An author’s study of a World War II tank crash answers a local man’s questions about his father

Neatly seated around a porch table as the sun began to set Tuesday evening, Luxembourg native and author Christian Pettinger carefully revisited the circumstances which led him from his home in Fentange, Luxembourg, to the quaint Oak Hill Drive house where Jim and Kathy Russ live.

With co-author Roland Schumacher contributing to the effort, Pettinger researched and wrote “The Tank Accident in Hesperange, December 26, 1944,” a book that details a fatal accident that took three American lives during World War II.

Through their research, the authors located Jim Russ, whose father Cpl. James G. Russ was one of those killed in the tank accident.

Before 2006, Russ knew very little about the circumstances of his father’s death.

“We were just told he died in a tank accident,” Russ said, his voice cracking with emotion.

In 2006, his wife received a phone call, followed by continuous email correspondence with Pettinger.

Slowly, the story began to come together.

“We were trying desperately to confirm these were the men we were looking for,” Pettinger said with a thick French-German accent. “When we found Jim and Kathy, that was huge. And that led us to more answers.

“It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

Always a history buff, World War II’s famous Battle of the Bulge was naturally intriguing for Pettinger.

“I began reading books and collecting everything I could about this subject,” Pettinger said.

But it was the tank accident that was of particular interest to Pettinger.

“It happened on a bridge near my home,” Pettinger said. “I would drive across and just think, ‘Who were the men that died here?’ We just didn’t know.”

After years of research, the story came into focus.

The Battle of the Bulge was a German offensive campaign launched on the Allied Forces near the end of World War II. It was focused on military strongholds in Luxembourg, France and Belgium.

On Dec. 26, 1944, several tanks in the U.S. Army’s 10th Armory Division were leaving the battle in Luxembourg and going to France when one of the tanks went over a bridge and landed upside down in a river.

Killed in the accident were James Russ, Tec 4 Isidore M. Vasko and Cpl. Lewis W. Meade. Two men – William Keeler and Oscar Davis – survived the accident.

In October of 2013, shortly after Pettinger and Schumacher released their findings, Fentange erected a memorial statue honoring the men.

Kathy and Jim Russ were on hand to meet the authors and cut the ribbon for the memorial tribute.

“To finally know what happened and where it happened meant everything,” Russ said.

Kathy Russ was surprised by how much support the United States still receives in that area of the world.

“Everywhere you go in Fentange, when you see their flag, our flag is usually waving right next to it,” she said. “It is really amazing.”

She said the research and book finally provided the closure her husband had been in search of since his father died.

“We have learned so much and we’ve made so many lifetime friends,” she said.

Recently, she opened her home to Pettinger, who spent two weeks in the United States, including several days in Champion. During his stay, Warren Mayor Doug Franklin commemorated his visit with a resolution from the city.

“In Luxembourg, we have many monuments devoted to the troops who were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. For us, it is important to remember these men who came over and sacrificed their life and health to bring us freedom again,” Pettinger said from the Russ family home.

“Even for those of us that didn’t live through the war, to remember them is extremely important. Whether they died in an accident like this one or in combat, it doesn’t matter. They sacrificed everything so that we are able to live in freedom today.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the American forces suffered 89,500 casualties in the Battle of the Bulge including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 missing.

The war created an unbreakable link between the people of Luxembourg and the United States. That link is highlighted by the relationship formed between Pettinger and the Russ family.

“A lot of times it is easy to focus on the things that separate us, but this is something that should unite us forever … To be grateful to these men who came over and liberated us,” Pettinger said.

anewman@tribtoday.com