April 24, 2014

Topanga Days: Walking in Their Father’s Footsteps

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CASKEY FAMILY

Topanga Days: Walking in Their Father’s Footsteps

John Caskey, Jr. and his sister, Janet, at their father’s gravesite in Hamm, Lux. “I like to think he knew we were there with him after all this time.” The day before, Caskey walked the battlefield near Bastogne, Belgium, and “Dead Man’s Ridge,” where his father and so many others probably died. “We walked through tree lines where foxholes can still be seen,” Caskey said. “During the battlefield tour, I cannot say we found closure. And I cannot, in truth, say what it did, but we both knew we were closer to our father than we had ever been. And that was enough.”

As a post-Memorial Day update, The Topanga Messenger received the following account from John R. Caskey, Jr., of his and his sister Janet’s visit to the Belgian battlefield where their father, Second Lieutenant John R. Caskey, died. He was a former Topanga Boy Scout who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division.

He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. Topanga Cub Scout Pack 24 found his name on a Boy Scout memorial at Camp Josepho, did some research and brought his heirs to Topanga to honor Caskey, Sr., on Memorial Day, 2011, with a float in the Topanga Days Parade and at the Flag Raising ceremony. (See, “Keeping the Memory in Memorial Day,” Topanga Messenger, Vol 35, No 9, May 5, 2011.)

Caskey, Jr., who never met his father—he was born Oct. 3, 1944; his father was killed Jan. 7, 1945—determined to walk the battlefield where he died and visit his grave. With his sister, Janet, and a niece, Katherine, they flew to Belgium and the city of Bastogne, where they were met by members of the 101st Airborne Division Belgian Friendly Association that, for the last five years, has hosted veterans and their families who wish to walk the ground along “Dead Man’s Ridge,” where their loved ones died.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CASKEY FAMILY

Topanga Days: Walking in Their Father’s Footsteps

On the way to visit their father’s grave in Belgium, John Caskey, Jr. (second from right) and his sister, Janet (second from left), with their guide and host, Frederic Dehon (far left), and Caskey’s niece, Katherine (far right), went to Flamierge and the memorial to the 17th Airborne Division where they laid a wreath. An Honor Guard and re-enactors, dressed in uniforms of the 17th Airborne, stood at rigid attention during the ceremony. John Caskey, Sr., was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in January, 1945, three months after Caskey, Jr., was born in October, 1944.

John Caskey describes that emotional journey.


The trip went far beyond any expectations that Janet or I could have imagined! The folks in Belgium were hospitable, incredibly kind and filled with warmth. The trooper who was being honored in this year’s walk was Melvin Lagoon, a kind and gentle soul. Three of his four children were there and they were VIPs and rightfully so! Melvin walked the battlefield where his regiment, the 194th, fought. He spoke at a local school where all troopers speak when they are honored at the walk. It was wonderful to see him and his family treated with such respect and warmth.

As for the Caskeys, including my niece, Kathy, we were treated with the same warmth and kindness as Melvin and his family.

MARCH 22 (FRIDAY)

We arrived at Bastogne around 6 p.m. and met at the Le Carré pub in the center of Bastogne where Melvin was being officially welcomed. We sat alone until Melvin arrived and received the warmth of his many guests. I then recognized Laurent Oliver, the young man who was organizing the event, along with Gregory DeCock, the Association secretary. Once introductions were made we were presented to the entire gathering and received the same warm welcome as Melvin. After that, it was a pleasant evening spent just talking to everyone.

Before we left on the trip, Frederic Dehon contacted me from Belgium and offered to be our host/guide and transportation for the entire trip. Enough cannot be said about Frederic. He is a policeman, a young man whom, we, the Caskeys, have made a member of our family. He was so sincere and made us feel that we truly were VIPs.

MARCH 23 (SATURDAY)

Up at dawn, when Frederic took us to Flamierge where the memorial to the 17th Airborne Division rests. At 10 a.m., Melvin and we laid a wreath at the memorial. Speeches by Laurent and the Mayor of Bertgone followed while an Honor Guard and re-enactors, dressed in uniforms of the 17th Airborne, stood at rigid attention and in line.

We then went to a local town hall for more speeches and mingled with our hosts. A huge surprise for me was when Janet stood up and thanked everyone for their warmth and kindness. The entire event was so­ heartwarming for her.

Frederic provided our transportation and Laurent and his people took us to the battlefield where the 193rd fought and far too many died. We walked through tree lines where foxholes can still be seen. During the battlefield tour, I cannot say we found closure. And I cannot, in truth, say what it did, but we both knew we were closer to our father than we had ever been. And that was enough.

We then broke for lunch. At 4:30 p.m. there was a touching ceremony for Melvin at the Peace Wood where they unveiled a plaque with his name by a tree. They do this for the veterans who visit. It was a delight to see Melvin so surprised. His entire family was thrilled to see their father being so honored.

That evening we enjoyed a meal graciously hosted by all the re-enactors and supporting cast. It tickled us Caskeys to see these young Belgians asking for Melvin's autograph. Janet met a young Belgian who was part of the Honor Guard, while taking a smoke break out in the freezing cold and is now Facebook buddies with him.

When we left, we were given 17th Airborne T-shirts, a bottle of some Czech booze (I have no idea what it is or contains).

The most memorable gift—and I hate to select just one—was from a young Dutchman, who had hand-carved a wooden Dutch shoe, painted it, and had written the 17th Airborne Division on it. I was going to fight Janet for it, but she being the big, older sister, I quietly stepped aside.

Best of all, our hosts had a 17th Airborne Division/194th Glider Infantry banner made, had everyone sign it and presented it to Melvin, who, once again, was nicely surprised and deeply touched.

MARCH 24TH (SUNDAY)

At 8 a.m. there was another ceremony in the town of Champs where wreaths were laid and speeches were given and, again, it was done with warmth and sincerity.

Then the Walk began. There were all ages, among them a group of U.S. Army personnel, a smart looking retired Belgian officer, and a couple of families taking their youngsters in prams.

My faithful Frederic walked with me. Unfortunately, due to the weather conditions, I was the only one of the Caskeys foolish enough to go walking in near freezing conditions. I've read so much over the decades about The Battle of the Bulge it brought a strange sense of wonder to be walking in these fields where so many young men fought and died and where husbands, sons and brothers were to be laid to rest.

As a side note, Frederic walked ahead of me and started talking to a couple of young men in civilian clothing. The next thing I knew he introduced me as a VIP of the Walk. They were from Stars and Stripes, the American servicemen's newspaper. They wanted to do an on-camera interview then and there, so there I stood, in the middle of a famous battlefield, doing an interview in the bloody cold. At least I’ll have something to pass on to future generations. We then said our sad farewell to Frederic who had a wife and young daughter to go home to. It was so kind of him to volunteer three days of his time to initially act as our host, guide and driver. In the end he became like one of our own. The hardest part was driving over to Hamm, Lux, to visit our father’s grave. After six decades, the children of Second Lt. John R. Caskey were finally going to be with their Father.

There were three or four inches of snow on the ground where the site is on a gentle slope. His grave is on the top left. It was easy to get to him. There was little said. I like to think he knew we were there with him after all this time. We took our pictures, said our quiet thoughts to him, turned and left.

WE’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER

After all your [Topanga’s] kind efforts, I thought you would appreciate our travels and thoughts. The Belgian folks were kind, generous of their time, and as sincere as our good friends in the Topanga community. We'll be with you folks, as always, in spirit this upcoming Memorial Day. Say a heartfelt hello to those who remember us!