They will never be forgotten...

Marraine de Guerre, a Godmother of War

     While doing research for some of the other pages on this website, I became aware of Regine Villers Achten, a Belgian woman who has adopted the memory and spirit of Frederick Villani, a soldier from Newark NJ who is buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. Her story of how one person can care enough to take personal responsibility for preserving the memory of a soldier who died in the cause of freedom is an example for all of us today, who enjoy the liberty so many fought and died for so long ago.-

Phil Cohen
 Camden NJ, June 2002

In Her Own Words-
Regine Villers Achten's Story

They will never be forgotten...

          I am 32 years old, married, and my job is to teach English to adults. I live near Liège, a city in Eastern Belgium and last year I became a “war godmother” to  PFC Frederick F. Villani, from New Jersey, 112th Infantry, 28th Division, KIA on November 8, 1944, buried in the American Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle.

         What is a “war godmother” ?  It is a person who decides to adopt the grave of an American soldier.  It is very simple and you don’t have to do much.  You don't have to pay for anything. All you are expected to do is to put fresh flowers on the grave once in a while, to come and visit your “godson” any time you want and to meditate at his grave.  This is not limited to women, as there are many godfathers as well.  My husband, for example, is also a “war godfather”, as I will explain later.  There are different reasons that can make you become a war godparent.  Let me explain mine.

First, you should know that pro-American parents raised me.  My father was 10 years old in 1944 when American soldiers liberated his village of the Geer valley.  He used to follow them everywhere and they always treated him with kindness, giving him chocolate and chewing gum, etc. So my father grew up full of admiration for these boys, and he gave to his daughters, my sister and I, an education full of love and respect for America and its people.  I could sing phonetically in English (thank you Frank, Elvis, Dean, Nat ...!) before I could speak French properly.  When I was 19, I got the opportunity to visit New York (3 days) and Denver, Colorado (3 weeks in a host family) and I liked very much what I saw there and the people I met.

I had already visited the American cemeteries of the Ardennes (in Neuville) and of Henri-Chapelle a number of times before I learned through my sister (also a war godmother, but in Neuville) about the possibility to "adopt a soldier".  When I heard about it, I called the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle, which is, to me, the most beautiful in the area, with its superb archangel watching over the graves, and I asked to adopt a soldier.  What they do there, is that they try to find a soldier whose name resembles yours : my husband's name sounding more Dutch than anything (Achten), we started from my maiden name "Villers" and we ended up with "Villani".  I was given the location of the grave and, later on, I received a beautiful certificate of adoption with all the information in their possession on my godson (rank, serial number, organization, decoration, date of death and state). Every year, I receive an invitation to the Memorial Day ceremony, which I never miss.  I feel so proud of my godson (as if he were my family) when I go to his grave, along with the parents and relatives of the other soldiers, to put some flowers and pray.

But I didn’t stop there.   I wanted to know more about Frederick and I especially wanted to find whether he had any relatives who were still alive.  I wanted them to know that there is someone here to take care of Frederick's grave and memory. I also wanted them to know that I would be happy and honored to guide them here in Belgium, if they ever wanted to come and visit Frederick.  For all these reasons, when I got the Internet last December, I started a search on line.  I visited hundreds of sites on WW2, sent hundreds of emails and met many wonderful people.

          By early February, I contacted a newspaper in Newark, NJ, where Fred lived before the war, to ask them to search their archives for Fred’s obituary.  One of the journalists, William Gordon, read my e-mail and decided that there was great material for a story.  He offered his help and said that if we found some relatives, there would be a story in the newspaper.

And William did a wonderful job; by March 5, he discovered Fred belonged to the US Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and that he was a metalworker in 1940.  He was listed “in US Army” in 1943.  By then, the Newark Public Library had found Fred’s obituary for me in the Newark Evening News of April 6, 1945 (5 months after his death!).  Thanks to this small article, I learned that Fred had been inducted in November 1940, and that he had three brothers and five sisters.  The article listed all the names and William Gordon successfully used this information, as you will read.

          The article also mentioned the school from which Fred graduated and a History teacher of that school searched the yearbooks to find Fred’s picture.  At last, I could see what he looked like : a handsome young man, with frank eyes, almost ready to smile as the picture was taken.  That was on March 12.

          Then, on March 14, William Gordon made a blind call to an Eva Speziale who appeared to be Fred’s grandniece!  She led William to her father Gregory Speziale (60), son of one of Fred’s sisters who had recently died, and to her grandaunt, Carmela Catone (82) from California, Fred’s only surviving sibling.  They were all very excited about the news.

          William gave me the addresses and the phone numbers (neither Carmela or Gregory have a computer) and we have been in contact several times since then.

          I especially correspond with Carmela because she kept all her brother’s letters and pictures, and she has got so many things to say about him.

          I learned from her that Fred was a real gentleman (but I never doubted that). He wanted to go to college but his parents couldn’t afford it.  He entered the 112th Infantry 28th “Keystone” Division Co M as a radio operator.  On November 8, 1944, he was laying communications wire in the Hurtgen Forest when he was struck in the back and killed instantly by shrapnel from a German artillery shell. “He didn’t deserve to die like this”, Carmela said...

         When Fred’s father learned that his son had been killed, his hair turned white overnight.  Carmela is the only one who came to Henri-Chapelle to visit her brother.  She came with a cousin in 1956 or 1957.  Her father asked her to bring back some soil from the grave, which she did.  The soil is buried with him, as he requested.

         On March 23, I received a phone call from Virginia Mayo, photographer at the Associated Press in Brussels.  She had been hired by the Star Ledger to take some pictures of me next to Fred’s grave, in order to illustrate William Gordon’s article.  We met the following day.

On April 8, I was making the news under the headline : “Perpetual Care : A Belgian woman lovingly tends the grave of a soldier from Newark”.  It is a long and beautiful article and William Gordon respected everything I had told him.  He didn’t change a word.

There have been many reactions to the story.  William Gordon received some phone calls and letters from readers, as well as positive responses from colleagues and superiors. 

            I received some beautiful letters and among them, one which particularly touched me.  It came from a retired Newark police officer who went to the same school as Fred, lived in the same neighborhood and had some friends by the name of Speziale.  Along with the letter, he joined a 25$ check to buy some flowers for Fred from “a fellow Down-Necker” (“Down-Neck” is the name given to Fred’s neighborhood by the people who were born there).

            Needless to say Fred received a wonderful bunch of flowers and we took some pictures when we brought it to Henri-Chapelle, in order to send them to this gentleman.

During my search, I came in contact with many people of the AWON.  One of them, Gloria from Montana, lost her father when she was 4 years old.  Private William George Gray was KIA near Harspelt, Germany in September 1944 and is buried in Henri-Chapelle.  She says : “I don’t remember him at all”.  Yet, she practically begged me to adopt his grave.  As she says, she may never have the opportunity to come to Belgium and she was anxious to find someone to take care of her dad.  Since I’m already a godmother to Frederick, my husband proposed to adopt William and so, here we are, proud godparents !

I will never forget all the wonderful and brave young men who decided one day to fight for freedom and who paid the ultimate price.  I also wish to thank all the veterans and all the soldiers on duty who are still fighting for world freedom as I am writing this.

As a Star Ledger reader said in a letter to William Gordon : “When Fred Villani posed for his East Side High School yearbook in 1933, a madman in Germany was beginning his trek toward world war. The picture of the handsome young soldier 10 years later was a painful reminder of the fate of this man and so many of his friends from Newark during World War II. These youngsters stood up to the strongest Axis forces and defeated them, often at a terrible price.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Regine Villers Achten. Not to be reprinted in any commercial format without her permission.

     Regine refers to the AWON in her story. The AWON is the American War Orphan Network, an organization of the many sons and daughters whose fathers never came back from service. Below is a link to their website.

AWON The American War Orphans Network

In Honored Glory!
World War II Honor Roll

Frederick F. Villani

Private First Class, U.S. Army


112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division

Entered the Service from: New Jersey
Died: November 8, 1944
Buried at: Plot A Row 18 Grave 38
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery
Henri-Chapelle, Belgium
Awards: Purple Heart

a WW2 Unit History
by Lt. Robert "Bud" Flynn
of the 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division


November Campaign Maps
 Allied Operations Against the West Wall (15 September- 7 November 1944)
 Allied Operations Against the West Wall (8 November- 15 December 1944)
Hq. Co., 2nd Bn., 112th Infantry

APO 28  US Army

6 December 1944
Subject: Unit History for November
To: S-1, 112th Infantry

The 1st finds us in the Hurtgen Forest about one half mile west of Germeter.  Everybody has plenty of cash in his pocket, being that yesterday was payday.  The irony is that there is no place to spend it.

On the 2nd, an attack was launched by the battalion at 9:30 against Vossenack, which proved successful, and the C. was established in the cellar of a house 300 yards east of the shell battered church.  PFC Robert Somerville was evacuated due to wounds caused by a smoke shell.  Sgt. Delay, T/Sgt. Harry G. Umbenhauer and PFC Andrew Pelech were wounded by antipersonnel mines.  Umbenhauer and Pelech both died from their wounds.  Delay was evacuated by the medics.  Cpl. William O'Brien was also wounded and evacuated.

The night of the 2nd was comparatively quiet, although the enemy resumed shelling the following morning.  All movement was kept at a minimum, due to the fact that we were disposed on a ridge which stood out like a sore thumb, and the enemy had excellent observation of the ridge, not only from the east, but from the high ground near Brandenberg and Bergstein to the northeast as well.

On the 3rd, PFC Willard Radcliffe was wounded and evacuated.

On the morning of the 4th, Pvts. Robert Oak and Donald Corcoran were killed by fragments of a mortar shell which landed near them.  In the evening the CP was moved to a more secure shelter about a hundred yards west of the church.

In the meantime, the shelling of our position by the enemy grows steadily more intense.  The only let-up is at night, and during the daylight hours, only when our planes are flying overhead.  Sometimes the enemy fires in spite of the planes.

The tempo of the enemy fire seemed to continually increase until the morning of the 6th, F and G companies, after having received the direct fire deflected  flak guns and 88s, not to mention the artillery and mortar fire, for three consecutive days and nights, withdrew.  As a consequence of this, we built up a line on both sides of the CP.  The A & P Platoon defended the north side of the road, and the Communications Platoon defended the south side.  Considering the intensity of the shellfire, an enemy counterattack seemed inevitable.

During the day the Battalion was strengthened by the 146th Combat Engineer Battalion, but not before the enemy had retaken the ground as far out as the church.  Pvt. Louis Rothstein was wounded and evacuated.

On the 7th Major General Cota came up to look over the situation, and he must have had his Guardian Angel along with him, for during his stay and for some minutes after he left, not a shell landed in the area.

On the night of the 8th, we were relived by the 2nd Battalion of the 109th Infantry, and what men were left withdrew to the draw west of Germeter, where we were picked up by trucks and taken to the rear.

 Robert F. Flynn
1st Lt. 112th Inf.
Unit History

"Huertgen Forest"
 "Entering the Huertgen Forest, thick with dark green fir trees seventy-five to a hundred feet tall, so densely interwoven that they obscure the sky, a man might experience for the first time the stifling embrace of  the kind of forests he had heard or read about in old German folk tales.  Like Hansel and Gretel, he might be inclined to drop things behind him to mark his path."  Charles MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 5.

 "Behind them and in front of them, surrounding them on all sides, they saw dark rain-saturated forest.  It had the feel of some nether region, foul with the offal of war.  The broken muddy trails were pock-marked and heavily cratered by shells and mines.  The splintered trees added to the sense of ruin.  Rotting, sodden garments clung to hideous scraps of green flesh that yet bore an obscene resemblance to the living.  tins, helmets, boots, tools, spent cartridges and old mines lay about in the dark and muddied confusion.  In it there seemed the breath of despair."  R. W. Thompson, The Battle for the Rhineland, 35.

"No one could have known it at the time, but this battalion was destined to fight here for almost a week and to lose most of its men in the process."  Charles MacDonald, The Battle of  the Huertgen Forest, 74.

 " . . . the 112th regiment advanced out of Germeter in a state of innocence most terrible to contemplate, and to meet the worst disaster on a divisional level to befall U.S. troops in the campaign in north-west Europe."  Thompson, The Battle for the Rhineland, 38.

 "The men moved close up behind the tanks, keeping in their tracks for safety against mines.  But safety was gone.  Upon the instant, as the barrage lifted, the enemy artillery came down upon the forward positions all along the line, accurate and deadly, killing and maiming men as they rose up from cover to go forward."  Thompson, 41.    

 "  . . . the 2nd battalion, 112th infantry, under Lt. Colonel Hatzfeld, had attacked with a company of tanks from Germeter to clear the Vossenack Ridge.  Assault guns from the Brandenberg-Bergstein Ridge knocked out several tanks, but the spinelike village of Vossenack was in hand by early afternoon.  As the tanks sought cover among the damaged buildings, the infantry began to dig in along the exposed northeastern nose of the ridge."  MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 96.    

"anti-personnel mines"
 "One man stepped on a booby trap, and a second man moving to pick him up stepped on another, touching off a chain of five anti-personnel mines.  Twelve men of the headquarters group were killed or wounded in the minefield within four hundred yards of the start."  Thompson, 42.    

"stood out like a sore thumb"
 "Uncomfortably aware that the enemy was watching from the Brandenberg-Bergstein Ridge, more than one man questioned why they had to defend from the open ground when they might accomplish the same thing  from concealed positions in the fringe of the village.  The only answer was that some planning officer poring over the map had drawn a goose egg with a grease pencil over the nose of the ridge.  Here the men were to go; here the men were to stay.  It was as rudimentary and obtuse as that."  MacDonald, The Battle of Huertgen Forest, 97.    

"more intense"
 " . . . the 2nd Battalion, bothered but little by enemy artillery the first night in its Vossenack Ridge positions, retained its defensive role.  The men noticed an increase in enemy shelling on 3 November, and those on the forward slopes of the exposed ridge discovered they could not move from their holes in daylight without drawing the fury of enemy artillery and mortars.  The ridge  became more and more pock-marked with the eruption of shells . . and the building housing the battalion command post was hit several  times.  Night brought intermittent relief from the shelling and became a period of almost frantic resupply."  Charles MacDonald, Three Battles, 285-6.

 " . . . Germans began concentrating mortar and artillery fire on successive individual foxholes, firing round after round at each one until they killed its inhabitants.  Then they shifted fire to the next hole and began the process over again.  It was a cold-blooded, nerve-shattering, and extremely effective device.  Defenders knew they would continue to face imminent death every hour they remained on the Vossenack Ridge."  Cecil B. Curry, Follow Me and Die: The Destruction of an American Division in WW2, 112.

 "The men of Company G had enough.  Panic-ridden, many of them suddenly grabbed wildly at their equipment and broke for the rear....  The disorderly retreat became a snowball, carrying with it any who chanced to be in its path.
 "The Company F commander, Lieutenant Kauffman, witnessed the retreat from his own command post in a building near the eastern edge of town and immediately realized it endangered the situation of his own unit....  Kauffman ordered his platoon leaders to withdraw their men to the line of buildings and there to hold.  The platoons began to withdraw in small groups, but there was no control.  The mushrooming effect of the retreat had spread too quickly, and the men could not be stopped when they reached the houses."  MacDonald, Three Battles, 344.

 " 'It was the saddest sight I have ever seen,' Lieutenant Condon of Company E reported later.  'Down the road from the east came men from F, G, and E Companies: pushing shoving, throwing away equipment, trying to outrace the artillery and each other, all in a frantic effort to escape.  They were all scared and excited.  Some were terror-stricken.  Some were helping the slightly wounded to run, and many of the badly-wounded, probably hit by artillery, were lying in the road where they fell, screaming for help.  It was a heart-breaking, demoralizing scene.' "  quoted in Whiting, The Battle of Hurtgen Forest, 83.     

"we built up a line"
 "Despite continuous withdrawals of individuals and small groups, by about 1030 a line had been established with approximately seventy men, who, fortunately, had  retained their weapons.  No one seemed to have any illusions about the solidity of such a defensive force, but at least for the time being the retreat had been blocked."  MacDonald, Three Battles, 353.   

"146th Combat Engineer Battalion"
 "The 1st Platoon on the right (south), using run and duck tactics which involved advancing in short rushes singly or in pairs, reached the crossroads and captured the church, taking eight or ten German prisoners at the cost of approximately five engineers wounded.  Other men of the platoon too a building on the right of the church.  By nightfall the company had established itself completely in everything west of the church."  MacDonald, Three Battles, 360.   

"Cota came up"
 "In the early afternoon, General Dutch Cota paid his only recorded visit to any divisional unit during the entire course of the Schmidt-Kommerscheidt-Vossenack action....  Cota remained in the Vossenack command post for half an hour.  Lieutenant Jim Condon remarked in surprise that during Cota's visit 'not a single artillery shell fell, the first such lull in six days.'  The respite did not last long.  'Five minutes after he left it started all over again.  One shell landed in the exact spot where his jeep had been parked.' "  Curry, Follow Me and Die, 199.   

"On the night of the 8th"
 "Surviving soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, began their withdrawal shortly after dark.  Even that was not easy.  Corporal Joe Philpot, of G Company, told how on the way back, 'A lucky barrage fell on us and 1st Lieutenant Julian Ferrier and 1st Sergeant Dale Todd were hit.  Medics took care of them.  The rest of us continued on back for what seemed like three miles through heavy mud up to our knees.'  Finally they were picked up by trucks and driven to a rear kitchen area, where they ate and pitched tents."  Curry, 200.

 "On Wednesday, November 8, in a drenching rainstorm, the haggard, battle-worn survivors of the 112th . . . began their withdrawal to the Kall.  As darkness fell, every man was ordered to strip down to absolute essentials.  All remaining equipment, including the three surviving tanks, was to be wrecked as silently as possible.  The Germans were not to know the Americans were retreating.
 "As the covering artillery began to thunder, the men slung greatcoats between poles to fashion litters and makeshift stretchers that would be used for taking the many wounded down the trail."  Whiting, 92.     

"Lt. Col. Hatzfeld"
 "Early in the afternoon [Nov. 6] Colonel Hatzfeld, while sitting hopelessly in the battalion command post, finally collapsed into tears.  So many hours had gone by without the arrival of reinforcements he had earlier asked for.  In a state of shock, Hatzfeld left for Germeter with the avowed intention of obtaining help.  It was, said his S-1 personnel officer, Captain Nesbitt, 'the last we ever saw of him.'
 "When he arrived at the Germeter aid station in hasty dismay, medics tagged Hatzfeld as a casualty with a sprained ankle.  According to Captain Pruden, Hatzfeld was of little assistance after the first two days of incessant artillery fire.  Overwhelmed with grief at the terrible ordeal visited upon his battalion, he suffered almost complete nervous collapse."  Curry, 168-9.    

"it is a lot more quiet here"
 "In late November, the veteran 28th Infantry Division, having lost five thousand men in bloody fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, replaced another division that had been resting in the Ardennes, taking over a 25 mile front along the Our River all the way south to the juncture of the Our and the Sure.  In effect, the 28th held nothing more than an outpost line."  MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets, 83,84.    

Honor Roll of the Fallen