April 28, 2014 3 Comments
Heading over to France and Belgium next week to update my World War I battlefield guidebook, “The Western Front in a Week: A Beginner’s Guide,” and release it as an ebook in time for the 100th anniversary of the first “war to end all wars.”
Will be sure to stop by the grave of my dearest friend from my days in Brussels, Jacques Garain.
Here’s the piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal Europe when he died.
It’s fitting that Jacques H. Garain was buried on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. He would have liked that. It was a day that marked the rebirth of freedom, for him and countless other Europeans.
Unfortunately, like the anniversary of the Normandy landing that began the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, Jacques’s death will go largely unnoticed. That’s a shame, because the generations that followed owe so much to him and his contemporaries. Moreover, the number of them who remain is fast dwindling and I fear that without them around to remind us, their deeds will soon be forgotten by many.
Jacques and I shared a special bond before we even met at the American Military Cemetery at Nouville-en-Condroz on Memorial Day 1997. As a boy, I didn’t grow up listening to tales of King Arthur or Huckleberry Finn. I grew up on the knee of my father, an amateur military historian, listening to tales of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and his Third Army’s historic 1944 drive across Europe.
General Patton played an even more crucial role in Jacques’s life. He was a schoolboy of 16 when the Nazis marched into Brussels in 1940. He fled to France ahead of the Blitzkreig, but quickly returned to risk life and limb as a courier for the Resistance. When the Allies liberated Belgium, Jacques joined the 11th Belgian Fusiliers and fought with Patton’s Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge and on into Germany. His service with Patton was clearly the highlight of his life, something any American would know within minutes of meeting him.
“I am a native of Belgium and a veteran of Patton’s Third Army,”Jacques proudly told a tour guide during a U.S. visit in 1999, the last time my family and I would ever see him.
He would tell you that he didn’t even know who Patton was when he was first assigned to the Third Army. Rather, he struck up a conversation with a wounded soldier and asked him what unit he was with. The soldier said, “I’m with Patton.”
“I thought this strange, such a low-ranking soldier who identifies himself by his commanding officer rather than his unit,” Jacques would often say. “This must be a very great guy, this Patton.”
Indeed, he was. But so too was Jacques Garain. He went on to become an authority on his former commanding officer and the war. Over time, he became a friend to every American he met and one of Belgium’s greatest ambassadors.
But clearly the most fascinating accounts came from Jacques’s own experiences. Hiding in a canal in France as German tanks rolled by during the early days of the war. Making his way without map or compass to a Belgian reorganization camp in the foothills of the Pyrennes. Being stopped and questioned by a Nazi captain while carrying important papers for the Resistance.
Characteristic of his generation, Jacques’s own tales were never imbued with an air of braggadocio, but rather unrelenting pride. As president de la fraternelle General Patton, the society of Belgian soldiers who fought with Patton, Jacques dedicated himself to reminding people of the sacrifices of World War II.
“We must never forget,” he would say about the sacrifice the Americans made for Belgium and the rest of Europe.
When I was preparing to leave Belgium in 1997, I met him for a farewell drink. As we said our goodbyes, I realized how very fortunate I’d been to meet this humble and gentle man who’d seen so much horror in his life. In one of the few emotional moments of our friendship, tears streaming down my face, the full impact of his service weighing upon me, I said, “I’ll make sure we never forget what you did. Thank you.”
“No, thank you, Mark Yost,” he said in his heavily accented English. “For without the American army we would all be slaves.”I would see Jacques Garain two more times in my life. In 1998 we attended the Patton Staff Reunion in Luxembourg and Belgium. Last summer, he came to the U.S. and spent a month with my family and me. Most importantly, we have pictures of Jacques with my then-one-year-old son, George Patton Yost, named after his grandfather and his favorite general.
Jacques Garain will not be forgotten. He became a touchstone for my family. He put a face and a personality on the grainy images from that bygone era, and in the end gave us a better understanding of the men who made the world free again.
It’s too bad that more Americans and young Europeans don’t get to know their own Jacques Garains. They’re out there. But their numbers are dwindling. So as you embark on your summer vacations, a word of advice. In between rushing to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, or touring the vineyards, take an hour to visit the local military cemetery. Whom you meet just might enrich your life and forever change your outlook on a fading piece of history.
Mr. Yost, a former editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe, is a Special Writer for Dow Jones Newswires in Detroit.