Beyond All Odds

From the battlefields of Europe, one man’s chance discovery reunites a family with a treasured piece of their past.

by Jonathan Wright
Donald Vonachen and his wife Patricia Clark in 1947
After the war, Donald Vonachen returned to Peoria and married Patricia Clark in 1947, and the couple had seven children.

When 19-year-old Donald F. “Bud” Vonachen left his duffel bag on that Army truck in December of 1944, he was just following orders. His regiment had to move quickly, so they were discarding all but their most essential gear. He didn’t know they were about to face the coldest, fiercest winter in the history of modern Europe—nor that he would never see his duffel bag again.

The Germans had launched a last-ditch offensive at Belgium and Luxembourg, intending to split the Allied forces and drive westward to the sea. “The ensuing battle… was a do-or-die, kill-or-be-killed confrontation,” Vonachen would later write. “[It] had everything a military strategist could imagine: surprise, unbelievable adverse odds, freezing weather, and a dramatic resolution which greatly affected the ultimate outcome.” This vicious and bloody encounter would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Though greatly outnumbered, Vonachen’s 106th Infantry Division stood in the way of Hitler’s plans. In less than a week, they would be practically obliterated, incurring some of the greatest combat losses in U.S. military history. Despite this early setback, the complete and utter chaos, and the lack of food, supplies or warm clothing, the Allies would eventually defeat the Nazis. “Against these unbelievable odds, history was turned around,” Vonachen wrote. “The mammoth counteroffensive of Adolf Hitler was completely stalled.” 

Vonachen himself played no small role in this heroic saga. Like many of his generation, he spoke little about it when he returned to the States. But one event in particular would stay with him for decades—a profoundly moving and mystical experience. Eventually he was compelled to record the incident in his memoir. And beyond all odds, it would ultimately lead to the return of his military-issued duffel bag, 75 years after he left it behind on the scarred fields of war-torn Europe.

An Extraordinary Message
On the morning of November 20, 2019, Peoria Magazines received a rather extraordinary message on Facebook:

Good morning,

Donald Vonachen's military duffel bagI am from Luxembourg, Europe, and I very recently found a WW2 duffle bag from a soldier named Donald F. Vonachen, who apparently was born on 17 Sept 1925 in Peoria, Illinois and died 6 Oct 2005 in Peoria County, Illinois. He was a soldier during WW2 and from what I could gather, active with the 106th Infantry Division. His Army Service Number was: 16175206.

Since I was able to find out about him during my search online, I am wondering if there is a way to find direct relatives from him... I am looking for those relatives, in the hopes of returning this memorabilia… to them and maybe find out a bit more about this man.

I found this duffel bag in the area between Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany.

In the hopes that you might be able to help me,

Kind regards,

Laurent Bemtgen

Attached to the message was a photograph of an olive-green duffel bag in remarkably good shape—the words “Donald F. Vonachen” and his service number clearly stenciled upon it. Needless to say, one does not receive messages like this every day! It was exciting.

The Vonachen surname, of course, is legendary in the Peoria area. After some due diligence seemed to confirm the message’s legitimacy, we reached out to Chris Hardine, longtime personal assistant to businessman Jay Vonachen, and within minutes the connection was made. “Chris and I were best friends in high school,” explains Donna Vonachen Abdnour, daughter of Donald Vonachen. “The minute she saw it, she was like, Oh my gosh, I know exactly who this is! So she shared it with me, and I was kind of the go-to person.” 

The next day she told her 92-year-old mother the improbable story: some man from Luxembourg had found her late husband’s long-lost wartime duffel bag. That weekend, many of their family members gathered together to hear the tale. “I shared the whole story… and we just couldn’t believe any of it,” Donna explains. “So I got on Facebook and sent [Laurent] a friend request. And within 30 seconds, he accepted my request. I just said, ‘I’m Don Vonachen’s daughter,’ and we started this conversation.”

Donald F. Vonachen served with Company B, 424th Regiment, 106th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
Donald F. Vonachen achieved the rank of sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his valor in the Battle of the Bulge.

Miracle on the Battlefield
The Battle of the Bulge was just beginning, and Donald F. Vonachen was right in the thick of it. Constant explosions rang out in the distance—“unbelievable artillery barrages” that would leave his hearing permanently damaged. “Our troops had been surrounded and were being cut to pieces by the Germans,” he wrote. “We had to retreat. However, we couldn’t retreat unless we fought our way out.”

When his commanding officer asked for volunteers to move to the front and stave off the enemy, Vonachen knew it was likely a suicide mission. Nevertheless, he raised his hand. “We were sent forward to delay the Germans, while hopefully our troops could retreat and regroup to come back at a later time.” 

He and several others moved ahead, outnumbered and outgunned. As his fellow soldiers fell lifeless around him, Vonachen prayed “with intensity, as never before.” The explosions grew louder and he grew angry, outraged at the needless suffering of war. Then, he explains, he felt shame about his anger. Finally he grew “strangely calm,” accepting the inevitability of death. And then: 

“At that moment… I was firmly swept up from the battlefield into a state of ecstasy. The pain, the cold, the misery and the fear disappeared. They were replaced by, for want of better words, the ultimate of security blankets. Never had I had a feeling like this before. Absolute and complete security and warmth. I was overwhelmed with love and joy, with feelings of being wanted and cared for. Simultaneously I was as if in a tunnel and was being propelled through the universe, the feeling of going hundreds of miles per hour and shooting through space was very strong but largely secondary because of the immensity of the power of love and happiness and ultimate joy… I felt myself leaving my body gently but firmly being pulled away.”

Like many claims of out-of-body experiences, Vonachen had no idea how much time elapsed before his ecstatic state was disrupted by “the sound of an artillery shell wringing its way down upon me as I returned to the earth.” Fortunately for him, the shell was a dud. But that unearthly experience stayed with him for the rest of his life.

While most of his division was destroyed, Donald Vonachen survived. But he was alone. After a harrowing journey across the Belgian countryside—dodging German troops, tanks and artillery fire—he was reunited with the Americans, supplying critical information that helped turn the tide toward the Allies’ eventual victory. He was made a sergeant and continued to serve on the frontlines until April of 1945. Later he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his heroism on the battlefield. 

Beyond All Odds by Donald F. VonachenAfter the war, Vonachen returned to Peoria and graduated from law school. He married Patricia Clark in 1947, and the couple had seven children. His career as an attorney flourished, and life was one of civic engagement and dedication to family and church. But he never stopped thinking about that inexplicable, life-altering experience. 

For decades he kept the story to himself. Then in the early 1990s, he felt compelled to share what had happened to him during wartime. “I have felt very strongly… that there had to be a special reason why I was spared,” he wrote. “I kept looking for some special mission or direction to evidence itself. While I have had a full and active life… I have wondered what my mission is or was, or whether the reason for being spared has yet to come about.”

It took him three years to write his memoir—re-opening that door to the past brought back a lot of traumatic memories. Entitled Beyond All Odds, it was a firsthand account of his experiences as a young soldier, coupled with reflections and advice intended for his grandchildren. He made copies for family members and eventually one of them self-published a paperback version on Amazon. And that is what Laurent Bemtgen found when he googled “Donald F. Vonachen” after recovering his long-lost duffel bag.

Wartime Connections
A native of Luxembourg in his mid-30s, Laurent Bemtgen is a military history enthusiast and collector of artifacts from Roman antiquities all the way up to the Korean and Vietnam wars. He also practices historical fencing and medieval sword-fighting, and participates in war reenactments from various eras. His connection to World War II is a deeply personal one. “I became interested in reenacting World War II history after researching the story of my grandfather, who was a forced conscript of the German army but refused to do it, so he ended up in a concentration camp (Buchenwald). He survived the war and got freed by the U.S. Army.” 

These intersecting interests are what led Bemtgen to an old barn near the intersection of Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany last November. “World War II reenactments have become extremely popular with the 75th anniversary [of the Battle of the Bulge],” he explains. Authentic war artifacts are quite useful in reenactments, and as a collector, he will often ask the owners of older buildings if they have any items left over from the war. “Often, they let me have a look and either I find items and can keep them, or sometimes I buy them.” 

Laurent Bemtgen
A native of Luxembourg, Laurent Bemtgen is a military history enthusiast and participates in war reenactments from various eras. His connection to World War II is deeply personal—his grandfather ended up in a German concentration camp and was freed by the U.S. Army.

In this case, he discovered a trove of war-related items, including Donald Vonachen’s old duffel bag, which he was allowed to keep. “The barn is still in use, but some corners had a lot of World War II items, so it was really a lucky find,” Bemtgen says. While there was nothing inside the bag, he did find an old mess kit and some gaiters (protective garments worn over the shoe and lower pants leg). But only the duffel bag contained any identifying information. He immediately went to work, determined to learn as much as possible about this particular American soldier.

With Vonachen’s name and service number, Bemtgen was able to determine his date of birth and death, confirming that he survived the war. Then he found the book on Amazon, which not only confirmed Vonachen’s whereabouts during the Battle of the Bulge, it referred to the very duffel bag he had just discovered—just eight miles from where Vonachen had been stationed on December 16, 1944. Eventually he contacted Peoria Magazines on Facebook, thinking we might be able to help direct him to its rightful owners. 

After Donna Vonachen Abdnour reached out to Bemtgen, they exchanged a series of messages on Facebook. He answered her questions, described how he had come across the bag, and even sent Google Maps links showing exactly where he had found it. And of course, he arranged to mail her the bag. “You have made us so happy,” Donna wrote. “We are sitting here and sharing memories. God bless you, Laurent.”

“I am glad to hear this,” he responded. “I also have to thank you for your father’s help in liberating our country. I am so happy to have been able to reunite his bag with his family.”

Patricia Vonachen with her late husband’s military duffel bag, December 18, 2019
Patricia Vonachen with her late husband’s military duffel bag, December 18, 2019

Lost and Found
The entire story is incredible—like what you’d see in a movie. It has everything a Hollywood producer could imagine: remarkable twists and turns, unexplainable phenomena, fighting and defeating the Nazis, and a dramatic resolution which has greatly affected people on multiple continents. Perhaps Donald Vonachen’s special mission is still underway, 15 years after his passing. One could do worse than taking his own words to heart: “This whole story is really about the human condition and life as it is and how we have to experience it. It is also about loving and caring for people you might never see again.”

For his part, Laurent Bemtgen was astounded to be able to connect with the Vonachens. “It is the first time I was able to track an item back to a person and his relatives,” he notes. “It is fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.” Having ordered his own copy of Beyond All Odds, he plans to retrace the young soldier’s exact path using the book, Google Maps, old aerial photographs and military action reports. To that end, he’s already been able to determine a number of locations described in the book. 

“I am pretty sure I found at least one position where they had foxholes close by the German border,” Bemtgen explains. He also believes he found the wooded area where Vonachen speculated the very first shots of the Battle of the Bulge may have been fired. “I might go metal detecting there in the future, and maybe I’ll find some traces,” he adds.

Back in Peoria, the Vonachen family gathered together on December 18, 2019—a week before Christmas, and 75 years after the earliest operations in the Battle of the Bulge. “We just opened the bag!” Donna proclaimed in a message to her new friend in Luxembourg. “Thank you again so much! We are all so happy.” Then she forwarded some videos of her mother, the late Donald Vonachen’s wife, opening the package. “Best Christmas present ever!” 

“A part of him that was lost 75 years ago is finally with you at last,” Bemtgen wrote in his response. “Beyond all odds.” PM

Beyond All Odds: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Realities of War can be found on amazon.com.

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