THE rain shimmered down the window of the train as it headed from Brussels to Arlon. I wasn't aware of the downpour, I was so engrossed in reading a diary about ``The Battle of the Bulge,'' which Sir Winston Churchill had referred to as ``the greatest American battle of the Second World War.''
When the assignment came for me to tape a show on the former battlefields, the Belgian government had suggested I talk with Emil Engels, an expert on this battle who lives near Bastogne.
At the station, Mr. Engels, a retired Belgian colonel, emerged from the crowd, his posture straight as an arrow. He spoke perfect English and invited me to his house.
As we arrived, the sun washed the land with a glow. His wife, daughter, and mother-in-law were there to greet me. His mother-in-law's friendly eyes gave no hint that she had lived through World Wars I and II and that her village had been occupied three times by German troops.
They were interested in the fact that my uncle, Cpl. James Churchill had been left for dead on the battlefield. I can still remember sitting around the fireplace as my dad told about their parents receiving the missing-in-action telegram, and a week later attending the funeral. Then, two days ahead of a second telegram from the War Department, my uncle walked up to his parents' door!
Soon, Engels and I journeyed to Bastogne, following the same route the armies had taken. Gazing across the pasture land, I could hear the cowbells softly clanging in the distance, and on the horizon was the forest of the Ardennes. It seemed impossible to think that 50 years ago 20,000 Americans had been killed defending this land.
Engels explained, ``For six months after the Allies landed at Normandy, they slowly advanced toward the German frontier. The Allies had concentrated their forces in that area, but left the entire north-south line along the Ardennes thinly defended. Who would guess Hitler would mount his last campaign here?''
Hitler's strategy was to hit the defense at its weakest point and plunge his juggernaut through the forests of the Ardennes, march onto Antwerp, and capture the Allies' main supply post. He wanted to cut off the Allied troops in Holland and Belgium, so they could not withdraw.
It all began one freezing December night when the snow-covered trees of the Ardennes started to tremble. Hidden beneath their tall branches were German panzer divisions concealed in white. At a signal, the attack began.
The small villages would never be the same. The town of Houffalize, caught in the crossfire, crashed into oblivion. ``For every house in our village, one American soldier was killed or wounded,'' Engels explained. Often they fought hand to hand. They couldn't have been braver if defending their own homes.''
He stopped near a small stone church, and we began walking across the wind-swept road. Engels pointed to three wreaths of pine and dried flowers leaning against the fence. ``I was 12 years old and a choirboy at this church. Late on Christmas Eve, the elder of the village said there would be a special service for the American troops.''
In the tiny church, he relived that night. ``It was so crowded, we could hardly walk down the aisle. Some soldiers still had bed sheets wrapped around them. Their dark uniforms against the snow made them easy targets for the Germans. The villagers had ripped off sheets, tablecloths, anything white, and given them to the Americans.
``We sang softly as we progressed down the aisle,'' he said. ``I remember feeling strange. Even though there was little light from the candles, there seemed to be a strange glow. Then, I looked up and saw the roof had been blown off, and the light I saw was the moon coming out from its cover of smoke and clouds.''
Our next stop was at a farmhouse where an elderly man came to the car. He talked as if the battle had been yesterday.
Elite German troops were finely trained, while the Allied troops, so outnumbered, were commandeered from soldiers trained as cooks, band members, typists, truck drivers. Their orders were to hold the line.
There were attacks and counterattacks, but the main campaign was to see which army could get to Bastogne first, because it was at the junction of several key highways. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, in a desperate race from France, brought his US 101st Airborne to Bastogne first - only to be surrounded by German troops. The Nazi commander sent word to surrender in two hours. McAuliffe's one-word answer, ``Nuts,'' went down in history. He never did surrender, but held until Generals Patton and Hodges arrived with their men.
It was sunset when we reached Bastogne, and I walked to that section of Belgian soil dedicated to the American soldiers who had died protecting it. Here, on the square, stood a tall flagpole where Old Glory waved most proudly.
Next, I went to the American Memorial on the ``Mardasson'' overlooking Bastogne. Several stories high, it is shaped like a hollow star. I traced my finger across the letters carved in stone: ``76,890 Americans, killed or wounded, in the largest battle an American Army ever fought.''
A few miles away, thousands of newly planted pine trees will one day form a living memorial. The fading rays of the sun cast a rosy glow on the tiny trees, as if to symbolize a promise of fulfillment to those who fought the long, cold road to freedom.
``Has your visit to Bastogne been meaningful?'' Engels asked as we started back.
``More than words can say.''