Phil Lewis: Far away, liberators are honored by strangers

Phil Lewis
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While most of us were still in bed today (Sunday, May 24, 2009), taps were sounding at a cemetery marked by more than 8,000 white crosses several thousand miles to the east along the Maastricht-Vaals motorway in the town of Margraten, the Netherlands.

The crosses, as well as several hundred white, marble stars of David, have by now been decorated with flowers to commemorate our Memorial Day.

Ceremonies at this 65-acre cemetery — one of the largest in Europe — are being held on Sunday, the day before the official Memorial Day observance. That’s because Monday, the day we take off work here in the States to honor our dead, is not an official holiday in Holland. (Dutch Remembrance Day is May 4 each year.)

The Dutch will be working on Monday, so the dead in this cemetery will be honored today.

It’s all part of an extraordinary, 64-year-old practice that was brought to our attention by Bonnie Hicks, a Naples resident whose family has long had a stake in the cemetery.

Her mother’s first cousin — Leslie Loveland — is buried there along with 8,300 other U.S. soldiers who were killed on European soil between D-Day and the fall of the Third Reich.

Each was viewed as a “liberator” by the Dutch and each was adopted, a practice that began way back in February 1945, shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. Nearly 20,000 American and British soldiers lost their lives in the Belgian Ardennes that winter. Many were laid to rest in Margraten, where the citizens formed a committee and took it upon themselves to visit GI graves, lay flowers and symbolically stand in for American families separated be an ocean from their fallen loved ones.

The tradition was passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.

“In 2002, as the members of the citizens’ committee became older and new administrative and communications equipment became available, the work of the committee was taken over by the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery of Margraten,” according to the cemetery’s Web Site.

This gave the practice some structure. Last June, the foundation announced that each of the 8,301 graves had been adopted by a resident of the Netherlands or of neighboring Belgium or Germany.

These surrogates commit to regular visits to the grave and the placing of flowers on Memorial Day and Christmas.

They also receive a certificate containing personal information regarding the fallen soldier. A voluntary contribution (about $7 American) is requested to cover the cost of the certificates and vases for the cut flowers.

Many of the surrogates have used information contained on the certificate to contact families back in the states.

That brings us back to Bonnie Hicks. She says her mother — 75-year-old Laura Phillips of Inverness — visited cousin Leslie Loveland’s grave at the American Cemetery in Margraten back in the 1970s to pay respects.

Since then she has been comforted to know that Leslie’s adoptive family — now in the third generation — visits the cemetery often and sends along photos of the decorated grave.

“It is amazing to me that this honor is still being played out so many years after the end of the war,” Hicks told us. “The respect given to our men who died by the people of Holland is immense.”

There’s lots to respect in the pristine cemetery:

* Six of the buried soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

* The graves of four women are marked by white crosses; two were lieutenants in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps.

* One hundred and six resting souls are unidentified. They are honored by the following inscription:

“Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

Thanks, Bonnie, for letting us know about the cemetery and the extraordinary tradition that lives on.

There are no doubt a few graves to adopt this side of the ocean as well.

Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is plewis@naplesnews.com

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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