Dutch adopt the heroes that liberated Europe

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Photo above: Dutch and Belgian veterans saluting the grave of a fallen American comrade,
Capt. Donald R. Emerson, a fighter pilot from North Dakota, KIA on December 25, 1944.

On the gently sloping hills of the souhternmost point of the Netherlands, lies the beautfully landscaped “Netherlands American Cemetery.”

It is the only American cemetery in the country and often named “Margraten,” after the nearby village. Here rest 8,301 American servicemen and -women who were killed in action during World War II. On the Walls of the Missing are 1,722 names of those who are still missing in action. Althogether 10,023 Americans who gave their lives for liberty and democracy in Europe, 157 of them Marylanders, 531 from California.

Many who rest here gave their lives during the last stages of the war, like Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, the battles for the Huertgen Forest and the Rhineland, or in the bomber raids over Germany. Initially “Margraten” Cemetery counted 17,000 graves, but after the war many remains were re-buried in the US, at the request of their families.

During the war citizens of Margraten helped to bury the fallen American soldiers, and to express their gratitude toward their liberators they started to “adopt” graves after the war. The citizens of Margraten visited the graves, brought flowers on Memorial Day and contacted the families in the US, to learn more about the fallen heroes who were buried so close to their village. The desire to adopt an American grave soon spread through the south-eastern parts of the Netherlands which were liberated by American forces, initially by the 30th Infantry Division and later by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions during “Operation Market Garden” (September 1944). Within two years all graves at “Margraten” were adopted, and for the past 70 years many graves remained in the hands of the same Dutch families, being passed on from one generation to the next, a wish that was sometimes even expressed in a last will.

A Dutch father and his young daughter kneel and put flowers before ‘their’ grave (Craydon. S Brown, a fighter pilot from New York, killed on June 8, 1945). Visiting ‘Margraten’ is an almost sacred duty for many Dutch families, and in time this young girl will probably take over this duty from her father and tell her children the story of this American pilot.

However, after all graves were adopted, many Dutch still wanted to adopt one, and a waiting list was the result, with little chance of ever becoming an adopter. So in 2008 a decision was made that also names on the Walls of the Missing could be adopted, an opportunity that was gratefully seized by many Dutch. And now, six years later, some 1,400 names on the Walls of the Missing at “Margraten” are adopted too.

Being an adopter of a grave or name brings obligations. One is expected to search and contact the family in the US, to gather information about the adopted soldier and to contribute to the special website that was created to commemorate every American serviceman of -woman who is buried at “Margraten” or whose name is there on the Walls of the Missing www.fallennotforgotten.nl

During Memorial Day weekend “Margraten” cemetery is visited by a steady stream of Dutch families, the young and the old, bringing flowers and attending the ceremonies. Sometimes they are accompanied by family members of the soldier whose grave they adopted. Or, if they are lucky, by one of the few remaining American veterans who are still instant heroes in the Netherlands, wherever they go: admired by the young and bringing tears to the eyes of the elder. For these are the men who saved the lives of many and brought us liberty and democracy after almost five years of suffering and tyranny.

A Dutch family, under way to bring flowers to their adopted grave.
A Dutch family, under way to bring flowers to their adopted grave.

In 2015 the “Margraten” adoption program will exist for 70 years, and special celebrations are planned that will be attended by some 60 family members from the US, all members of the AWON (American WWII Orphans Network), which has close ties with the “Margraten” adoption foundation.

During the past years the succes of the “Margraten” adoption program has expanded to two nearby cemeteries in Belgium, “Henri Chapelle American Cemetery” (83 from Maryland and 361 Californians) and “Ardennes American Cemetery” (83 Marylanders and 358 Californians). This was done by Belgian citizens and families who followed the Dutch example to honor and commemorate the fallen Americans, but also by Dutch who developed an interest in military history and who wanted to link the graves and stories of American soldiers who were in combat together. “Henri Chapelle” is situated a few miles south of “Margraten,” just beyond the Netherlands-Belgium border.

It is the final resting place of 7,992 Americans and it has a Wall of the Missing with 450 names. The “Ardennes” cemetery is close to the city of Liège. It is the resting place of 5.323 Americans and it has a Wall of the Missing with 463 names. This cemetery is close to the battlefields where the “Battle of the Bulge” was fought during the harsh and cold winter of 1944-45 (from December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945). Detailed information about these three cemeteries can be found on the magnificent website of the American Battle Monuments Commission 

And Dutch volunteers have now joined efforts to set up a foundation and a website that will collect all available information about every American man and woman who rest at these three cemeteries, or whose name is on the Walls of the Missing.

For these heroes must be remembered and honored forever.

Editor’s Note: The author was born in November 1944, two months after soldiers of the 101st Airborne division liberated his mother from a Nazi prison in Holland. Out of gratitude he has adopted a name on the Wall of the Missing at “Margraten” cemetery and a grave at “Henri Chapelle” cemetery, both soldiers of the 319th Glider Field Artillery Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division.