Harold Goerges and John Andrews left their mark, as they left for Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6, 1944

Seventy-seven years ago today, two 111h Ordnance Company soldiers left a good-bye note on the wall of their room in Albro Castle, St. Dogmaels, Wales. They and my dad and 160 other GIs who were billeted there packed up and left the next day for Omaha Beach in Normandy.

Harold Goerges and John Andrews, lifelong friends of my dad, could have never imagined that their graffiti would be revealed decades later, thanks to Tracy and Peter Newland, current owners of Albro Castle, which was originally a 19th-century workhouse. Tracy noticed some pencil marks on the wall as she was removing wallpaper in the early 2000s and spent several years trying to find out more about the American men who had lived there for five months in 1944.

Then, as fate would have it, eight years ago today, Ed and I showed up uninvited to Albro Castle and met Tracy, who excitedly showed us the wall. This blog was the direct result. Over the next few years, we found five survivors and nearly 60 families of the 111th men, letting us knit together a fairly complete picture of their time in the war. And the search continues.

We will always be grateful to Tracy Newland for preserving this piece of history.

Two years ago, when Ed and I were tracing the path of the 111th through Europe, we stopped to visit the Netherlands American Cemetery near Margraten, not far from Maastricht. Its striking appearance reminded us of the American cemetery in Normandy, beautifully designed and very moving to see. A U.S. government office, The American Battle Monuments Commission, operates this and 16 other military cemeteries and memorials world-wide.

Netherlands American Cemetery near Margraten,Netherlands

The day we visited, we noticed several people bringing flowers to the graves. When we got to the visitor center, we asked the woman on duty what was going on. She told us that every American soldier’s grave, all 8,288 of them, has been adopted by a Dutch person or family. Many have been doing this for several generations.

Dutch woman carrying flowers to an American soldier’s grave

The Dutch people have always been incredibly grateful to the United States military for liberating their country from four years of Nazi occupation. They began a graves adoption program in 1945, not long after the cemetery opened, thanks to the efforts of the Burger Comité Margraten (Citizens Committee Margraten). Local people began bringing flowers to the graves on special days, such as the soldier’s birthday or Memorial Day. Today there is a waiting list of several hundred people who wish to adopt a grave. Over the years, many families in the United States have gotten to know and even visit the Dutch people who care for their relative’s graves, sharing photos and stories.

The cemetery has been closed to visitors due to the pandemic. But in Maastricht this Saturday, May 29,  Dutch and American participants will read aloud the names of the 10,000 American men and women who are buried in Margraten or are remembered there as missing. Maastricht was the first city in the Netherlands to be liberated by the 30th Infantry Division in September 1944 (the 111th arrived shortly after and lived for a month in a tile factory; see the previous post). In late 1944 and early 1945, thousands of American soldiers would be killed in nearby battles along German defense lines, including the Battle of the Bulge. Margraten cemetery originally contained some 18,000 graves, but after the war many families requested that their loved one be returned to the United States.

Memorial tower at the Netherlands American Cemetery

An organization called The Faces of Margraten collects photos of the Americans who died or went missing during the war. On Dutch Memorial Day, May 4, the group displays personal photos of more than 6,000 of those soldiers in the cemetery, holding an event that “brings visitors face-to-face with their liberators.” More than two-thirds of the soldiers buried or memorialized there now have photos associated with their names, an amazing achievement.

About eleven miles south of Margraten, in Belgium, is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 8,000 American military dead are buried. Many Dutch people who have not been able to adopt a grave at Margraten have done so at Henri-Chapelle.

Most fortunately, no one in the 111th Ordnance Company was killed in the war. But if you would like to research soldiers from other units who died or went missing in Europe and may be buried there, you might want to look into a group called Fields of Honor, which maintains a database of names: https://www.fieldsofhonor-database.com/index.php/en/

We don’t have the words to thank the Dutch people for remembering our American fathers and grandfathers and uncles for so long now.

The strange coincidences we’ve encountered while doing this blog continue.

Earlier this month, a man by the name of Henny in Maastricht, Netherlands, found us and sent an email. He was trying to find the family of an American WWII soldier who was the father of his older half-sister. Uh-oh, I thought—this hasn’t come up so far!

Henny explained that the soldier and his mother had a relationship in Heerlen, Netherlands, in the winter of 1944-45 (the same period when the 111th was there), and that although his sister knew her father was a GI, her mother would never reveal his name—until she was on her deathbed: it was Charles Fargo, from Texas.

I had to tell Henny that we didn’t have a soldier by that name in the 111th, and although Ed and I tried various ways to find more about the man, we were unsuccessful. But that wasn’t the end of this story.

Henny mentioned in passing that he had retired after 44 years as a manager in a tile factory in Maastricht. Aha, I thought. I wonder if he would know anything about the beautiful ceramic tiles of Dutch girls in local costumes that my father and at least three other men of the 111th sent home while billeted in the Societe Ceramique tile factory in Maastricht in the fall of 1944. (See the blog post from March 2014, https://wwiitracings.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/a-french-orphan-and-the-tiles-of-war/)

The inscription on the back of each tile is “Societe Ceramique, Maestricht”

Henny replied that he would send my photos of the tiles to a colleague who knows a lot about the history of tile industry in Maastricht. It turns out they are rather rare. They were designed by well-known artist Henri Verstijnen in the 1930s but never put into full production.

I told Henny that I would like to donate my tiles to a museum or archives in Maastricht. He contacted the senior curator of the museum at the Centre Ceramique, a modern cultural complex built on the grounds of the factory where the tiles were made, to see if he would like them for his collection. He said yes, and I carefully packed them up and sent them off today.

Thank you, Henny!

Update May 21, 2021: You may recall that a few other men of the 111th had sent home these tiles. One of them was Ray Goodhart (see the previous post). We just learned that Kimberley, Ray’s loving granddaughter, has mailed off to the museum the two remaining tiles in the set created by artist Henri Verstijnen in Maastricht in the 1930s (see below). Mr. Wim Dijkman, Senior Curator, wrote in his thanks to Kimberley, “I can promise as the senior curator responsible for the ceramic collections made in Maastricht that these objects will be kept permanently in Centre Céramique and that I will write an article about all six tiles for the Bulletin of the Vereniging Maastrichts Aardewerk recognizing the background information you and Andrea Sutcliffe gave me about the fascinating story behind these tiles!”

Ray and my father, Edward Johnson, were good friends during the war; below is a photo of the two of them taken in Maastricht in 1944. We don’t know the circumstances of how the men obtained these tiles, but I’m guessing that when the 111th arrived in Maastricht shortly after the liberation of the city by the American troops, they may have been presented as gifts of appreciation by the managers of the tile factory.

Edward Johnson and Ray Goodhart, Maastricht, fall 1944

We are thrilled to tell you that another 111th soldier’s family has been found. With lots of help from our Spanish sleuth and blog friend Fano Suarez, we located and sent a letter to the daughter of Ray Goodhart, one of my dad’s best buddies during the war.

Most unfortunately, though, we learned that Sandra, Ray’s daughter, had passed away just a few weeks earlier. But her husband, Leo, her granddaughter Kim, and great-grandson Stephen have sent us photos. We’ve had several nice phone conversations with Leo about Ray and what a great guy he was. Some of the photos are duplicates of ones my dad and some other men had—confirming that the men shared prints. Ray also had some Dutch tiles, one of which Leo says featured a Dutch girl like some others some families have found. They no doubt came from the tile factory in Maastricht where the men stayed for a while during their advance into Germany in spring 1945.

Ray was an armorer during the war. From St. Louis, he joined the unit at Camp Bowie, Texas, in 1942 and was with one of the last groups to be sent home from Brake, Germany, in September 1945. Ray passed away in 1999.

Ray visiting USS Carl Vinson in the 1980s or 1990s
At Camp Shanks, NY, waiting to go home, fall 1945; Ray is in the back row, third from left. Next to him on the left is Don McGowan, and on the right is Ray Buggert.
Ray had his portrait taken in Brownwood, TX, 1942 while at Camp Bowie.
Ray at left in Brake, Germany, summer 1945. That’s Ed Ziemba next to him.
At Camp Bowie, TX. Ray is second from left. I think that may be my dad, Bill Johnson, on the right next to him. Ray Buggert is on the far right.
Ray with his cousin in Paris, August 1944; he happened to run into to him on the street on the day he was there!

We received an email from our blog friend Peter Pauwels in Heerlen, Netherlands, in late April asking us to find another American from 75 years ago. (You may recall how last year Ed and our blog friend in Spain, Fano, located the son of the woman who was director of the American Red Cross Rest Center in Heerlen during the war.)

Gerrit van Dort

A friend of Peter’s had come across a pocket Bible that had been given to his father, Gerrit van Dort, in WWII by an American Army chaplain. Gerrit had been a Dutch telephone lineman who had helped a U.S. Army signal company set up phone lines in Heerlen during the war. (Heerlen was where the 111th spent the winter of 1944-45.) The friend wanted to send the Bible to the family of the soldier whose name was written inside.

Peter emailed us photos of the Bible and its inscriptions. So of course Ed went right to work. Using an online phone directory, he started by looking for Nagelis in Pennsylvania. On his second call, he talked to a woman in her 90s who said her husband’s father was Alfred Nageli, also the name of her husband’s uncle.

She and Ed figured out that the name and address inscribed in the Bible was that of the uncle, who had served with the U.S. Army in Europe. Apparently Gerrit had wanted to stay in touch with Alfred after the war. Because Alfred had no children, Mrs. Nageli told Ed that her son, Gary, who was close to the uncle, would love to have this special family memento. The next day, Gary, somewhat astonished, called Ed. Gary later told us that all six of his grandfather’s children served in WWII.

It took about seven weeks for the Bible to arrive, due to delays in international mail because of the pandemic. Here is Gary holding the Bible last week. Known as the FDR Bible, this printing of the New Testament was given to soldiers and sailors in 1943.