Memorial Day: The Dutch People Still Remember Our GIs, 76 Years and Counting

Posted: May 27, 2021 in 1945, Holland (Netherlands)
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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.

Comments
  1. Louise Brooks says:

    Such a lovely and heartwarming idea to help remember those who helped not just liberate the world, but individual local families.

  2. Steph says:

    What a lovely gesture. I hope the tradition continues. It costs nothing to show gratitude or for that matter, to smile or help someone in need…or even just say hello. The world would be a better place if people could just think of others as their equal and treat them the way they’d like to be treated. Sadly, it seems that’s been lost along the way. I think any nice gesture (paying it forward) can help spread kindness and it makes people feel GOOD which is something we desperately need now. Change CAN happen but it needs to start somewhere instead of waiting for someone else to do it!

  3. Tom Sedlacek says:

    Very nice article!

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