Lost in the Ardennes.
I finally had to admit it. For all my supposed prowess as a map reader, I had gotten us lost on the way to Bastogne in the Fall of 2014.
Laura and I took advantage of a visit to Ireland where our eldest son was enjoying his college semester abroad to fly to Paris, rent a car and head to Bastogne where Hotel Giorgi reserved our lodging for that night. I was two years into writing “Angels of Bastogne” and felt that I needed to walk the ground that Dr. Prior had walked 70 years before.
Relying on an old Michelin map of France and the low countries, I navigated our way to Reims to visit the cathedral. After being awestruck by its massive interior, we circumvented the structure on the way back to the car. Among the stern figures depicted in stone, we discovered a smiling angel which had been carefully restored after the Germans shelled the cathedral during the first world war. I know of no other statue like it. We took it as a very good omen.
Departing Reims, I planned to follow the route of the 101st Airborne from their bivouac nearby, through Sedan and on to Bastogne. I stubbornly declined when Laura suggested following Google Maps.
I got this!
But something happened when we crossed over the River Meuse into the heavily forested hills of the Ardennes. What had been a clear day surrendered to fog and disorientation. And we lost our internet connection. As darkness fell, I tried to rely on my French asking various people for directions, and then finally fell back on dead reckoning. I figured we had to be south of Bastogne and eventually steered us on to farm country roads where clods of cow manure thumped the undercarriage of the car. As we worked our way north, I could make out a string of bright lights perhaps 10 miles to the west. What is 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 said I could get us here! We found McAuliffe Square where we parked and checked into the Hotel Giorgi on the corner. After that ordeal, we needed a beer. We stepped back out onto the square and spied neon lights through the mist at the far corner of the square.
Le Nut’s Tavern
It turned out to be Le Nut’s, 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 postcards and notes from veterans who had visited the tavern over the years. After a couple of glasses of Tangerlo Blond (Winner of the World’s Best Beer award for 2014), we stepped outside to return to the Hotel Giorgi, only to witness a boisterous gathering at across the square. A dozen young men surrounded and playfully teased a fellow trying to restart his moped. Drawing closer we were astonished to see he 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 got his moped started and took off down the Houffalize Road, followed by his mates running and laughing behind him. When they rounded a corner, the night went as silent as an ancient battlefield.
It was the second good omen.
There were many moments of happenstance and coincidence in our trip to Bastogne. It turned out that the country road we travelled into Bastogne is the Assenois Road, the back door that tank known as “Cobra King” exploited as the vanguard of Patton’s relief of Bastogne. As amazing as that was, I found out that the ground floor restaurant at the Hotel Giorgi where we often dined once was Gustave Lemaire’s hardware store!
We had coffee at a gas station the first morning in Bastogne and found ourselves sitting next to Roby Clam, Bastogne’s preeminent battlefield tour guide and historian. He steered us to every location worth seeing. On our last day we toured the museum on Mardasson Hill, and ascended to the top of the monument. It is a view of productive farmland and Bastogne at peace that thousands of veterans have experienced since the monument was constructed.
That evening the sun set like a blood-red poppy on the horizon. Let’s call it the third good omen.
John “Jack” T. Prior MD
I had the great honor of getting to know Dr. Prior when he served on the board of directors of the American Lung Association of Central New York and I served as executive director from 1998-2005.
Together, we represented our organization at periodic state board meetings in Albany. Because his eyesight was failing, I always drove and he rode shotgun. It was on the first of these several trips that our conversation touched on World War II and on my renewed interest in the conflict. After I spoke about my father’s service with the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific, Dr. Prior told me about his time with Patton’s Army in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge.
Transferred to the front line when a battalion surgeon came down with pneumonia, he was tasked with saving lives while short of medical supplies and personnel, and often under heavy fire during the German siege of Bastogne. He described his ordeal in the matter-of-fact manner so typical of veterans of that war: He was just doing his job. He wasn’t a hero. The heroes are the ones who never made it home.
Yet, his tone and demeanor brightened considerably when he spoke with great reverence about the two Belgian nurses who volunteered to assist him in his aid station. Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy both happened to be home in Bastogne for the Christmas holiday, and answered the call to service.
When we returned home to Syracuse, he gave me a copy of a memoire he wrote about his time in Bastogne, entitled “The Night Before Christmas – Bastogne 1944, which was published in December, 1972, in “The Bulletin,” a publication of the Onondaga County Medical Society. And to help me get up to speed on the Battle of the Bulge, he offered “A Time for Trumpets,” by Charles B. MacDonald. I was delighted to find two segments of Dr. Prior’s story in the text.
After some time passed and I felt drawn deeper into his confidence, I offered to bring his story to light bring his story to light. After he watched and enjoyed three documentaries that I produced during the 1990s, which were distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service, Dr. Prior agreed to return with me and my cameraman par excellence Scott Shelley to Bastogne to make a film. Sadly, before we could get the project off the ground, Dr. Prior’s health declined and he passed away in 2007.
Without Dr. Prior, it made no sense to further contemplate a documentary. Five years passed before I decided to develop the story as a screenplay, which I entitled “Angels of Bastogne.” By 2014, I felt my script was worth sharing with acquaintances, who responded favorably, and with a relative of Jack’s, his nephew Reverent Richard Prior. He encouraged me to contact Dr. Prior’s daughter Anne Stringer, the only one of Jack’s six children living in the Central New York region. I did so and was met with the warmest of receptions possible. She enjoyed reading the screenplay but noted that it needed more four-letter words!
When I shared the script with Owen Shapiro, professor of film at Syracuse University and co-founder of the Syracuse International Film Festival. Of the script, he said:
“I think it is a terrific and very unusual WW2 story. Its drama and characters are, in my view, riveting.”
At the same time, he informed me that it would take a minimum of five million dollars to produce what at that time I considered the basis for a four-part mini-series. Another filmmaker noted that it would face long odds if edited down to feature-film length, since the target audience for feature films in those days was 15-year-old males! A third warned me that if I shop the screenplay around, there is a chance that someone might simply steal my idea and storyline.
So, there I was. I had a vision, but I no longer could see a pathway, so I pondered and pondered.
(check Anne’s letter and Chiwy’s to get dates right and sequence.)
“novel”And I stayed in touch with Anne. In 2015, when I learned that she planned to visit Augusta Chiwy in Belgium, I felt a jolt of new energy. I didn’t know Chiwy was still alive! Anne carried a courtesy letter from me to Chiwy and secured her blessing for me to write a story about Dr. Prior in which she would play a prominent role. I included several photos of Jack I had taken as gifts, including one with Jack interpreting a Bastogne battlefield map for my three boys.
It finally occurred to me that there was just one way forward. In order to safeguard my work and guarantee that something might actually result from all my efforts, I decided to convert the screenplay to a book and, if no other option presented itself, publish it myself. By 2016, I had pivoted once again and devoted myself to converting “Angels of Bastogne” to what I think is described as narrative nonfiction. Dr. Prior, Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy are among the many real-life characters in the book, and the timeline and military maneuvers and conflicts are largely accurate. The challenge was in determining what they all might have said to each other. Little dialogue remains from that period, but knowledge of their characters guided me. Speaking of character, when Anne showed Chiwy one of several pictures I took of Dr. Prior, she remarked:
“He had kind eyes.”
She had the same impression of Jack more than 70 years before when she put her life in his hands and trusted him completely. The best omen of all.