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MY HERO: Veteran Visits Bastogne on 100th Birthday of Father Who Fought There

AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime sent former Navy aviator to Belgium, where residents still honor 101st Airborne

spinner image a man standing in the woods next to a giant hole from a battle
Rex Schildhouse in Bastogne, Belgium.
AurÈlien Lacroix/Wish of a Lifetime
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Getty Images/AARP

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Bill Schildhouse served with the 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles. He fought in the Pacific, jumped into Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and was wounded in Alsace, France.

He saw combat during the Battle of Bastogne and always wanted to return to the Belgian city to thank those who helped him there.

Alas, Bill was never able to make that return journey before he died at just 62 in 1984. On what would have been Bill’s 100th birthday, however, Wish of a Lifetime, an AARP charitable affiliate, was able to send Bill’s son Rex Schildhouse to Bastogne.

Bill didn’t talk much about the war — but there was one exception. “Whenever Bastogne came up, it was going to be a long conversation,” Rex told AARP Veteran Report.

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Late in 1944, the 101st Airborne was sent to defend the crossroads city after an unexpected attack. In their haste to get there, they arrived without proper food and clothing — and it was the coldest winter in decades. Soon the Americans were encircled by the Germans, who outnumbered them five to one.

Several thousand Bastogne residents were surrounded too. Rex remembers his dad’s often-repeated praise: “The citizens of Bastogne were cold, and they brought us blankets and clothes. They were hungry, and they brought us food. They would take men inside their own homes when they were injured, putting them on their beds, and they would sleep on the floor.”

The Americans held on for six harrowing days — and the 101st sustained almost 2,000 casualties — before they were relieved by Gen. Patton’s Third Army.

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Bill Schildhouse, during his service in Alaska, circa 1943.
Courtesy Schildhouse

After the war, Bill settled in Chicago, worked as a machinist and raised a large family.

Inspired by his father’s service, Rex joined the U.S. Marines and transferred to the U.S. Navy to become an aviator. He spent 19 years in uniform, including flying off the USS Midway and USS Nimitz, and was stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. He retired in 1994 as a lieutenant commander.

Rex and Joyce Schildhouse spent six days in Belgium. They toured the battlefield, the Bastogne War Museum and the 101st Airborne Museum.

“We got to see, from a distance, where they [his father’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment] manned the perimeter on the main line of resistance,” said Rex. Treading the same ground as Rex’s father had 78 years earlier helped the couple bond with Bill.

“I connected with my dad,” said Rex. “My wife connected with my dad a whole lot more than ever before.”

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At one of the museums, they met a woman whose parents were in the siege and might have been among the residents who Bill saw and admired. “That just drove it home ever so much more,” Rex said. “To turn around and tell someone like that, ‘Thanks.’”

Rex was moved to see that tributes to the 101st Airborne are ubiquitous in Bastogne. Many houses fly American flags. Many businesses have names that honor the Screaming Eagles, and stores are closed for the U.S. holidays of Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. “Our stores don’t close here!” Rex pointed out.

During his visit, Rex took every opportunity to explain why he was there and to thank people on behalf of Bill. It was reciprocated.

spinner image a man standing in a battlefield from world war two
Rex Schildhouse during his visit to Bastogne, Belgium.
AurÈlien Lacroix/Wish of a Lifetime

“When you tell the people of Bastogne that you’re there because your dad was there, they thank you. The people that are 18 or 19 years old serving you in the stores, they say thanks. And their face lights up,” said Rex.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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Learn more about how Wish of a Lifetime honors our military heroes and families by granting them lifechanging experiences.

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