The story my father told during my childhood was that he was a weatherman during the war. At some point, I discovered an article from the Watertown, NY newspaper among his papers. At a WWII veterans’ reunion, perhaps their 50th,
a reporter captured a conversation initiated by a man unknown to my father – something along the lines of “I have always wanted to meet one of you guys. You saved my ass a number of times.” The man was a bomber pilot who was guided by my father’s weather forecasts that routed him around violent storms that could have knocked his aircraft from the sky.
Author’s Journey to Bastogne
My journey to Bastogne began in 2002, when I shared a long car ride with Dr. John (Jack) T. Prior. At that time, he was a member of the board of directors of the American Lung Association of Central New York, and I was the executive director. Before that day, we had a professional relationship only. When the state office required a board member to accompany me to periodic meetings in Albany, Dr. Prior volunteered. With failing eyesight, he rode shotgun. We struck up a conversation about what we were reading at the time. I described my renewed interest in World War II and about my father’s service with the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific.
The catch, it turns out, was that my father and his colleagues could forecast the weather far beyond the reach of our various weather observers on land, at sea or in the air, because they had broken the Japanese code and were reading enemy weather reports. They knew what the conditions were all the way to and from distant targets.
My father was a cryptographer. I explained to Dr. Prior that my father never told me this when I was a child, and it never came up after that. Perhaps it was classified. As the drone of car wheels on the highway filled the silence, the Mohawk River accompanied us eastward.
Roland Myron Ivers
It was then that Dr. Prior told me about his experiences in Europe when he served in the 10th Armored Division in Patton’s Third Army. After the Germans mounted a massive counteroffensive on 16 December1944, Dr. Prior’s division was rushed to Bastogne, Belgium, to block the Germans who were bent on controlling the town and its web of seven hard-surfaced roads. At first, he cared for wounded in Noville, just north of Bastogne and then set up an aid station in Bastogne where Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, two Belgian nurses who were home for the holidays, volunteered to assist him. Nearly 60 years after the war, he couldn’t say enough about how grateful he was for their
help. It was there in Bastogne that Dr. Prior’s life was saved by a chance
Jack Prior, MD
After he shared with me his short memoir that was published in the Onondaga County Medical journal in 1972, I found Dr. Prior’s story so compelling that I offered to produce a documentary film about him revisiting Bastogne and reliving his wartime experiences. Once Dr. Prior screened the three documentaries that I had produced in the 1990s, he agreed to make the journey with me and ace cinematographer Scott Shelley. Over the next couple of years, we discussed the project infrequently while I had my hands full managing the Lung Association. Throughout he was a mentor and a friend.
One of the lighter moments of our friendship took place when I went Christmas tree shopping with my boys near his home and he invited us over for hot chocolate. He gave Kyle, Glenn Jr. and Ryan (left to right) his fullest attention as he traced the history of the battle on a World War II map of Bastogne.
When the local Lung Association merged with the state office in 2005, freeing both of us of our responsibilities, we revived the documentary idea. Sadly, Dr. Prior’s health declined before the project could get off the ground and he passed away in 2007.
The Smiling Angel of Reims
With Dr. Prior’s passing, I set aside the project for five years since no documentary could do justice to Dr. Prior’s story without him. Eventually I decided to try my hand at screenwriting and had fun envisioning film stars who would fill Jack’s, Renee’s and Chiwy’s roles: Marion Cotillard and Zoe Saldana for the nurses and Robert Duvall for veteran Jack, with young Jack TBA. I even developed a soundtrack for the film, with songs from the era performed by the artists that our soldiers would have heard in 1944. (Angels of Bastogne Soundtrack). I went in with eyes open knowing that my background as a scriptwriter for documentary films
was inadequate preparation for the complex challenges of screenwriting. And I knew that the odds of my work ever reaching the big or even the small screen were daunting. But I decided to give it a go anyway.
While working on the screenplay, Laura and I travelled to Paris in 2014. Once there, we rented a car and headed to Bastogne where our lodging at Hotel Giorgi was reserved for that night. By that time, I had completed a first full draft for the movie tentatively entitled Angels of Bastogne but felt a need to walk the ground that Dr. Prior had walked 70 years before.
Relying on an old Michelin map of France and the low countries, we navigated our way to Reims to visit the cathedral. The first stone of the present structure was placed in 1208 on the site of an earlier cathedral dating from the 5th century. The cathedral survived the Hundred Years War and the French Revolution, along the way hosting the coronation of thirty-one French kings. It was severely damaged by German artillery during World War I. Fully restored, the cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
Departing Reims, I planned to follow the route of the 101st Airborne from where they bivouacked nearby, through the fortress city of Sedan and on to Bastogne. I stubbornly declined when Laura suggested that we follow Google Maps.
I got this!
Then we crossed the River Meuse and what had been a sunny day quickly was enveloped in fog as we rolled through the Ardennes. It had the same disorienting effect on us that it must have had on our fighting forces in December of 1944. Art imitates life, and life imitates art.
We lost internet contact and lost our way.
Lost in the Ardennes
With the scale of my map unhelpful, we travelled roads and passed through towns with meaningless numbers and names. As darkness fell, I tried to rely on my minimal French by asking various people for directions and gleaned what I could from their responses. I also decided to factor in dead reckoning. At our last known location, we were southwest of Bastogne and heading in an easterly direction. I began to tack north when I felt we were south of our destination.
As darkness joined the fog that cloaked us, I found to my dismay that we ended up on farm country roads where clods of muck and cow manure thumped the undercarriage of the car. As we worked our way north, I could make out a long string of bright lights perhaps 10 miles to the west. What was that? I learned later it was a new freeway not on my map that would have whisked us into Bastogne.
Eventually, just after midnight our secondary road joined a main road into a town. It was Bastogne. See, I knew I could get us there. Not! We found McAuliffe Square where we parked and checked into the Hotel Giorgi on the corner of Marche and Mathieu. After that ordeal, we needed a beer. We stepped back out onto the square and spied neon lights near the far corner of the square.
We circumvented the massive building and found, among dozens of stern patriarchal statues, a smiling angel. I know of no other statue like it.
We took it as a very good omen.
It turned out to be Le Nut’s, a brasserie named after General McAuliffe’s famous one-word response to a German ultimatum for the Americans to surrender during the siege of Bastogne in 1944. Inside, we found the walls covered with photos, postcards and letters from veterans who had visited the tavern over the years. On the advice of the bartender, we tipped a couple of glasses of Tangerlo Blond
(Winner of the World’s Best Beer award for 2014).
Then, once fully unwound from our stressful journey, Laura had a few words with the “GI doorman,” and we stepped outside. Expecting the square to be asleep at such a late hour, we found instead a boisterous gathering.
A dozen young men surrounded and were playfully teasing a fellow trying to start his moped. Drawing closer we were astonished to see that the fellow wore a giant pair of angel wings! And a t-shirt that was hand-lettered “Hell’s Angel,” with Hell crossed out.
After we snapped several pictures, the angel finally got his moped started and took off down the Houffalize Road, followed by his mates sprinting and laughing behind him. When they all rounded a corner, the night went as silent as an ancient battlefield.
Another smiling angel, another good omen.
There were many moments of coincidence during our trip to Bastogne. It turned out that the country road we travelled into Bastogne was the Assenois Road! It was the back door into town that the tank known as “Cobra King” exploited as the vanguard of Patton’s reinforcements. As amazing as that was, I found out that the ground floor restaurant at the Hotel Giorgi
where we often dined was once Gustave Lemaire’s hardware store!
We started our first day in Bastogne at a coffee shop and found ourselves in the next booth from Roby Clam, Bastogne’s preeminent battlefield tour guide and historian. He was meeting with a lovely couple from Texas who had hired him for the day. He gave us several tips on what to see in the Bastogne area and offered to stay in touch. Indeed, upon our return home, I found that he had mailed me a CD full of documents, maps and photos related to the battle for Bastogne. We continue to be in touch via email to this day.
Later that morning, we crossed McAuliffe Square to find a plaque that Dr. Prior tacked in 1994 to the exterior of a building on Rue Neufchateau, where his aid station once stood. His bronze memorial, which adorns the façade of a Chinese restaurant, now sits within a larger plaque engraved with Dr. Prior’s message in French. As our days in Bastogne passed, we visited other memorials, including the Enclos des Fusilles behind the church in Noville that lists the names of eight civilians executed by the Gestapo after the Germans retook the village.
An unusual remembrance is kept in Champs, site of fierce fighting on Christmas Day, 1944. An exhibit contains the words in German found on a school blackboard after the Americans retook the town – words that bear witness to those combatants among all nations who yearn for a world at peace. In Angels of Bastogne, American paratroopers are the first to discover the message when they took cover in a schoolhouse, and they
preserved it when one among them translates the German words into a heartfelt Christmas message from ‘A German Officer.’
An outing to Luxembourg took us past Eglise Saint-Pierre exactly at noon when, to our surprise, the bells chimed the first six notes of the Star-Spangled Banner. Passing a moment sooner or later would have prevented that discovery. At Clervaux we visited the castle that proved a defensive asset for the 28th Infantry Division as they attempted to slow the German advance. Today, it houses the Family of Man, an extraordinary collection of photographs from 68 countries that was curated by Edward Steichen in
1955 as a manifesto for world brotherhood and peace.
Our return to Bastogne once again put my powers of navigation
to the test and we came upon a T-intersection in open country
south of Houffalize. As I pulled over and wrestled with the map,
Laura noted that the sole business at or near the intersection just happened to be a tavern. Hungry and thirsty as we were, the
encounter couldn’t have come at a better time. Inside we met the
most affable of proprietors who introduced us to the wonders of
La Chouffe (gesundheit!), a blonde beer that goes down way too
easily. Enough cannot be said about Belgian beers.
On our last afternoon in Bastogne, we took the short drive up
Mardasson Hill and ascended to the top of the monument.
Bastogne to the southwest is punctuated by the tower of St. Pierre
and a pair of new additions to the skyline. All around the
monument in every other direction, lies productive farmland
sprawling on gently rolling landscape. A more peaceful tableau is hard to imagine.
On the monument, the names of our forty-eight states (at the time of construction) line the fascia inside and out, and every American army unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge is listed on pillars within. The structure is enormous, and to the uninformed person it might seem outsized until the cost of the battle in American lives is recounted and remembered.
The Last Lap
Or so I thought.
Having walked the ground where Dr. Prior walked in the winter of 1944-45, I returned home and
put the finishing touches to the screenplay and shared it with a variety of people to gauge their
differing reactions. Dr. Prior’s daughter Anne Prior Stringer and nephew Reverend Richard Prior
both read and enjoyed the script and encouraged me to carry on, though Ann commented that for
it to be truly authentic it needed more four-letter words! Anne even visited with Augusta Chiwy
in 2015 and secured her blessing for my work. Along with a letter I wrote to Ms. Chiwy, I sent a
picture of Dr. Prior posing with my three sons, to which she observed “he has kind eyes.”
Another response, from Owen Shapiro, Professor of Film at Syracuse University’s College of
Visual and Performing Arts, was also very heartening. He said:
“I think it is a terrific and unusual World War II story. Its drama and characters are, in my
He added that he enjoyed the use of songs from the early 1940s,
including those that I used to connect a couple of scenes from 1944
to 1994 when the veterans reunited in Bastogne. At the same time,
the professor noted that it would take at least $5 million to stage
the production. Gulp! Another friend knowledgeable of the film
industry noted that the studios were looking for scripts that would
appeal to 15-year-old males. A third warned that if I send my
manuscript to a studio and hear nothing back, but one day I watch
a film based on my script, then I would have little recourse.
Discouraged, I set the project aside again.
Then in 2016, during a trip to Bavaria, I was exposed to red poppies in abundance for the first time in my life. We had visited Belgium in the Fall, missing the flower’s blooming period by several months. But in early summer we caught the blossoms at their peak in Germany, just as they were across Western and Central Europe. The blood-red beauties were everywhere. A vague recollection of a poem from World War I came to me, and I had an epiphany. Hitherto, there had been no reference to poppies in my story. At that moment I understood that they were a missing piece to the puzzle that was Angels of Bastogne.
A New Heading and a Following Wind
At the same time, I realized that I could have nothing to show for all my work if I did not end up
with a finished product of some kind. With the advent of self-publishing, at the very least I could
create something myself that I could hold in my hands. I returned to the task with renewed energy, with a work of novel-sized, narrative nonfiction in mind. As I rewrote the story, I continued to adhere to the timeline and main characters as they are recorded in history. But since there is little record of what was said and done beyond the hearing and gaze of historians, I fleshed out dialogue and action based on my understanding of the characters and the actual situations they faced.
I also found that peripheral players, both soldiers and civilians alike, were
needed to round out the story. Though several are based on real people, like
the pharmacist, I created Will and Joey for the purposes of comic relief from
the bloody and traumatic scenes of emergency medicine in combat. As a tip
of the hat to the great World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin, I named them
Will and Joey after his cartoon duo of Joe and Willie. Their saga turned out
to be a major attraction for my readers, several of whom read multiple drafts
including Deb Carey, Dick and Barb Canty and Gavin Landless.
Once I finally laid down my quill, son Glenn Jr. provided maps and
drawings of Dr. Prior, Renee Lemaire, Augusta Chiwy and a beautiful
miniature pendant of Archangel Raphael, along with the cover of the
book and this website. Morrow Graphics of Syracuse handled the
layout and printing. Lo and behold, in August, 2021, I held Angels of
Bastogne in my hands. Now to get it out into the world. Hmmm…step
number one, give a bunch of them away.
Among the first people to receive complimentary copies of the book was historian and retired SUNY/Morrisville professor Norman Dann. We met by chance at the farmers and artisan market in Hamilton, NY on a bright autumn Saturday when I was in town to watch a Colgate football game. In addition to writing highly regarded biographies of abolitionist Gerrit Smith and other prominent Central New Yorkers, it turns out Mr. Dann is a master fabricator of jewelry. He kindly offered the following review:
“I normally don’t spend any time with historical fiction. Then, I read the first few pages of Angels of Bastogne and didn’t stop until 100 pages! The writing about life going on amid the horror of war is intriguing. The psychology of maintaining sanity amid insane events reminds me of the plot of MASH. People use humor to soften the pain and develop the relationships to maintain a humane existence while embedded in inhumane acts.”
One last word.
I read dozens upon dozens of books and articles about
Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. Somewhere along
the way, I came across a description of women and girls placing poppy wreaths before the headstones of
American soldiers laid to rest in Belgium. Apparently, the tradition dates from the First World War. Hence the girl who Colonel Davenport encountered in the Henri- Chapelle American Cemetery. Little Renee.
Postscript: Angels of Bastogne has been accepted by Peace Corps Worldwide for their prestigious imprint: Peace Corps Writers. The book had to clear a very high bar to earn this recognition, and to join an august group of writers who, like me, served in the United State Peace Corps (Liberia 1974-76). The edition available on Amazon is the First PCW edition.