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"In the afternoon, we could hear the rumble of tanks heading our way and soon we were called upon to fire at the tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division and the 116th Panzer Division that were headed directly at us. .<TH>.<TH>. I can assure you that we were getting mighty concerned."

— Robert S. Reid in his World War II memoir "Never tell an infantryman to have a nice day."

This column started with a "by the way."

As in, by the way, "I am leaving on Tuesday for Belgium to participate in a number of activities commemorating the 65th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge."

(I'm often amazed at how many people I encounter in Sonoma County have such remarkable "by the way" stories.)

This one came during an e-mail exchange I had last week with Robert S. Reid, an 85-year-old retired dentist from Santa Rosa. We were talking about health care when he tossed out that tidbit.

A few days later, I was sitting in his living room in Oakmont, flipping through old photos.

One shows him with his 81 mm mortar. Another shows him standing with a machine gun at the Siegfried Line in Germany. Another shows a unit leader, Staff Sgt. Virgil York, changing socks in a snow-filled scene in Samree, Belgium. "He died shortly after that was taken," Reid says.

Reid is telling his stories again today somewhere in Marche or La Roche-en-Ardenne, Belgium. These are the villages he and the rest of his division helped defend or liberate during the massive German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.

The difference is that Reid doesn't have the support of his band of brothers this time. He is the sole representative of the 84th Infantry Division — the "Railsplitter" division.

Although he planned this trip with an old Army pal, "my friend got ill, had a triple bypass and had to cancel." Rather than call the trip off, his son, Steve Reid of Discovery Bay, decided to join him.

"I feel extremely honored that I will be the only member of the 84th Division to participate in all of these festivities," Reid said.

There's good reason why the people in small villages of Belgium have an appreciation for Americans like Reid. They haven't forgotten what they did for them.

When the Germans began their offensive in the Ardennes Forest on Dec. 16, 1944, the 84th Division was in Germany and was quickly redirected. Confusion reigned all over the countryside as the Germans made their fierce push toward Antwerp in hopes of gaining supplies and fuel and turning the tide of the war.

On Dec. 21, Reid's mortar platoon was moved to a position outside Marche in hopes of slowing the German offensive from whichever direction it came. But it was a tall order. They had little support. By the afternoon of that cold day — part of the coldest winter on record — they could see the tanks approaching.

They fired mortars from 1,700 yards then, as the tanks got closer, at 1,000 yards. A platoon jeep was parked behind a hedgerow nearby. The men were ready to jump in at any moment. "I don't think that anyone knew where we would go, but none of us relished the thought of becoming a prisoner," Reid wrote in his memoir.

Then an amazing thing happened. The Germans stopped.

Reid and his men at first thought that maybe their mortar hits were a cause, but it's suspected that the Germans, as happened in many areas around the Bulge, simply ran out of fuel.

"Little did they realize .<TH>.<TH>. they had broken through our lines, and we had at that time no artillery or tanks to support us," Reid wrote. "We were just plain lucky."

This would be the farthest point that the Germans would advance to the northwest. But the fighting came at a huge cost. During the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans suffered more than 100,000 casualties; the Americans approximately 81,000.

Today, Reid and his son, Steve, are in La Roche, presiding over the unveiling of a plaque honoring the 84th Division. Reid's old uniform already hangs in a museum there. On Tuesday, they will be joining the mayor of Soy as a new street is named "Chemin de la 84e Division Americaine" (Path of the 84th Division.)

Other receptions, public appearances and meetings with the press are planned as well.

Along the way, Reid also will be visiting with an old friend from Belgium whom he met during the war. The two have maintained a friendship that was the subject of at least one newspaper story in Belgium and some speculation as to whether their ongoing correspondence qualified them for the Guinness Book of World Records.

I talked to Steve Reid by phone on Friday, and it sounds as if his father's arrival in Belgium this week was about as chaotic as it was in December 1944. They got lost and nearly wound up in France. "We ended up finding La Roche," Steve Reid said, "but I have no idea how we got here."

But there's on confusion about their reception. His father has a hat with the 84th Division's "Railsplitters" insignia on it. It's a well known emblem in that part of the world. One resident of Marche has it painted on the side of his house.

"Any time Dad wears it, people will just stop him on the street and ask if he was here during the war," Reid said. "At breakfast this morning, one gentleman stood up and thanked him for what he did over here."

As in, by the way, Americans may not know your story, but we do.

<CF102>(To read more about Reid's journey and his stories of World War II, I will be updating the progress of their trip on our "Inside Opinion" blog on pressdemocrat.com. Just go to pressdemocrat.com/insider)

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.