As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, it seems appropriate to highlight a museum that is not well-known, but worth the visit: the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne, Belgium. In June 2019, I was fortunate enough to be on a WWII trip through Europe that included many historic sites and museums. While each are vital in telling the stories and honoring those who fought for the Allied Expeditionary Force, this museum in particular stood out for me.
Americans are very proud of their efforts during the Second World War. Over the last few decades as we slowly lose our WWII veterans, many organizations have focused their efforts on capturing their stories. These organizations work to preserve their legacy and history, but one thing is always missing: America never experienced WWII the way Europe, Africa, and the Pacific did.
Bastogne, like Normandy and a few other locations, still honors the efforts of the Allies in very prominent ways. Bastogne is a lovely, quaint town in south central Belgium with low lying buildings, many rebuilt since the village was ravaged in the German offensive to retake liberated Belgium in December 1944, an event known to Americans as the Battle of the Bulge.
The town of Bastogne itself is filled with history relating to the Siege of Bastogne and the American effort to prevent its fall to the Germans. 1944 was a watershed year for the Allies. The U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne division made its combat debut in the Allied invasion of Normandy that June. It participated in the offensive in Holland in the renowned Bridge Too Far effort to end the war by Christmas. In December of 1944, the 101st found itself making history once again during the Siege of Bastogne. In a last-ditch effort by Hitler to try and reverse the war in the west, the German Army launched a massive offensive into the Ardennes forest of Southern Belgium hoping to shatter the American Army. A major crossroads village, Bastogne lay in the center of this offensive and the 101st, along with elements of the U.S. Army’s 10th Armored division, was assigned to prevent its fall. Becoming entirely encircled by the advancing German Army, the 101st Airborne and the 10th Armored withstood the German siege from December 19th, 1944 into January of 1945 and prevented its capture.
The building in which the museum exists was built in 1936 and was first used as the officer’s mess hall of the Belgian Army. In WWII, before Belgium’s liberation, it was used by the German Army during their occupation of Bastogne. The stone building is gorgeous, and you really feel like you are about to walk into history. In the foyer is a small window where you purchase your tickets, roughly 10 Euros for adults, and 6 Euros for ages 7-12. At the front desk you may buy t-shirts, hoodies, pull overs and the like, all of which commemorate the 101st Airborne, along with books on its campaigns in WWII. You are then met with four paths: right, upstairs, downstairs, or left. I recommend starting from the right.
As you start your visit, the first floor is filled with cabinets full of 101st Airborne history and artifacts, telling visitors the story of the Siege of Bastogne. Adorning the cabinets are a plethora of German and American artifacts, including uniforms, maps, weapons, and other battle accoutrements of nearly every kind, all of which are original, having been excavated or recovered from the battle itself. The displays also include some charming stories, such as that of Vincent Speranza who is known for drinking beer out of his helmet. It is a legacy that left its mark in Bastogne, and you can leave the museum with a porcelain helmet mug purchased from their giftshop!
As you make your way upstairs, the visitor encounters recreations of what Bastogne faced. Looking above you on the staircase of the second floor is a 101st paratrooper parachuting from the ceiling. Display cases are filled with fully uniformed mannequins of American paratroopers sitting in the elements of the Ardennes Forrest, in offices planning military tactics, posing with various weapons, along with civilians in the town of Bastogne. All these scenes give you a real sense of Bastogne in the winter of 1944.
The basement may seem like a place to skip if you are in hurry, but the basement is the best part of the museum. However, as a word of caution, the basement is more graphic. The space is dedicated to medical treatments practiced in the war and recreating the civilian experience. Some of the rooms are lined with medical paraphernalia. More artifacts found after the battle, such as instruments, bullets, and other equipment, are also displayed here. You get chills when you realize that these were items once used on people. Other rooms show graphic and realistic scenes of combat itself, and those who were wounded and being tended to, reminding you of the realities of war. In another room, you can crouch with soldiers as they shoot from a small window. The impression of death and killing is more graphic here than would likely ever be found in any military museum in the U.S. The visual experiences are supplanted by the sounds of war being played in the background.
Finally, there is one room that is daunting in the ways it provides perhaps the most realistic civilian experience in war: it is the bomb shelter. I do not recommend this room if you suffer from PTSD. Small groups go in a few people at a time. When you enter, the door closes, and you are left in a poorly lit room, just like the ones civilians of Bastogne would have often found themselves in. The room soon reverberates with nearby bomb explosions and the acoustics of destruction. For the few minutes you are in there, completely safe, one can truly grasp what it was like for civilians during WWII.
As an American, this is an element I could never fully understand until I visited WWII sites throughout Europe. The 101st Airborne museum not only honors and showcases the history behind the brave men of the 101st, but it also transports you to Bastogne in 1944 in a way which provides you with insight that few museums do. I take pride knowing that the 101st and many other American and Allied troops are remembered worldwide. Bastogne also holds anniversary events every year in which many veterans return during this time and have visited this museum. You will see various photos of their previous visits.
If you ever yourself in Bastogne, or are planning a WWII trip throughout Europe, make sure to add the 101st Airborne Museum to your itinerary.
You can find more information and hours of operation here: http://www.101airbornemuseumbastogne.com/
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Larisa Moran is passionate about engaging more people with history. You’ll find her on Instagram (@History_Dame1776) where she delivers “history in under a minute,” and as a volunteer organizer at History Camps around the country. She’s also a regional editor for The History List. Larisa has a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University.