that is.
In December, 94-year-old World War II veteran Allan Atwell of Clifton Park journeyed to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last-ditch effort to turn World War II in the Germans’ favor.
What Atwell did not know when he boarded a flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport, accompanied by his daughter Alane Kosower of Ballston Spa, was that the citizens of Neufchâteau had big plans for him.
The day after his 18th birthday in 1943, Atwell tried to enlist in the Army. The recruiting office wasn’t taking enlistments and told him to try the draft board. Within a week, Atwell had an invitation to join the U.S. Army, and a year later, he found himself aboard the RMS Mauretania bound for Southampton, England.
“We were at sea a couple of days, and at night we could feel the ship rocking or swerving back and forth, and the captain announced that they had made contact with three German submarines and were taking evasive actions,” Atwell remembered.
The Catholic soldiers took out their rosaries and began praying, he said.
The ship arrived safely, and on Labor Day 1944, just a month after his 19th birthday, Atwell waded ashore on Omaha Beach.
The Army assigned him to B Company, 109th Infantry of the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard Division from Pennsylvania.
Atwell’s unit began making its way south across France toward Germany, and beginning on Sept. 19, the Germans engaged the U.S. troops in fierce battles along the border between Belgium and Germany. “I was in the infantry going across France on foot,” Atwell said.
Soon, temperatures dropped to zero and below. Atwell and his fellow GI's took shelter in foxholes or farmhouses to try to avoid the intense cold.
“A lot of those were already destroyed, so that they were no protection from the cold and elements,” Atwell said.
“We did not have the proper footwear at that time,” he said. Rumor had it that Eleanor Roosevelt, during a trip to Europe, had seen that the troops did not have overshoes and set out to change that.
But it wasn’t soon enough for Atwell. During the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest in the first part of November, when he was marching through the thick, dense, conifer forest, he got frostbite so bad he could not walk, and ended up in a hospital in Spa, Belgium.
He was still there when the Battle of the Bulge began on Dec. 16.
“They emptied the hospital out of everybody who could walk,” Atwell said. He was on his way to rejoin his unit in Bastogne as a rifleman, but when he reached Neufchâteau, the Army offered him a job as a military policeman. “I made a quick decision, and I’m sure that is a good reason that I am here today,” Atwell said.
It was there, while he was directing traffic at an intersection, that he saluted U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, in his sheepskin jacket and ivory-handled pistols, as the commander of the 3rd U.S. Army rode by.
As the division moved further into battle, Atwell continued the job of directing vehicle and tank traffic.
“They would drop me off at an intersection for a day or two, depending on how long it took the division to move, he said. “I would get food or shelter the best way I could.”
Atwell went where the Army took him, often unaware of his location. “Before we went over, we were told not to keep a diary or a camera, so I had little idea of where I was,” he said. “We just did what we were told.”
By Jan. 25, 1945, after 80,000 Americans had been killed, captured or wounded, the Americans were able to push the Germans back, thwarthing their effort to divide U.S. and British troops and capture the port at Antwerp.
Contacted 60 years later
In 2005, Belgian policeman and WWII reenactor Alex Vossen contacted Atwell to learn more about his service. The two developed a friendship via email, and Atwell visited Belgium in 2009 to tour battlefields with Vossen along with Vossen’s friend and fellow reenactor, Fabrice Dehaese.
In 2012, the two reenactors accompanied Atwell to the 28th Infantry Division Association’s annual reunion at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
Atwell’s other daughter, Barbara Atwell of Niskayuna, has been attending these reunions with her father for the past 12 years. It was at the reunion last September when the Belgian volunteer organization Cercle d’Etudes sur la Bataille des Ardennes (CEBA; Circle of Studies on the Battle of the Bulge) made an offer, through its U.S. contact, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj.and former 28th Infantry Division historian Walter Zapotoczny, to return to Europe in December for the 75th anniversary of the battle.
Atwell immediately turned to Barbara and asked her if she wanted to go. Having a busy work schedule, she declined, so Atwell extended the invitation to his other daughter, Alane.
CEBA paid for all of the expenses except airfare. It funded the ground transportation, heaters, tents and blankets to shelter the veterans and their companions from the cold and wind; as well as meals, tours and accommodations at the Hotel Cocoon Belair located in Bourscheid-Plage, Luxembourg, alongside a stream and in the shadow of a medieval castle.
“It was a big honor to be able to show them that all they had done for us has not been forgotten,” wrote Tom Scholtes, Secretary-General of CEBA, in an email, noting the four years of Nazi occupation. “The Nazis wanted to annex our country, against the will of the vast majority of my countrymen, and people had suffered terribly under the Germans.
“The young boys from the USA gave us back freedom and hope, and then got slaughtered pushing back the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge,” he wrote. “These sacrifices will never be forgotten.”
Atwell, along with fellow 28th Division veteran, 98-year-old William Bull of Spring City, Pennsylvania, and 13 other battle veterans from other divisions, attended ceremonies honoring those who served during the battle.
“Wherever we went, he was treated like a king,” Alane Atwell said of her father.
On Dec. 15, they attended a ceremony in Clervaux for the GI's who had fought in the Ardennes Forest in 1944 and 1945, followed by a reception in honor of the 110th infantry regiments at a medieval castle in the city.
The next day, the veterans traveled to a ceremony at the Hamm Military Cemetery in Luxembourg City, the site of Patton’s grave, by invitation from Luxembourg H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri and prime minister Xavier Bettel, as well as the American Battle Monuments Commission and the U.S. embassy in Luxembourg.
There, along with fellow veterans, Atwell was treated like royalty by a group that included royalty. Those honoring the veterans were King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, the former president of Germany Joachim Gauck, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, Canadian ambassador to Belgium Oliver Nicoloff, United Kingdom’s Vice Chief of Defense Staff Timothy Frazer and Netherlands Secretary of Defense Barbara Visser. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper headed the U.S. delegation.
The ceremony included an F-16 flyover and a 21-gun artillery salute. Afterward, the veterans attended a private reception at the palace of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
“It was very appreciative and they all introduced themselves, and I gave each of them a challenge coin and received several from them,” Atwell said. (Atwell said he had the coins made before going to Europe.)
For Alane, it was the veterans who took center stage at this ceremony. She said, “Really, when it comes right down to it, all of the 15 [veterans] were more important than anyone else who showed up, because if they hadn’t done what they did, it would’ve been a total different.”
“We could be sprechen sie Deutsch,” finished Atwell.
Where he saw Patton
The official ceremonies and honors were impressive and important, but it was what had occurred two days earlier that had intensely personal significance for Atwell. In 2014, he was to have returned to Neufchâteau for the dedication of a monument to the 28th Infantry Division.
Unfortunately, the last-minute discovery that his passport had expired prevented him from making the trip. When he accepted CEBA’s invitation to go in December, he inquired about visiting Neufchâteau so that he could stand once again at the intersection where he had seen Patton.
A collaborative effort between CEBA, the historical organization “Terre de Neufchâteau,” the citizens of Neufchâteau and reenactors made the trip possible. Dehaese picked up Atwell and Alane at their hotel and took them to a ceremony at the monument, followed by a reception in his honor hosted by the city council at city hall.
Named walk after him
There, the city awarded Atwell honorary citizenship. They exchanged flags, including the 48-star version that Atwell had brought.
It was there that Atwell learned that the city had named its fourth commemorative walk for the Battle of Ardennes, with courses of 11 and 18 kilometers, “On the Trail of Allan P. Atwell.” They asked him to sign the announcement to make it official. The walk will take place on Jan. 25.
Atwell also wanted to visit Neufchâteau’s fire station. As a former Jonesville volunteer firefighter, Atwell wanted to exchange badges with Neufchâteau firefighters.
Neufchâteau Mayor Dimitri Fourny wrote in an email: “Allan’s visit to our city was a great honor. Seventy-five years later, he personified the Liberation.”
“Just the way that my father was treated there by the townspeople — they would come up to him on the street and in broken English, they made sure they thanked him — that was the most touching part for me,” Alane said, noting that when she was growing up her father never talked about his wartime experiences.
The gratitude was genuine and abundant, part of what Dehaese calls a “cultural heritage.”
“It’s an important part of our history that even nowadays is being taught at school: knowing what happened during this period, what it represented not only for our ancestors but also for those boys who came all the way across the ocean to liberate us from a ‘regime’ based on hatred, racism and segregational [sic] superiority,” Dehaese wrote in an email.
This cultural heritage is part of the reason Dehaese and Vossen are WWII reenactors.
“We all know how high the price was to resist the Nazis and how high the price was to liberate our country,” wrote Vossen in an email.
“When I do a reenactment, I go into the freezing cold in a foxhole to experience what it was. The only thing we cannot recreate is the fear of the battle, but by using the same equipment in the same harsh conditions, you get close, and you know to appreciate what veterans like Allan did in being part of these troops who took part in this crusade.”
Vossen grew up hearing stories about the war from his grandparents and had an uncle who was imprisoned in a concentration camp.
Fourny echoes those sentiments. “The duty to remember and the transmission of values it contains are essential for us in regard to the young generations, and is perpetuated continuously over time.”
Atwell and Alane noted that it is difficult for Americans to understand what the citizens of Belgium and Luxembourg endured during the war because the United States has never been occupied by a foreign power.
“The gratitude that was bestowed upon me — I accepted it on behalf of all the troops who were not present, for making this possible,” Atwell said.
Barbara gets emotional when she talks about her father’s return to Europe.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.