For decades, my father-in-law, Charles Faulconer, did not talk about being wounded as one of the first Americans to cross the Our River between Luxembourg and Germany on February 7, 1945. This summer, fourteen Faulconers went with him to Europe and found the curve in the river that has been in his mind’s eye for sixty years.
More improbably, it’s almost certain we found the very fox hole he dug, sheltered in, and fought from in the last hours before he crossed the river.
In 1945, my then-future father-in-law was an 18-year old from a small Virginia train town who found himself on the very front lines of World War II’s European action. The German offensive that resulted in the Battle of the Bulge into Europe had been pushed back during the last months of 1944, and in February, 1945, the Allies were poised to cross into Germany proper, where they would ultimately fight their way through heavily protected German positions at the border, on their way to Berlin and defeat of Hitler and the Nazis.
During the trip, Charles told us what he remembered. His fox hole, he said, was a rectangular hole dug long ways — with the long sides parallel to the river and the high ledge above the river — contrary to how he’d been instructed to dig it and contrary to the orientation of the other fox holes in the line. He described the bombed out bridge and the bend in the flooded Our River in the village of Wallendorf below his position on a high Luxembourg Hill.
We toured The National Museum of Military History in Diekirch in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Roland Gaul, founder and curator of the museum, led us on a tour of WWII sites in Germany and Luxembourg. And then he took a look at the Google Map Charles had with him.
“I think we can find this,” he said.
The bus full of Faulconers (many of whom might never have been born had things turned out differently) traveled through the hillsides of Luxembourg and Germany on narrower and narrower roads. We rolled to a stop beside a lush cow pasture that did not look much different from Virginia cow pastures. The printout of the Google Map was consulted. There was nodding, discussion. We picked our way across an electric fence and began making our way up the long grassy grade. About two thirds of the way across the steepening field, PawPaw turned around, breathing hard, and looked back at the village of Wallendorf.
Turning back toward the hill, he said, “This is it. My fox hole was right up there.” He pointed further up.
We caught our breath and listened as he told us about the screaming mimis shrieking over head from the German side, landing somewhere amidst the Allied troops behind his fox hole. He pointed to where the German pillboxes and bunkers were down below, part of the heavily armed and fortified Siegfried Line at the German border.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to go the rest of the way up, and that was fine, he said. He was basically seeing from here what he had seen when he was 18; he was understanding where he’d been that night without sleep or comfort. The steepest part of the hill was between us and the fox hole. It would be too hard to climb.
And then my brother-in-law Brian said, “Dad, you’ve come this far, thousands of miles. You can make it up that hill. We can make it up that hill.”
And so Brian, my husband Rick, and my other brother-in-law Charlie began shepherding their 80-something year old mom and dad up the steep hill. They somehow got them and the rest of us through a barbed wire fence — a strand to go over and a strand to go under at one of the most difficult parts of the hill, which at this point, was more like a cliff. Tree roots, rocks, a bit of erosion – all easily obscured from view by the line of woods if you’re standing along the roadside below. One son occasionally pulling, one son supporting, one son sometimes pushing each of their amazingly agile and definitely determined parents up the last yards of ground and onto the wooded plateau at the peak of the hill.
And there it was. A sixty year old depression in the ground – not dug regulation, but dug longwise, parallel to the river below.
Something he’d not talked about but never shook. He was standing right there. We — his wife, sons, their wives, grandchildren — were standing there with him.
“About two o’clock in the morning, they moved us from here. We went around the edge of the town. The river was so flooded we had trouble crossing, but we went across in wooden boats into the edge of Wallendorf, Germany. I got hit. When I came to, I threw my gun and my ammo away from where I was lying, like they told us to. One of the times I came to, I thought I was a prisoner; the people carrying me were all speaking German.”
It turned out the people carrying him were German prisoners of war carrying wounded American servicemen to relative safety, under American orders.
We took our time picking and sliding our way back down the hill and made an easy crossing over the Our River into Wallendorf, Germany, where we examined the remains of those German pillboxes and bunkers.
This gave us some small insight about being part of the army that was up against the machine guns and determined German soldiers in these positions.
And then, young Nick, who worked out this summer back in Virginia with a professional soccer player who’s from Germany, got out his backpack size soccer ball. There, on the bridge over the Our River, he kicked his ball around, in the spot his grandfather remembered seeing from the hill above, when he was only five years older than his youngest grandson. He was under fire and only a few hours from being wounded, possibly by someone quartered in the bunker we were now examining with our flash lights and cameras.
Roland Gaul said of the battles that took place along the snowy Our River, “Today it’s so green and peaceful. Then it was white and hell.”