BASTOGNE, Belgium – It wasn’t the thunderous booms of shelling or the acrid smell of smoke that filled the air on Saturday. It was the click of horses’ hooves on paved roads in a celebratory parade. The smell of churros coming from the Christmas Market on Rue Joseph-Renquin, the main stretch in downtown.
And, it was bursts of fireworks – harmless pink slivers in the night sky.
Thousands from around the world descended on Bastogne, a town of almost 50,000, to celebrate the country’s liberation.
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, a bloody altercation with Hitler's Nazi war machine that began Dec. 16, 1944, and stretched into late January 1945. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front, but it was a costly one: An estimated 19,000 American soldiers died during the five-week battle.
The weekend's scenes were a distant cry from the snow-covered conflict that erupted in the Ardennes Forest three-quarters of a century ago as Germans, supported by powerful tanks and armored carriers, raced to stretch the advancing Allied front lines. A "bulge" was created in the American lines – but the units held and repelled the Nazi counterattack.
Within weeks, the Allies finished their sprint across Europe and took the fight to Hitler's backyard.
This weekend, each glass storefront in the quaint downtown row was painted with a scene of the war: Pictures of tanks, gun barrels and kissing sailors all looked out on streets full of reenactors dressed as American soldiers and Belgians waving paper American flags.
Before crowds gathered downtown to see a parade of veterans and active U.S. and Belgian military, a delegation led by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi hosted veterans for a meal at Le Jardin des Anémones outside town.
There, she presented Louisville, Kentucky, veteran George Merz, 94, and others with commemorative coins to mark the occasion.
Pelosi later joined Belgian and U.S. dignitaries atop a second-story balcony along Rue Joseph-Renquin and threw English walnuts – three to a pack – to a frantic crowd reaching into the air, at one point to the tune of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)."
The nuts-throwing ceremony carried on the legacy of U.S. Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe. He is famous for his one-word reply of, "Nuts!" to a German commander who demanded the Americans surrender Bastogne, an essential piece of geography that kept Nazi forces from taking Antwerp and fueling their powerful Panzer tanks.
Frank Riesinger, 93, an Army Air Corps retired corporal from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said McAulliffe’s "Nuts!" sent a simple message to the Germans: "Basically, go to hell.”
Each year, when the nuts are thrown into the streets of downtown Bastogne, it’s a way of “carrying out McAuliffe’s answer to the Germans,” Riesinger said.
Riesinger, who trained to become a navigator for B29 bombers, attended the Nuts Weekend in Belgium as part of the Liberty Jump Team, a group that funds and escorts veterans back to their battlefields.
Riesinger never made it to Belgium but had been itching to get to Europe back then.
“Everybody wanted to be in the fight," he said. "But I missed out.”
The war ended before he was deployed.
When the war ended, Riesinger celebrated in Tulsa. He remembered the ticker tape came down from the sky like snow.
"People started screaming," he said. "Horns started honking.”
It’s a day he’s never forgotten.
Bastogne, though not his battlefield, has a special place in his heart. Repeatedly over the weekend, Riesinger said, “I don’t deserve to be here.”
He attended to honor the ones who fought, the ones who died and those who survived. He’s collected newspaper headlines from Tulsa for all but 22 days of the war. He’s studied every inch of the stories on the Bulge, read the lists of casualties again and again.
He’s looked at pictures of Bastogne’s devastation during the German siege, how the brightly lit cafes and shops were blackened by shelling and missing the top halves.
Today, it's rebuilt and thriving.
“I’m so thrilled," Riesinger said. "I’m so proud of what they did here.”
Like Merz, he sees his visit as a way to pay homage to what is and remind himself what would be if the Americans had not held the town: “We’d all be speaking German,” he said.
Merz, who was stationed in the main square of town (now Place Général Mc Auliffe) as an MP in the 818th Military Police Company during the siege, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star, said his return to the battlefield was special.
“I feel like I’m a part of these people,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come home.”
Throughout the day of the parade, though, the waving children couldn’t shake his thoughts of war.
Saturday, Merz said his mind kept wandering back to all the men who died in combat, of seeing soldiers’ bodies pulled from the cold ground and stretched out to be placed in mattress bags before burial.
“It makes me feel proud that I was there and very, very proud of what I did,” Merz said. “I was not one that pulled the trigger to shoot the Germans, but I was there on the intersection to get the traffic in to do their job, what they did well.
"They were the ones that did it. They are the ones that are still laying over (here). A lot of them. And I really feel that I’m honoring them as well when I go in there to represent the American solider. And I just appreciate the fact that I had that opportunity to do it.”
He told a crowd gathered Sunday at the Bastogne War Museum that his hope is the world would never see another global conflict like World War II and never again use nuclear bombs.
"This is the human race," he said. "And we need to take care of what we have. ... Let's never again have the same situation we had back then.
"And if we ever do, we need to stick together as a whole unit."
Follow Sarah Ladd on Twitter: @ladd_sarah
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Battle of the Bulge: WWII vets travel to Belgium for 75th anniversary