By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BASTOGNE, BELGIUM — The combat death of a 25-year-old Youngstown soldier 63 years ago, coupled with the work of a modern-day amateur historian in Belgium, has shed new light on part of World War II’s famous Battle of the Bulge.
It also brought new information about the soldier and welcome closure to a Youngstown-based family on the death of their loved one, Army Pvt. Thomas E.L. Gent. He was killed Dec. 25, 1944, in Belgium, during the Battle of Bastogne, a part of the Battle of the Bulge, officially the Battle of the Ardennes.
Fought in the heavily forested area of the Ardennes mountain range along the German/Belgian border, it was the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s American Forces Press Service, the battle began with a surprise German offensive Dec. 16, 1944, and continued until Jan. 16, 1945, when Allied forces had straightened the “bulge” that the German attack had created in the Allied defensive line.
The battle involved about 500,000 American soldiers, 600,000 German military personnel, and 55,000 British troops. Each side lost some 800 tanks, and the Germans lost 1,000 aircraft.
The Allied forces prevailed, but at great human cost, particularly to the United States and Germany.
About 19,000 American soldiers were killed, 47,500 were wounded, and an additional 23,000 were missing in action at the end of the battle. An estimated 100,000 German troops were killed, wounded or captured, and the British suffered 1,400 casualties, including 200 killed.
Among those 19,000 Americans killed was Gent.
Enter Pierre Godeau, 63 years later.
Godeau, 41, was born in Brussels, Belgium, and now lives in Vaux-sur-Sure about 10 miles south of Bastogne. His avocation is researching the history of the Battle of Bastogne, a major battle in and around the city of Bastogne.
The main roads in the Ardennes mountain range converged on the small town of Bastogne. The Allies wanted control of the crossroads of Bastogne to slow down the German advance; the Germans wanted control of the roads in order to resupply their troops.
A greater good
What began as a hobby 20 years ago for Godeau, when his parents gave him a metal detector for a birthday present, has led to a determination to preserve as many relics or artifacts of the Battle of Bastogne as possible.
With the help of local people who witnessed parts of the battle or who have collected relics themselves, Godeau found himself with a growing collection of war-related artifacts, including the skeleton of a German soldier.
In visiting the Battle of Bastogne museum, officially the Bastogne Historical Center, he saw that none of the artifacts was identified or had stories documenting them.
Godeau joined forces with a local man, Roland Delperdange, who owns a small private museum near the main Bastogne square. Godeau said Delperdange’s museum displays primarily items from the area’s agricultural and industrial past, but also has a small number of WWII artifacts from the Battle of Bastogne, and by extension, the Battle of the Bulge.
Placed in museum
Liking what he saw, Godeau has placed a large part of his collection in Delperdange’s museum.
Godeau said he learned of a possible site of more battle items at the end of a cold, windy day of searching for artifacts in the Chaumont area. An old man who lived in the area stopped, and they began to talk. The man directed Godeau toward a wooded lot some 800 yards away and suggested he look there, saying he had seen German and American bodies there after the battle.
A few days later, Godeau returned to the spot indicated by the old man and quickly found a number of U.S. Army artifacts, including an exploded canteen, a flattened canteen cup, shell splintered ammunition belt buttons, an M-1 Garland rifle scabbard, exploded and splintered M-1 rifle ammunition and a mangled spoon.
Moving branches and wood debris aside, he found more things — hooks and buckles from gas masks and an ammo bag.
An important moment
And then he saw something shining beneath the corrosion, with what looked to be etching on it.
And with that one item, an I.D. bracelet belonging to Gent, he found what he believes is the key to unlocking what had happened to Gent on the last day of his life; and to a part of the Battle of the Bulge.
On the top of the bracelet is engraved “Thomas E. Gent.” On the underside are the words “Your Wife Edith.”
Searching U.S. military records, Godeau found that Gent was from Youngstown; and in an effort to learn more about the fallen G.I. and his family, Godeau sent letters to all the Gents listed in the Youngstown telephone book.
As it happens, most of the Gents here are nephews of Thomas E. Gent. Donald Gent’s wife, Patricia, gave the shocking and welcome news of Godeau’s find to Gent’s daughter, Barbara Mondok of Austintown, and his son, Raymond Gent of Akron. Patricia received the letter in her husband’s place because he died in November 2007.
Mondok said the Gent family is grateful to Godeau for the information about how their father and uncle died, because they previously knew very little.
“It filled in a lot of gaps,” Raymond Gent said.
But, according to Godeau, it also filled in some gaps in information about the Battle of Bastogne.
Based on his research, Godeau said Gent was a replacement in an outfit that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Bastogne, but that was never mentioned anywhere in the history books.
Here is what Godeau believes happened to Gent and his unit.
Gent, part of the 318th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Blue Ridge Division, was engaged in mopping up the south edge of the Bulge in Luxembourg. His unit was among replacement troops that had been moved to the Luxembourg area on Dec. 16, the day the Battle of the Bulge began. Gent saw action for a few days in Luxembourg. Then, his unit, E Co., seized the village of Chaumont along with the 8th Tank Battalion on Christmas Eve.
The next day, E Co. was ordered to move 500 yards to the east of Chaumont. The area had already been cleared of Germans, but it gave the company a good starting point for a large-scale northwestern flanking attack above Chaumont and the next village, Grandru.
“Sometime during the organization of this attack, Gent was standing with a group of four other soldiers at the edge of an old oak tree woods, when an artillery shell landed less that five yards away from the group,” wrote Godeau.
Thomas Gent never came back home to tell his story.
But the discovery of his bracelet and the other artifacts filled in some of the mystery of what happened to Gent for his family, and also his unit’s important role in the Battle of Bastogne, Godeau said.