Retired Army Col. Douglas Dillard undertook a special mission in August when he traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
The 59-year-old Bowie resident, who served during the decisive World War II invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, as a sergeant in the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, was seeking permission from the Belgian government to mount a plaque at Noirefontaine, the site his comrades died defending.
With the help of several fellow infantrymen and the American Battlefields and Monument Commission, Dillard was given the go-ahead for a bronze plaque, on a church near Noirefontaine, that commemorates the initial attack.
Dillard, now president of Case Management Co. in Annapolis, said Gen. James Gavin, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division -- of which the Parachute Infantry Battalion was a unit -- had ordered the 793-man battalion to infiltrate the northwest corner of the German-held Bulge territory to take prisoners and determine the German offensive capability.
After marching four miles through knee-deep snow and in single file to avoid stepping on mines, the battalion came upon a German garrison, took six prisoners and killed 200 to 300 soldiers.
"We noted that the Germans were ill equipped for an all-out assault," Dillard recalled. "Their troops were all bunched up together, which is an indication that they were short of hand-to-hand combat."
Dan Morgan, who served in the unit until mid-1944, and who later compiled interviews of men in the 551st for a book, said, "The action was totally impressive. Here were thousands of German troops at the Bulge, and the 551st was able to infiltrate it, kill about 300 Germans, take prisoners and manage to only lose three of their men."
But in the ensuing days and nights, terror reigned upon the 551st. Between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3 the battalion was whittled down to 500 and had to be reinforced with men from other units. And between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, the battalion was almost wiped out. In the end, only 96 soldiers and 14 officers remained, many of them wounded.
Morgan called the January operation a "suicide mission."
In his book, "The Left Corner of My Heart," Morgan recalls that the attack across German lines at Rahier, Belgium, was impeded by a lack of artillery fire.
"The 551st was supposed to be aided by about 1,260 rounds of artillery fire from another unit," Morgan said. "But at the last minute the unit was pulled out and the artillery shells never came."
Morgan said he named his book for the men of the 551st, "who, without cover or camouflage and during daylight, reached into the corner of their hearts for the courage to fight in what they knew was a suicide mission." Dillard said he and about a few comrades will present the plaque to the Belgian government Feb. 16.
"For years I have been saddened for the men because they never received proper recognition," Dillard said. "Now, their time has finally come."