The Class of 1945
By John E. Dolibois, Former United States Ambassador to Luxembourg
Born in Luxembourg in 1918, John Dolibois immigrated to the United States in 1931, at the age of 13. After graduating from Miami University in 1942, he entered the army, which, due to his fluency in both French and German, assigned him to Military Intelligence (after a long spell in the Armored Force). Trained in strategic intelligence at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, he served as an interrogator in the European theater following the invasion of Normandy. Following V-E Day, Dolibois and a fellow interrogator, Malcolm Hilty, were ordered to Luxembourg City for the â€œperformance of a special mission.â€ It had been fourteen years since he had left Luxembourg, and he was now returning as an American soldier. Though he had hoped to spend his time in Luxembourg searching for lost family, Dolibois would quickly realize that his assignment was much greater than he could have ever imaginedâ€¦
As Mal Hilty and I steered our jeep across the French-Luxembourg border on a mild Sunday morning in May 1945, we were traveling the same route taken by General Lunsford E. Oliver and his Fifth Armored Division eight months earlier in their liberation of the Grand Duchy. The first American soldier to die on Luxembourg soil lost his life at an intersection we crossed right after we entered the little town of PÃ©tange.
The people of PÃ©tange later erected a monument to the unidentified American on the spot where he died. On the monument is inscribed â€œWe Will Never Forget.â€ On every September 9 since then, the people of the town gather at this monument to pay tribute to the American soldier who made the supreme sacrifice for their freedom. As Ambassador, I was privileged to participate in this moving ceremony each year.
We headed into the city on the Route de Longwy. We saw much evidence of earlier fightingâ€“shrapnel marks and bullet holes on the sides of houses and storefronts, piles of rubble and potholes in the streets, occasionally the remnants of a building that had been bombed. The houses still standing were drab, gray, depressing.
I remembered the Luxembourgersâ€™ love of tradition. I told Mal that we were just in time for a concert at the Place dâ€™Armes. Sure enough, we were. For several hundred years, the Place dâ€™Armes had been a parade ground. Itâ€™s a handsome square, lined with chestnut and linden trees. Row upon row of sidewalk cafÃ©s provide the beer, wine and food at tables under the trees and around a bandstand. When I was a boy, I joined my school friends on the Place dâ€™Armes after church. Weâ€™d walk arm in arm, sometimes in step to the band music, around the pavilion. We werenâ€™t there to hear the music, however. We came to watch the girls, who walked arm in arm in a counterclockwise direction. Thus, weâ€™d meet face to face. We boys would strut; the girls would giggle. But that was all behind me now.
Mal and I seated ourselves at a table, and I noticed for the first time how many GIs were in the square. At a table next to ours sat two black soldiers. The waiter came to their table. I heard one of them give his order: â€œZwÃ© Humpen BÃ©ier wann Iech gelifft.â€ I nearly fell off my chair. Here was the first Luxembourgish I heard in fourteen years. It came from a black American soldier. It hadnâ€™t taken long for our GIs to learn how to order â€œtwo steins of beer, please.â€
Upon hearing Luxembourgish spoken I was able to switch on my own speech processes. Words I thought I had long forgotten came to me as readily as the taste for Luxembourg brew.
Mal and I checked into the Alfa Hotel across from the railroad station. It was set aside for American officers. Immediately I made inquiries about my family, the name Dolibois. No success. There were no telephone directories, no information operators. And I didnâ€™t know until then that French-sounding names were â€œverbotenâ€ under the Nazi regime. I was told that Luxembourgers with foreign names were required to change them to German. Now that the Nazis had gone for good, the original names were returning.