Belgian war museum exhibit honors Peña, fellow Aggies

The heroism and bravery of five Texas A&M former students who helped repel Germany’s final major World War II offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, is honored in a new multimedia exhibit in Bastogne, Belgium. The group of former students includes William Peña, who earned an architecture degree in 1942.

The 5,000 square-foot exhibit, “From Texas to Bastogne: Texas Aggies Go to War,” opened Dec. 12, 2014 in the Van Geluwe building in Bastogne, a town that was a focal point in the battle. Sponsored by the Texas A&M University System with municipal and corporate sponsors in the United States and Belgium, the exhibit tells the tales of five Aggies — Peña, James Hollingsworth ‘40, Turney Leonard ‘42, Joe Routt ‘37 and James Earl Rudder ’32 — whose efforts to liberate Europe are representative of their fellow Aggies and all Americans who served in World War II.

Peña, who lost a leg in a land mine explosion during the battle, was among the approximately 89,000 Americans injured or killed in the December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945 offensive, in which German forces sought to recapture a strategically important harbor in Antwerp, Belgium. More than 610,000 American forces fought in the campaign.

“The Belgians have shared stories of how their lives were forever changed by the support of the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge and many of those leading the Americans were Texas Aggies,” said John Sharp, Texas A&M System chancellor.

After a two-year display in Bastogne, the exhibit is scheduled to be moved to the Brazos Valley for permanent display; a task force is raising funds and identifying a location for the exhibit. 

The partnership that funded “Texas Aggies Go to War” also supported a large-scale, outdoor dramatization of the exhibit staged on May 16, 2014 at Bastogne’s Mardasson Memorial, which honors the memory of American soldiers wounded or killed in the battle, as a backdrop.

Peña is the only living member of the group of Aggies honored in the exhibit and the dramatization.

In August 1944, after completing officer training, Peña was deployed to Europe as a U.S. Army lieutenant, in the thick of battle when the Germans began their offensive in December 1944.  In March 1945, he was with fellow soldiers near Schlieden, Germany, when he stepped on a land mine while repairing a unit communications line.

“… I must have stepped off the hard-top (road) onto the muddy shoulder,” said Peña in his World War II memoir, “As Far As Schlieden” (59MB PDF).

“An ear-splitting explosion below numbed me as I felt myself rising, head bowed, in the air,” he said.

The explosion was the end of Peña’s service on the front, which began with an advance group that pushed toward Germany in the fall of 1944.

After the war, Peña began what would become a legendary career in architecture by joining Caudill Rowlett Scott, Architects in 1948. He became known as the “father” of architectural programming and in 1969 co-authored the first edition of “Problem Seeking,” which remains a standard textbook in architectural education.

Peña, 95, is an outstanding alumnus of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture and a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. He is also a recipient of the French Legion of Honour Medal for helping to liberate France in World War II. 

posted January 12, 2015