Seventy-one years after Lou “Louch” Baczewski drove his Sherman tank over the beaches of Normandy, spearheading the Allied offensive in World War II, his grandson hopped on a 1998 Trek hybrid to retrace each step of the first U.S. regiment to cross the German border.
“Here,” he pulled a glossy poster board from the booth and set it on the table, “this is the map of the 3rd Armored Division’s path across Europe.”
“This is the map they used?” I asked.
“Well, obviously it was made after the war. They didn’t know what their path would be. My grandfather gave me a copy. He was given one at the end of the war.”
For a moment we both stared at the map as it leaned against the wall, its sepia illustrations anachronistic next to the towering photos of sandwiches and iced coffee furnishing the Panera Bread café. A thin but vivid blue line sliced eastward through France, Belgium and Germany, denoting a 900-mile trek across Europe. Two circular insets magnified especially significant locations. Each was labeled with a pennant — all caps and with the teasing, curvy font representative of the era, the kind you’d find on a poster for a Cary Grant movie: PIERCING THE SIEGFRIED LINE and THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE.
“This is ultimately what they went through in nine, almost ten months of solid combat,” he continued, sweeping his hand the length of the blue line. “We used that as our roadmap.”
Lou Baczewski sat across from me, wearing cargo shorts and thin, wire-rimmed glasses. A history major at Eastern Illinois University where he specialized in research, Baczewski has worked as an electrician, carpenter and maintenance specialist. Currently, he is the head of Industrial Tech at Washington High School. I asked him if he was a big cyclist. He laughed. He is not. Still, the thought of biking 900 miles across Europe never fazed him. “I biked a little before the trip,” he said, “just to get used to it.”
Baczewski and his grandfather were close — Louch often took his son and grandson fishing in southern Illinois where the families lived — but the veteran was the proverbial man of few words: disciplined and understated.
“He was very modest, very humble, very stoic,” Baczewski said. “He would say, ‘I was a tanker’ or ‘I drove a tanker,’ but we knew very little about what he really experienced until I started digging more and more. He rarely volunteered anything.”
Baczewski’s interest in history propelled his curiosity about his grandfather’s war experience, but he didn’t want to press. His grandfather would talk about the war when and only if he wanted to. So, Baczewski began self-educating. He made trips to the University of Illinois to scour the archives of the 3rd Armored Division. He studied after action reports, photographs and unit histories. Baczewski’s efforts earned his grandfather’s respect; it was a long process, but eventually, Louch began to open up.
Then, in 2005, Baczewski was hospitalized with severe abdominal pain. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. It was advanced, and Baczewski nearly lost his life.
“I came really close to not making it,” he said, “and that gave me a realization that I had to tell this story, that it was something I could accomplish in my time — even if my time is brief. I could do this thing that would last and honor these men who fought and tell the story of what they went through.”
He determined to write a book as a tribute to the men who fought with his grandfather in the war.
As a tanker in the 3rd Armored Division, Louch had been part of Task Force Lovelady, a collection of military divisions leading the charge into Axis territory. The 3rd Armored Division was nicknamed “Spearhead” because of its position at the forefront of the offensive. It was responsible for destroying more German tanks and capturing more German soldiers than any other division during the war. When it broke through the Siegfried Line — the notorious, heavily fortified barrier dividing Germany and France — it became the first Allied unit to cross the German border in force. It fought in five major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge.
But gains were slow and devastating. Because of its role at the head of Allied offensives, the 3rd Armored Division lost more tanks than any other U.S. division. It landed on Omaha Beach with 232 tanks; by the end of the war, it had lost 1,300, a destruction rate of nearly 600 percent. In other words, from June 1944 to May 1945, the division had to replace or repair its entire tank force six times.
Louch served in D Company, a contingent of 152 men. Only 18 men survived the war and, of those, only six were tankers. He was lucky.
Baczewski finished the manuscript for his book, titled “Louch, A Simple Man’s True Story of War, Survival, Life and Legacy,” in 2012. He gave it to his grandfather to read.
“He just smiled at me and teared up and looked me in the eye and said, ‘I really like it. It was really good,’” Baczewski shook his head. “That’s all he said. ‘It was really good.’ He was such a modest man.”
The following year, Louch was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in May, four months before the book was published.
Baczewski and his grandfather had talked about his plans to retrace the Lovelady path. After Louch’s death, Baczewski decided it was time. A good friend who knew Louch’s story — and who happened to be a cyclist — suggested the idea of biking the route. Baczewski bit.
“He talked me into it. I started to bike more. I guess you could call it training. And then his father, also a World War II vet, got sick, and he had to bow out. So, it was just me. And I’m not even a cyclist.”
Jordan Heath, one of Baczewski’s former pupils and a film student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, volunteered to drive the support vehicle and help document the trip. Baczewski shipped his bike across the Atlantic Ocean and picked it up in Paris. He would pedal his way across Europe in the unlikeliest of time machines.
“This is what they called hedgerow country,” Baczewski explained, pulling up a photo of a narrow, sunken road flanked by giant earthen mounds, 10 feet high and covered in dense green foliage. Baczewski’s first stop after Normandy, the hedgerows looked bucolic and lush, serene even. In reality, they provided the backdrop for some of the most grisly trench warfare in the European campaign. “This is where they started fighting,” he continued. “These ancient sunken roads were built by the Romans. It was easy for the Germans to make fortifications. They fought hedge to hedge and field to field.”
After exploring the hedgerows, Baczewski biked east toward Germany. At every stop, Baczewski met locals — museum curators, amateur historians, even survivors of the war — who helped him reconstruct his grandfather’s story.
In a café in Pont Herbert, Baczewski met a man who had unearthed shells and grenade launchers from the 3rd Armored Division’s collision with Panzer Lehr, one of the most elite armored units in the German Wehrmacht. He even had photos of D Company.
In a pub in St. Pois, Baczewski met a British couple who happened to be historians with a country home just outside the town. As it turned out, their neighbor, Arline, was a retired translator. She offered to reconvene with Baczewski and Heath in Stavelot — a seven-hour drive — to translate their conversations and interviews with locals.
“On a good day, I could do seventy, eighty or ninety kilometers,” Baczewski said of pedaling the path. “The worst day of biking I did about fifty kilometers. It was so hilly, like small mountains. They weren’t high, maybe five thousand feet, but they keep going and going.” Changes in terrain and altitude meant varying elements, as well. Some days, the temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Others brought rain and near-freezing conditions.
But his biggest challenge on the bike came in the form of an ever-growing cast of supporters. In order to accommodate his new crewmembers, and to avoid forfeiting any subsequent opportunities because of time constraints, Baczewski made the decision to forego his bike in deference to the story. (“I ended up biking about six hundred kilometers and driving the rest,” he said.) It was the right call.
“We met a woman who had survived the massacre in Parfondruy,” he told me, explaining the carnage invoked by the Nazi’s SS Panzer division in what would be the first thrust of the Battle of the Bulge. “She was three years old when the SS killed everyone in the town. They lined them up and killed them. She was low to the ground, and they missed her when they killed her mother and brother.”
Then there was Nordhausen, Germany, where the 3rd Armored Division discovered and liberated the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. Throughout the course of the war, more than 60,000 people had been sent to Dora-Mittelbau. By the time Louch and his division arrived, only 250 remained.
As I sat with Baczewski, following the sequence of pictures on his laptop and in books with faded covers, I was struck by how personal each casualty had become. Too often, the magnitude of war dehumanizes the loss it precipitates. But here, as he biked the path of the 3rd Armored Division, it was startlingly human.
“Everybody had a story. People invited us into their homes,” Baczewski said. “They were all supportive of what we were doing and why.”
A month after he first landed on French soil, Baczewski abandoned his bike, locking it up in a parking lot near a bridge in Laon. He had a flight to catch in Paris, and his time was done. He gave the key to a curator at the museum in Maans.
But his grandfather’s story was far from over.
Baczewski continues to raise awareness and funds for the Gateway Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Jefferson Barracks Fisher House and the St. Louis-based H.E.R.O.E.S. Care, donating 10 percent of his book sales to the three charities. He is currently working on turning Louch’s story into a full-length documentary.
And as for the bike? “I don’t know if [the curator] ever went back to get it,” Baczewski said. “Maybe it’s still there.”
Learn More About Louch
Those wishing to learn more about Baczewski’s journey, his grandfather’s story and the organizations he supports can visit pathofthepast.com.
Author: Amy L. Marxkors is a contributor to Terrain magazine
Image: Jordan Heath