DEVENS — When Marcel Schmetz, of Belgium, was 11 years old, his family farm became a bivouac for American soldiers from Company D of the 26th Regiment, First Division. It was 1944.
After only three weeks, the 110 GIs were called away to fight in the now famous “Battle of the Bulge,” which was the last German offensive on the Western front during WWII. The allies turned it into a rout, but Americans suffered heavy casualties.
Marcel would always remember that short period as a time of plenty, thanks to abundant provisions the Americans brought with them. For four years, the boy and his family, like most people in his German-occupied Belgian village, had lived with deprivation and scarcity.
When they packed up to go, the soldiers were in a rush and had to travel light. They left many items behind, some of which ended up in the Remember Museum 39-45, which Marcel later established with his wife, Mathilde. The couple met in 1991 and she helped him gather and document those artifacts and other items, collected or created over a lifetime, that are now part of the museum’s collection.
On a recent visit to the United States, at a gathering of friends who seem like family to them by now, Mathilde shared another unforgettable story from her husband’s archive of wartime memories.
When he was 7 years old, Marcel witnessed an airplane crash near his home.
Recounting her husband’s childhood memory of the plane crash, Mathilde said German planes often passed over Belgium as they conducted bombing raids, headed for England from air bases in Germany.
“The skies were black with them,” she said. But this was an American plane with an American crew.
With German planes flying over Belgium that day, Aug. 17, 1943, school was dismissed early. On his way home, young Marcel saw a B-17 bomber explode over a field. The downed aircraft was still on fire when the boy and his father bicycled back to the spot next day.
It burned for two more days. They would later learn the crew’s fate. Four survived and were taken to POW camps; those killed in the crash were buried in a temporary cemetery at Eupen.
The pilot was Robert Knox, who called his plane “Picklepuss,” an affectionate knickname for his wife.
Along with the “Battle of the Bulge,” and the subsequent allied victory that freed Belgium from Nazi
Germany’s grip, Marcel’s memory of that tragic plane crash 77 years ago led to the mission he now shares with his wife — to remember and honor the American soldiers who helped save their country.
One of them was Athanace “Joe” Landry, of Shirley, a WWII “Battle of the Bulge” veteran.
Landry said he’s made more than one trip to Belgium over the post-war years and has stayed with the Schmetzes, who always welcome him warmly.
“We consider him our son,” Mathilde, adding that her husband ran an auto-
body shop before he retired “just like Joe.” Her husband makes plywood models for their museum that look like the real thing, including the B-17, she said. “He’s good with his hands.”
Visiting the United States several years ago, Marcel and Mathilde contacted the last surviving B-17 crew member, Ernie Warsaw. After speaking by phone, they decided, with help from the city of Plombieres, where the plane crashed, to create a monument for the crew at the Henry-Chapelle American Cemetery. It was dedicated on May 26, the day before Belgium’s “American Memorial Day.”
The Remember Museum 39-45, housed in a former stable on the Schmetz’s property, was dedicated on June 13, 1994, the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. It is also outfitted as a hostel that caters to a very special clientel: American veterans, who stay for free, Mathilde said. In recent years, they’ve hosted active-duty American soldiers recovering from combat wounds in a military hospital in Germany, she added.
In a web blog dated May 27, 2006, Jan Riddling writes about the memorial for the B-17 crew. The story includes Ernie Warsaw’s account of the Schmetz’s hospitality, which he and 84 others who attended the ceremony enjoyed for several days, meals and all. “It was the most spectacular experience,” he said. “Marcel and Mathilde are two cool and wonderful people.”
Warsaw’s praise still fits. Marcel and Mathilde, or “M&M” as she said they’re called, were all smiles and full of stories at a luncheon at the Devens Grill during their recent 10-day stay in the U.S. Sitting among about a dozen guests, with Landry on one side and her husband on the other, Mathilde Schmetz talked about the museum and their tour itinerary, including a visit to Battleship Cove and to see an exhibit of vintage aircraft the next day at the Keene, New Hampshire, airport (where they were interviewed by a reporter from the Concord Monitor.)
Noting who was who at the table, she pointed out a couple of near-centenarians chatting animatedly a few seats away: Belgian-born Chris DeMarken, age 99, and Dorothy (Taft) Barre, a former Army nurse who will turn 99 in July.
The common chord that stretches from Belgium to the U.S. and ties the folks at this lively gathering together dates back to World War II and “greatest generation,” American veterans like Landry for whom the Schmetzes say they’re forever grateful. Asked about their beloved museum’s future, Mathilde said they’ve discussed starting a foundation to keep it going after they are gone. But they don’t plan to quit any time soon.
“He’s 84, but we’re both healthy,” she said, launching into another round of reminiscences.