The table is carefully laid out for the feast with the best china and silverware. All over the town, the smell of roasting turkeys is in the air. The family gathers around the fireplace and tells stories about past Thanksgiving Day dinners as the chill in the air signals the approach of winter.
This could be the scene in any home in America on this day, but this is not America. It’s the village of Munshausen in Luxembourg of all places. Believe it or not, this traditional Thanksgiving scene is repeated all over Europe in places like Northern Germany, Holland, and France.
This is one story of how the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving came to be celebrated in pockets all over Western Europe.
A Safe Haven Amid the Chaos
The Allied advance had liberated tiny Luxembourg from the Nazis in September 1944. While it remained near the front due to the presence of the Siegfried Line of German defenses just across the Our River, Luxembourg became a rear area rest, recreation, and recuperation zone for U.S. military units that were coming off the line. There the troops would be able to sleep indoors until noon, heal from their wounds, take showers, eat three square meals a day, and put some weight back on. The units would be issued fresh uniforms and new equipment, and decimated formations would begin filling up with replacements just arriving from the States. There were even outdoor theaters that played movies in advance of them being shown back in the States. Westerns were very popular.
On November 20, the 28th Infantry Division arrived in Munshausen after the desperate and bloody fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. The 28th was known as the Keystone Division, comprised of Pennsylvanian National Guard units, which wore on their shoulder the “Keystone” the official symbol of Pennsylvania. To the Germans who fought against them in the Hurtgen Forest, their insignia came to be known as “The Bloody Bucket.”
Arriving in the village, the troops were billeted in tents and even the homes of the local villagers who were grateful to be released from the nightmare of more than four years of German occupation, and had welcomed the Americans as their liberators.
There was a considerable language barrier to be overcome. Though Luxembourg is a tiny country, its citizens speak three languages as the country had been passed back and forth between France in Germany over many centuries of conflict. In parts of the country, they speak German and in others French. There is also an official language known as Luxembourgish that is supposed to be common to all.
American GIs overcame this barrier in a variety of ways including body language and a few interpreters in the units who spoke either French or German. But everyone understood the language of trade. American cigarettes, chocolate, chewing gum, and canned C and D Rations became the shared language between American troops and the people of Munshausen. The civilians found the American food in these cans to be a pretty exotic mix of corned beef hash, spam, and even spaghetti with meatballs. Food and cigarettes were the local currency in the rest areas. They would get your laundry done, pay your modest rent in a local home, and most importantly, get you a bottle of “Quetsch” a high proof liquor distilled from plumbs.
Soon the local Luxembourgers could be found swinging bats or fielding ground balls on makeshift baseball diamonds while American GIs were kicking soccer balls around. Big band and jazz music, which the Nazis had banned, was heard on Armed Forces Radio and gramophones. The Luxembourg rest areas quickly became a sort of GI paradise for units coming off the line.
Early on that Thanksgiving Day in 1944, a long line of Army trucks rumbled into Munshausen. The villagers who had experienced years of privation and rationing watched in wonder as boxes and boxes of food were offloaded, including dozens of live turkeys in wire cages. For the rest of the day, the town was filled with the smell of turkeys being fried or baked in field kitchens. The villagers were mystified as they hadn’t seen a turkey before (gooses were used for festive occasions, instead).
At mealtime, the troops lined up at the mess tents. They had their mess kits piled high with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner that included turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and dinner rolls.
And in the tradition of that first Thanksgiving held by settlers of Plymouth Colony, the GIs shared their meal with some of the locals they had befriended.
An End to the Calm
The relative peace and calm in this rear area would explode in violent carnage again just a few weeks later on December 16, when the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
On that cold morning, German armored units would roll into the country driving on Antwerp; they cut Luxembourg in half. About 60 percent of Luxembourg would be utterly destroyed in the ensuing fighting that resulted in some 75,000 U.S. casualties in just six weeks. Munshausen itself would see Panzers rumbling on its streets and beleaguered GIs fighting the Germans in house-to-house fighting and from behind barricades of overturned trucks.
The Tradition Continues
In the city of Diekirch in Luxembourg stands the National Museum of Military History. One of its exhibits is a full-size diorama of that Thanksgiving Day dinner held in Munshausen in 1944. More than 75 years later, that dinner seems to have come to symbolize the Allied liberation of the country. Even today, Luxembourgians stage full reenactments of the event wearing WWII American Army uniforms.
Today, in homes all over Luxembourg, they will celebrate Thanksgiving as we do in America, with a Butterball turkey they bought in the local grocery store and all the trimmings, even cranberry sauce, which took hold rather slowly we are given to understand. They will drink their local brew, wine, or booze and they will likely watch a soccer game rather than the Lions or the Cowboys on the gridiron. They will probably pray as well for the American GIs who gave their lives to free their country from fascism.
The Thanksgiving Day meal in the military has always been a major morale booster for our servicemembers all over the world in far-flung bases and ships at sea. It’s a reminder of home to those serving far away in the cause of defending our country.
Wherever you are, however you are celebrating today, all of us here at SOFREP, wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!