Story by Louise Endres Moore
Certain gifts are valued beyond their price; very few are “priceless.”
During Christmas ’44 of World War II, the 35th Infantry Division passed through Metz, France. Fifty-seven years later, I used an address from the back page of a tiny military booklet to find a soldier – a beloved friend of my father. When I spoke with Ben Lane on the phone for the very first time, he said of my father, “I loved him like a brother. I was with him on Christmas Eve 1944.”
I knew the story Ben was about to share. It was one of the few we had been told about my father’s tour of duty, and it involved a rose-gold ring that said in French, “More than yesterday. Less than tomorrow.”
In 1944, the frigid Battle of the Bulge had erupted to the north, and the 35th Division was being rushed to the Bastogne area. The troops stopped in Metz to bathe for the first time in two months, receive packages from home, pick up replacements and have the luxury of sleeping on a cot rather than in a foxhole. By General Patton’s personal order, the 35th was allowed to stay a day longer in Metz for Christmas dinner because the troops had been on the front line continuously for the previous 162 days.
While in Metz, the French manager of the bathhouse confided that he had nothing to give his children for Christmas, so Ben Lane and my father, Alfred Endres, quietly delivered their army rations of fruit and chocolate to the manager’s home on Christmas Eve. They left quickly so as not to be seen by the children. Ben said, “The manager started to cry and said he would see us when we came back from the fighting.”
Fortunately, both soldiers survived the Battle of the Bulge and returned to Metz, where Charles DeWald, the manager of the bathhouse, was able to reciprocate a gift for each of the soldiers. My dad received the ring, while Ben was gifted a medallion.
Finding Ben after 57 years was a delight, but my hope of reuniting the two aging friends collapsed because of health concerns. My wish had been to find something joyful about the war because my father never found anything good about it. I hoped for him to be at peace and possibly to feel even a bit of pride. I had an idea.
My dad had told me the manager of the bathhouse in Metz traveled to the United States to swim. I wondered, how many international swimmers could there be in 1944?
Online I stumbled upon the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida. There were no records from 1944, but I was kindly given the email for the Fédération Française de Natation. From there, my request was forwarded to a man who would speak with elders in Metz.
Eight days after I had initiated my search, an email arrived: “I think I have found ‘our man.’” With translations from English to French and French to English, I connected with one of the children who remembered the ring from 1944. He wrote to the soldiers, “I truly thank you for your kindness.” To honor the soldiers’ gifts during the bleak wartime Christmas, a basket of fruit and chocolate was sent to each of the soldiers.
During all my research to trace my father’s tour of duty, finding one of the children from 1944 was probably the best Christmas gift I ever gave to my father. Indeed, it may have been priceless.
Before she married her Door County born-and-bred husband 38 years ago, Moore had visited Door County, and the Peninsula Pulse still arrives each week at her home in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Writing is a rather large departure from decades of teaching math at the technical-college level.