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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 16, 2009
The Battle of the Bulge forges friendship across borders and generations
By Anne Hayden
ALTAMONT Sixty-four years after World War II veteran Alan Atwell returned to the United States, he sat in a little café in Altamont, visiting with a Belgian man who routinely impersonates him during period re-enactments.
After Atwell’s division, the 28th Military Police Platoon, disbanded in 1945, he returned home and put the memories of battle behind him; he worked for the New York Telephone Company until 1985, and started a family. Three years ago, he was shocked to receive a letter from Belgium, penned by Alex Vossen, who wanted Atwell’s testimony of a military policeman’s responsibilities and experiences during the war.
The result of that letter is an international, intergenerational friendship. Earlier this month, Atwell and Vossen visited the Home Front Café on Main Street in Altamont, where they related the stories of their lives, and explained how they were intertwined.
Vossen, 39, said he has always had a fascination with World War II. As a child, his favorite books and movies, including The Longest Day and Battle of the Bulge, revolved around the topic.
“It’s so moving; it is something that stays in your heart and mind,” said Vossen. Seven years ago, he made the decision to get involved in World War II re-enacting, and joined the Belgian Military Historic Re-Enactment Group. Vossen, who trains and works with dogs in the Brussels Police Department, was naturally drawn toward the role of an MP, he said.
“In order to be credible, you need to know the story,” according to Vossen. He began researching, and contacted the Pennsylvania National Guard Museum. Atwell had donated some of his belongings to that museum, and Vossen was given the contact information for the veteran, thought to be the last surviving member of his platoon.
What Vossen learned from Atwell was that the MPs were in charge of directing traffic, and moving and looking after prisoners during the war. Atwell talked of being taught to recognize German soldiers posing as Americans so they could enter the American camps.
“You would have to question people, about something only an American would know,” he said. “There was no one password, but maybe you’d ask the name of a player on a baseball team, or what state a certain city was in,” said Atwell.
During the battle of the Hurtgen Forest, Atwell hurt his feet he’s not sure if it was from frostbite, or trench foot and spent over two weeks in a convalescent hospital. He recalled lying in a row of cots, with his feet sticking out from under the sheets.
“If they turned black, they were amputated,” he said. “There was no treatment to be had.”
His feet did not turn black. Three days before the Battle of the Bulge, Atwell was released from the field hospital and headed toward Bastogne. After surviving the infamous battle, considered the most bloody of the war, Atwell went home on leave, and was in New York when the announcement came that the war was over.
Vossen soaked up all of the information, and the memories, that Atwell could offer. Following Vossen’s 2006 letter, the two men developed a relationship on the Internet, e-mailing back and forth, almost daily, in an extended question and answer session. In addition to e-mail conversation, Atwell sent Vossen personal memorabilia from the war, including two pairs of uniform pants and his dress jacket, which Vossen used to create a special display in his home.
In 2008, Vossen extended an invitation to Atwell, asking him to visit Belgium during one of the re-enactments. The trip also fell during Liberation Day, a national holiday in Belgium.
“We were very proud to receive Mr. Allan P. Atwell here in Belgium. It was a real pleasure to shake hands with him,” Vossen said, speaking for his re-enactment unit. The friends spent the week touring parts of Belgium and Germany, including Bastogne, Luxemburg, and the Hurtgen Forest.
“It was particularly emotional for me to re-visit the Hurtgen Forest, where I got frostbite,” said Atwell. “It was humbling to know that literally hundreds of people had died where I was standing.”
The men were fascinated with the remaining foxholes in the forest. “It was amazing to discover the old foxholes. Some you could still make out if it was a machine gun position, or even the biggest command post,” Vossen said. The landscape had changed enough so that it wasn’t possible to locate Atwell’s exact foxhole from 63 years ago, but they knew they were close.
During his final days in Belgium, Atwell got to participate in a re-enactment with Vossen and his unit. He even drove Vossen’s Jeep, with 28th MP Platoon markings, the last mile into camp.
“It must have been a strange experience after all these years for Allan to drive in a Jeep from the 28th MP Platoon, and to arrive in a camp he knew six decades ago,” said Vossen.
The price of liberty
The re-enactors, which included people portraying German soldiers, Belgian soldiers, and innocent citizens, performed a sequence of scenes, leading from an unoccupied Belgium, to the Nazi repression, and finally to liberation.
“All these terrible scenes were done on purpose, to shock the public and make them realize what German occupation meant during those days,” according to Vossen, who said a big part of re-enacting is the historical education it provides. “They realized that the price to get back our liberty was very high, and many young men coming from overseas paid it.”
After Atwell returned home, he extended an invitation to Vossen, asking him to come and tour the United States. It was an invitation Vossen eagerly accepted, and it led to the two sitting and reminiscing in Cindy Pollard’s Home Front Café. Vossen, along with his wife and son, are on a three-week tour during which they will visit Albany, New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Vossen was honored to be able to spend time with Atwell in the United States. “Some guys of our re-enactment group would love to be in a place like this,” he said.
While unexpected, the close friendship the two men formed has left both feeling privileged.
“I am treated like a hero, when really I am a lowly private, lucky to survive,” said Atwell.