The Illinois National Guard commemorated the 78th anniversary of the rescue of Belgium King Leopold III during World War II with Honorary Consul Patrick Van Nevel of the Kingdom of Belgium as part of events commemorating the Illinois National Guard’s 300th birthday in Springfield May 6.
Rain tampered the planned outdoor events and forced the ceremony to take cover inside Union Station, near the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library.
Van Nevel said that most Europeans, especially Belgians, love American Veterans and Soldiers and are thankful for their role in liberating them in World War II and helping ensure their post-war security. “The gratefulness of most European people and their appreciation is indescribable,” he said. “The bond between our nations will continue as we work together.”
Illinois National Guard Command Historian Adriana Schroeder shared the story of the king’s rescue during the ceremony.
“It was early May 1945. The 106th Cavalry had slogged through the battlefields of Europe for 11 months, serving as scouts,” she said. “Their mission was to locate the enemy and engage them just long enough to find out their strength and position and report that information back to their higher headquarters so that battle plans could be made.”
Schroeder said the 106th was held in high regard and became known for conducting actions that held off the Germans long enough so that the Army could shift forces around to meet the threat and save the allied supply lines.
“Officers of the 106th were performing reconnaissance missions through a couple of small towns and several local residents kept telling them over and over that King Leopold III of Belgium and his family were being held against their will by German Nazi Soldiers,” she said. “The American decided to take action. The small group of officers began to devise a plan.
The group studied maps and decided that they already had their ticket into the enemy compound. Just the day before, a Soldier had stolen back a Mercedes from the German foreign minister after the Germans had stolen it from a local family.”
As they approached the German-held compound, one of the 106th officers, Lt. Bob Moore, told his fellow Illinoisians, “If anybody is thinking about changing their mind it’s too late.” The group of seven officers only had their pistols.
“However, seconds later, the ruse worked, and the Germans waved in what they thought was a German staff car,” she said. “Eventually, they made their way through the building and were greeted by the king’s assistant. Much to the relief of the officers, the 17 Germans guarding the king feared the advancing Russians and were more than happy to surrender to the Americans.”
Schroeder said the rescue had moved the Americans past the lines agreed to by the U.S. and Russia.
“In Lieutenant Moore’s words, …’when you rescue a king, word gets around quickly and the Russian leaders were not happy,’” she said.
Schroeder said King Leopold III later presented the seven officers with medals and addressed them at an awards ceremony.
“To the officers and men of the 106th Cavalry Group, the 7th of May 1945 is a date which I shall never forget, for it was on that day that my family and I had the good fortune to be delivered from the enemy by your unit,” the king said. “I am especially happy to be able to express here my profound gratitude to you for this act. I cannot doubt but that this association will reaffirm the bonds which unite Belgium and the great American nation.”
Maj. Gen. Rodney Boyd, Assistant Adjutant General – Army and Commander of the Illinois Army National Guard, told the crowd it is an honor to commemorate the shared history of the Illinois National Guard and the Kingdom of Belgium.
“It is an honor to celebrate the rescue of King Leopold III during World War II, and the shared history between Belgium and the Illinois National Guard,” said Boyd. “Although this event happened almost 80 years ago, it is still relevant today. It is part of the bond between Belgium and the U.S. military.”
Boyd said the partnership between the United States’ and Belgium’s armed forces has a long history.
“This partnership has proven to be an incredibly beneficial relationship for both sides,” he said.
The friendship between the United States and Belgium dates to World War I, Boyd said.
“Our friendship is strong and enduring. Our two nations have been allies since World War I, and since then, we have worked closely together on many important issues,” he said. “Today, our partnership continues to be strong, and nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of defense.”
The United States and Belgium have a long-standing military relationship that spans back decades. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. military has maintained a significant presence in Belgium, primarily in support of NATO's efforts to safeguard Europe's security.
“Just last week Southern Strike wrapped up at the Combat Readiness Training Center in Mississippi,” said Boyd. “There more than 200 Belgian military personnel, from the land, air and medical components trained side-by-side with National Guard forces.”
Boyd said the U.S. military has also played a crucial role in supporting Belgium's efforts to combat terrorism.
“After the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016, the United States immediately offered assistance to Belgian authorities,” he said. “The U.S. military provided critical intelligence and support to the Belgian authorities, and we continue to work together to prevent future attacks.
Boyd said the typical citizen of Illinois may not realize the importance of our international partnership with Belgium, but members of the U.S. armed forces do.
Those of us who have trained, worked and fought with our friends and allies know the importance of working together to ensure freedom and democracy for our nations and to promote liberty throughout the world,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to work together to ensure the safety and prosperity of our respective nations and the world at large.”
Col. Michael Eastridge, former commander of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the higher headquarters of the 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry Regiment, said the unit is proud of the history and of the skill, courage and daring it took to pull off this rescue from behind enemy lines.
“We don’t know what would have happened to the king from either his Nazi captors or from the Russians if it were not for our Soldiers from Illinois,” Eastridge said. “We do know that he continued his reign after the war and whenever he visited the United States he made a point of meeting with his Illinois National Guard rescuers. We also know that this rescue helped to bring close allies even closer.
Eastridge said it’s important for the Illinois National Guard to teach this history to our young Soldiers and Airmen. “They need to understand what the bravery and initiative of just a few troops led by a young lieutenant can have on the direction of world history,” he said
Eastridge said there are a lot of differences in the equipment between today’s Cavalry Soldier and that of a Cavalry Soldier in World War II.
“The equipment and weaponry we have today is stronger, faster, more accurate, and more lethal,” he said. “Our communications equipment is more secure and more reliable and more interoperable for joint operations.”
He said there’s not much difference between today’s individual Cavalry Soldier and the Cavalry Soldier in World War II.
“Today’s Soldier generally has a higher education level and there are women in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry today,” he said. “However, there is the same daring and courage in our ranks today as there was in Lt. Moore and his troops. There are still Soldiers who plan well, are innovative and creative, and execute those plans with excellence. There are still Soldiers willing to put their lives on the line for the greater good.”
Van Nevel, the Honorary Consul of the Kingdom of Belgium, said he was honored to represent Belgium at the event and to commemorate this shared history between the Illinois National Guard and Belgium.
He said that the relationship between Belgium and the United States is vital to his nation. “The smaller the country, the more important is its outreach to the world.”
“We depend on each other and need to work with each other,” he added.
Van Nevel said Belgium is about one-third of the area of Illinois and has a population of about 12 million people, about a million less than the Land of Lincoln.
However, Belgium is a vital NATO ally and is home to NATO headquarters. Also, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Belgium and Illinois did $1.05 billion in trade in 2021 and that number has been growing. The small European nation is Illinois’ 12th largest export market.
Van Nevel congratulated the Illinois National Guard on its 300th birthday and thanked the Illinois National Guard members for their service. General Boyd presented Honorary Consul Van Nevel with an Illinois plaque to thank him for his participation in the Illinois National Guard commemoration.