Marco and I have been working on some storys about the 551st Parachute Infantry Batallion..
The 551st PIB has a special place in our heart. Their heroic actions almost has been forgotten. together with some locals in the Ardennes, we ‘ve been tracking down the 551st traces.
Marco, as 551st specialist, has great contacts in America and these contacts are growing each year.
In Januari 2012 it appeared that the family of Robert Anderson (KIA at the hill Sol Me on january 3th 1945) would come over for the Henry Chapelle memorial services, at the end of may.
The meeting with the Andersons is one, we will never forget.
But, let’s not spoil the story. I proudly give the word to Bob Anderson, the nephew of Robert Anderson.
This is the story of Sgt. Robert Anderson, Company A, 551st Parachute Battalion, U.S. Army.
It does nothave a happy ending.
Sgt. Bob Anderson was my Uncle and namesake.
I would like to dedicate this vignette to the Anderson Family, Auntie June and Auntie Carol in particular as the surviving Anderson girls, and Joe Cicchinelli, a brother in arms of Sgt. Bob. And to all of our men and women who have served our country, past and present. A special thank you and acknowledgement to Marco Eradus, a Dutch policeman who manages Joe Cicchinelli’s web page, and has kept the memory of the 551st alive; Tjarco Schuurman, another young Dutchman who adopted Sgt. Bob’s grave; and the Koning family, Bob, Eveline, Tom and Ben of Belgium. They own the Bo Temps Bed and Breakfast at Grandmenil, near where many of the 551st fought and died in the Ardennes. They treated us like family when we stayed there over Memorial Day. And Sam and Frances Rich, our travelling buddies who are always willing to strike out on another adventure. All of these people have become our friends in the truest sense of the word.
My Grandparents were Swedish Immigrants, coming to this country of opportunity in 1898 and 1903. Carl and
Esther met along the way, somewhere in Denver, Colorado, got married in 1909, came out west, worked hard, and had six kids. The American Dream. Grandad Carl was a Master Carpenter, Grandmother Esther a master at keeping the family together.
Agnes (1909) was the first born, then Bob (1912). Not so soon were born Pearl (1918), Carl (1922, my father), June (1924) and Carol (1927). What a line-up! Carl and Esther were proponents of education, and dedication to the American way; work hard, get an education, do good for not only yourself and your family, but those less fortunate. (Maybe that’s why we’re mostly Democrats.)
Bob enlisted in the Paratroopers soon after Pearl Harbor in early 1942. He was one of the oldest guys in his outfit, but apparently didn’t have any trouble with the physical. I surmise that he joined for the thrill of jumping and being in an elite company, but also the extra $50 a month Paratroopers received. Sgt. Bob was a “rascal” by all accounts. The older, handsome brother with a sense of humor. By then he had been married for the third time, and had fathered, with Nora his first wife, a son Douglas in 1933. Our family lost track of Douglas through all these years, and at every family reunion we wondered whatever happened to him. The question was answered by Lee’s perseverance on the computer. More about Douglas later. Sgt. Bob was married to Kathleen when he went off to war. And more about Nora and Kathleen, also.
Family anecdotal history was that Bob was shot out of the air while jumping “somewhere near the Battle of the Bulge” in Belgium. Not only was this not true, but there was so much more to his story than any of us imagined.
We knew he was buried in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, and that my Father and Mother had journeyed there in 1987 to pay their respects. I also have all of his letters home to his older sister Agnes and my grand parents. These letters gave us a little insight into his training and deployments.
Lee and I had wanted to visit his grave in Belgium and pay our respects also, and finally committed to do so. We took a river trip in October with Sam and Frances through the Netherlands, Germany and Austria on rivers and canals the entire length. One of our stops was in Koblenz, Germany on the border of Belgium, and about a two hour drive from Henri-Chapelle. We planned our trip around visiting the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, and we had plenty of time at this stop.
We rented a car and drove to the cemetery on a beautiful fall day. There were no other visitors, but we knew from Army records where his grave was located. Almost 8,000 American are buried here. The grounds are immaculate, and the view of all those white crosses is quite moving. We went to the cemetery office and met Caroline Oliver, head of the cemetery staff there. She was pleased to see us, and took us to the grave. She brought some sand from the beaches of Normandy to fill in the engraved letters for better pictures. We had a few touching moments with Sgt. Bob, and offered him up a little Gentleman Jack, for he must have been thirsty after all those years.
Caroline Oliver keeps a file on each and every soldier buried there. She said that someone else had visited Sgt. Bob recently, which took us all by surprise. It turned out that it was Tjarco Schuurman, a young man from the Netherlands who had adopted Bob’s grave. The overseas cemeteries have a program where private citizens can adopt a grave, and they often try to contact family members. It’s great concept: it makes the memory of those soldiers come alive, and even the younger generations in France, Belgium, the Netherlands still honor our WWII veterans and the sacrifices made in the name of freedom. It was hard times for the peoples in countries occupied by the Nazis.
Caroline also told us about Joe Ciccinelli, a soldier who had served in 551st, and in the same company as Sgt. Bob, and might even know something about his time in the military. She gave us a website address to try when we got back to our ship.
It was a moving, intense experience that day. Not only do we honor our relative, but one can’t help but wonder about all the other families that lost loved ones buried there. Eight thousand gleaming whited crosses, and this is only one of many American Cemeteries in Europe, not to mention all those soldiers that were brought home.
When we got back, I immediately went to Joe’s web page and signed his guest book, telling him where we had been and our relation to Sgt. Bob. I wasn’t sure if we should expect a reply, as Joe is 89 and probably doesn’t spend much time on the computer. The next day, to our surprise and delight, we got a long email from Marco Eradus, a Dutch cop and the keeper of Joe Cicchinelli’s web page, and a 551st historian. He was absolutely thrilled to make contact, and knew much of the history of Sgt. Bob, and yes, Sgt. Bob and Joe were buddies and brothers in arms. What a breakthrough for us! Marco explained that he has made many trips to Arizona to see Joe, and had arranged for Joe to visit Europe many times. He has, in a sense, adopted the old Paratrooper and wants to see the memory of the 551st kept alive, and recognized as they should be. We have been friends ever since. And he put us in touch with Tjarco Schuurman, who has been looking for Sgt. Bob’s family for awhile. Tjarco was also excited by our contact, and he, too, has been a friend ever since.
Tjarco S. had been in contact with Nancy Laswell, Kathleens’ daughter and the wife of Sgt. Bob when he died. Nancy provided some valuable insight into Kathleen’s life. Kathleen passed away in 2010. Nancy told us that Kathleen was devastated by Bob’s death and told her daughter that it was the hardest thing that ever happened to her. She didn’t talk much about it other than being quite upset that he volunteered right after Pearl Harbor and was in the “special forces”. After the war Kathleen worked for the State Department in Germany, helping displaced citizens.
Kathleen’s second husband, and Nancy’s father, was also in Germany. They knew each other in college at Berkeley before the war and were reintroduced in Germany. Kathleen’s second husband was a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge and lost 2/3 of his company in January-February of 1945, many of whom are buried in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. Kathleen visited the cemetery on her own, and once with her husband.
The family moved from Texas to California in 1962. The movers apparently stole the hope chest that had family artifacts such as pictures, letters and important papers. And probably Sgt. Bob’s medals and war memorabilia.
When we got home in late October, we called Joe to say hello. Joe suffers the physical and mental wounds of war, and is not in the best of health. Marco suggested we visit Joe in Arizona, as he is in failing health. Lee and I decided to make a short trip to see the old warrior. In November we flew out and spent a day with Joe. He was happy to see us and recounted adventures and memories, many including Sgt. Bob. Joe told us how he saved Sgt. Bob’s life one day in Southern France.
Sgt. Bob was about to run into a small farm house occupied by three German soldiers. Joe grabbed him by the webbing of his belt and pulled him out of the doorway just as the building exploded. We didn’t learn until months later from Marco that it was Joe who caused the explosion by throwing a grenade in the building! He also told us about the liberation of La Turbie, a small town in the Nice, France, and fighting through the Maritime Alps, and eventually the Battle of the Bulge. There is a plaque dedicated to Joe, Sgt. Bob and three others of the 551st for liberating their town from the Germans.
Joe signed some copies of his book “GOYA” The Story of Joseph Cicchinelli, a 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion Paratrooper. It was an emotional goodbye. We still kept in touch with Joe, and think fondly of him.
In January of this year, Lee was searching through Ancestry.com, and came upon a family tree entry by Douglas Heyen, son of Robert E. Anderson and Nora Buxton! We had found our long lost Douglas after all these years. At every family reunion the Anderson Clan has had, the conversation always got around to “Whatever happened to Cousin Douglas?”. We found out that Douglas, now 79, is living in Banning, California, with his wife of 48 years, Maureen. They have three children and five grand children.We contacted him, and happily he responded.
Douglas grew up in Northern California, but relocated to Southern California in 1960. He had four half siblings, Douglas being the oldest. Nora passed away in 1997. From what I can gather, both his Step Dad and Nora were kind, loving parents. The last time he remembers seeing Sgt. Bob was in Oroville in 1940 or 1941. Douglas worked as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft before retiring. He is still an active runner and walker, and has run in many marathons, Douglas even completed the Western 100, a hundred mile run from Lake Tahoe to Sacramento in under 30 hours at the age of 59!
Lee and I met Douglas and Maureen at the end of March on a camping trip to Death Valley (south for us, north for them). It was an emotional reunion, but we were all happy to see each other. I could not help but notice how Douglas’s eyes reminded me of Auntie Agnes and Auntie Pearl. We told them of our plans to go to Henri-Chapelle in Belgium for Memorial Day ceremonies, and they thought they might just make it.
In the Footsteps of Robert Anderson
We flew to Brussels with our friends Sam and Frances in mid May, and headed for the Normandy coast of France. We had planned a three or four day stay at at an old farmhouse not far from the coast, a place that Marco had suggested. Great old farmhouse dating back to the 13th century, and occupied by the Germans, then the Americans, in WWII. We ended up staying 6 days, waiting for our lost luggage to catch up with us.
The Beaches of Normandy and the surrounding French countryside are absolutely beautiful, and the people we encountered were all more than gracious. So much history here. Utah and Omaha Beaches are well maintained and the WWII Museum and Visitor Center at Omaha really tell the story of the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944. Walking on those beaches, stepping into German artillery bunkers, and visiting the cemetery there really gave us a sense of what a terrible day that, and many following, must have been, and the magnitude of the sacrifice of the Americans, British and Canadians. We also visited a nearby German cemetery. The Visitor Center there is more focused on the mistakes of the past, and the need to learn the lessons of WWII. Not one mention of Hitler. Walking through that cemetery, we were struck by the ages of the soldiers buried there. Some as young as fifteen, some in their sixties. We also visited many famous battle grounds and towns inland from the beaches. There is a museum dedicated to Paratroopers in the small town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Most of the DDay paratroopers dropped into France on the night of June 5, and their job was to disrupt and confuse the Germans, cut telephone lines and take out inland artillery batteries. They were successful in some cases, not so much in others.
We spent a couple of tourist days in Versailles and Paris, and then on to Belgium and Bo Temps Bed and Breakfast in the small town of Grandmenil. Grandmenil is located in the Ardennes, and the area of some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the Battle of the Bulge. And not so far from where Sgt. Bob was killed.
Marco suggested we stay at Bo Temps Bed and Breakfast, as he and Bob and Eveline (the owners) are good friends. It turned out to be an excellent choice, very neat and tidy, and room for all. Lee and I, Sam and Frances arrived on Friday before Memorial Day and were warmly greeted by these people, including their young son Tom. The other son, Ben, is a bit shy at first. We arrived the same time as Cousin Laura Jean and Sarah, and Bruce and Cousin Cathy. Douglas and Maureen arrived earlier. Then Andrew arrived with his girlfriend Stephanie. Talk about an American invasion. Soon Marco arrived with his girlfriend Jessica and son Luuk, age 6. Then Tjarco and his Dad, Simone, and Ron and Lynn, friends of Marco’s. There were twenty three people there, including kids, We had an interpretive talk by young Tom, explaining in very good English, many or the WWII artifacts that were collected in the area.The Konings cooked us a wonderful meal, and we really did feel like one big family, sitting around the great table and making new friends.
Saturday was the day of ceremony at Henri-Chapelle, about a half hour drive from Bo Temps. We were given VIP parking and seating. Before the ceremony began, Marco and Tjarco both gave very emotional speeches at Sgt. Bob’s grave, reflecting on the sacrifices of our American soldiers and what it means to the Europeans. In many ways, they honor our Vets more fervently than we do here. There was a military jet fly over to start the ceremony, speeches by dignitaries in Dutch, French and English. The US Ambassador to Belgium was in attendance, and an Air Force General assigned to NATO troops gave a great speech. There were floral wreaths from many veteran organizations and European entities, marching bands and troops, both American and European.
And I don’t think this is an “official” holiday there. Maybe one thousand in attendance, and five American families were represented. Afterwards we visited Sgt. Bob’s grave again, and the U.S. Ambassador and the NATO General stopped by to say a few words to the family and friends. They presented Douglas with a medal and citation as the closest next of kin. We all came away feeling very good about the way Sgt. Bob was honored, and all of the American troops buried there. They have a saying in Belgium, France and the Netherlands: “We would be speaking German or Japanese right now if it weren’t for the sacrifices of the Americans and the Allies”. We could say the same thing in this country. Bob and Eveline cooked us another fine meal that night, a European style barbecue.
The next day Marco and Bob K. took us on a battlefield tour. We saw where Lt. Colonel Joerg Wood, the beloved 551st CO, was wounded and eventually died, and monuments and plaques dedicated to the 551st. We saw remnants of the German foxholes and machine gun nests, and the site were the 551st made one of the few fixed bayonet charges in WWII. The weather was sunny and bright, but it was not hard to imagine those fields and trees covered in two feet of snow that January in 1945.
The most stirring place we visited was the field where Sgt. Bob Anderson died. It’s private property, but we planted two small American flags and shared a moment of silence. It was especially emotional for Douglas and me.
The following is an account by Lt. Dick Durkee, the same officer who gave the “fix bayonets” order the next day at Dairmont: “On the 3rd of January the push started. As we crossed the line of departure the weather was cloudy and very cold and it looked like snow. Our first objective was Derriere Wester which we took and captured two snipers left there to delay us. We pushed forward and soon things were getting bad. I went forward and found the 3rd platoon halted by some more German snipers. I then took the BAR and with the aid of Sgt. Anderson, crawled around the right flank and killed one of the snipers and the other got away. Sgt. Anderson was killed then. He was a former coal miner (?) and a very popular man in the company. I asked him if he was hit bad and he raised his hand in sort of a salute that seemed to say “I’m OK”– and then he died”. In the snow of the Ardennes on his 33rd birthday.
The 551st has a long and sad history. The GOYAs, an acronym for “Get Off Your Ass!” were an eclectic group of individuals that eventually came together as formidable fighting unit under Lt. Colonel Joerg Wood. From their formation as an independent Paratrooper Battalion in 1942, training in the jungles of Panama, their Mascot Furlough, Camp Mackall (and the death of eight Paratroopers in an ill-conceived night jump), crossing by transport ship to Italy, the “Operation Dragoon” daylight jump into occupied southern France, the fight through the Maritime Alps, and finally the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge, the GOYA Birds were a seasoned and hardened group, and a force to be reckoned with. Suffice it to say that they were one of the hardest fighting, but least recognized battalions of WWII. The battalion strength was approximately 800 men at the start of the Battle of the Bulge (December 21, 1944). On January 8, when they were relieved after taking the town of Rochelinval against great odds, they numbered 14 officers and 96 enlisted men, 45 who were walking wounded. They finally received some long deserved recognition in February of 2001 when the 551st was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation from President Clinton.
We left Bo Temps with mixed emotions. We had made some wonderful friends, re-united with some of the family, discovered much about Sgt. Bob and the 551st and came away with a renewed appreciation for our American soldiers. We hope that Marco, Tjarco and the Konings will join us next year in Willow Creek for the Anderson Family reunion.
For more information on the 551st, go to Joe Cicchinelli’s web page. Other sources include “Messengers of the lost Battalion” by Gregory Orfalea, and if you can find it “The Left Corner of My Heart” by Dan Morgan.
There is a plaque in the small town of La Turbie near Nice, France. It honors Sgt. Bob Anderson and Cpl. Joe Ciccinelli along with three others. The plaque reads in French and English:
“The mistakes and sacrifices of the past must be remembered and avoided by our children. Those that gave their lives will be remembered for the heroes they were.”
So what does it all mean? Something different to all of us, I’m sure. To me it was a quest to fill in a chapter of the Anderson Family history in America. As the layers peeled away, and the story became clearer, I realized that this is only one story of tens of thousands of families, from many nations, that have suffered through the horrors of wars. And still do.
“We must never forget…..”.
Many thanks to Bob and Lee Anderson, Marco Eradus, Ron Langeveld and Tjarco Schuurman