Phil Lewis: On foreign soil: More stories of ‘adopted’ GIs

Phil Lewis

Last week’s column about the U.S. Military Cemetery in Holland and the Dutch men and women who have adopted and decorate each GI’s grave with flowers got interesting reader response.

The column was written for Memorial Day to reflect the thanks the Dutch and other Europeans still give to our country. To this day, they refer to the thousands of American soldiers buried on European soil more than six decades ago as “liberators.”

We heard from Nick Hale, who — along with Peter Thomas — will be speaking this Friday at the D-Day 65th anniversary reception at the Collier County Museum. The two Naples community leaders will talk about their experiences during the invasion that led to the liberation of Europe. The reception and program will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the museum, 3301 U.S. 41 E., next to the county government complex in East Naples. Hale is president of the Friends of the Museum.

“Your column … reminded me of December 1946, when I was in Luxembourg City buying presents for my regiment in Frankfurt to give to German kids at the big Christmas dinners we planned to throw for them, and one parent, on the 25th in our mess halls,” Hale wrote. “The colonel had decided that we would do this in a somewhat formal manner, with each company assigned a specific age group to feed and gift. I had been given a lot of postal money orders and told to ‘find suitable toys, and be damned sure there are no guns, tank or other war materials among them.’

“I found a reliable multilingual native to help me, and we quickly found two department store owners who were happy to select and package the toys, with little work on my part. ... One day I was driving around the city and saw a large number of citizens walking out of town, carrying flowers. When I inquired, my friend advised that city families had ‘adopted’ individual American graves in the large U.S. cemetery about 10 clicks (kilometers) out of town, and that these graves were decorated on U.S. holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving, as well as Christmas. We drove out to the site, passing hundreds, maybe thousands, of citizens, walking because of gas shortages, some on bicycles, all carrying flowers.

“I understand the custom continues to this day.”

We also heard from Bonnie Hicks. She’s the Naples resident who told us about the tradition at the cemetery in Holland. Her mother has a cousin buried there. He’s one of 8,301 liberators interred on Dutch soil.

“Thanks you so much, Mr. Lewis, for telling this story. ... My mom was very happy, as this has become a pet project of hers.

“One of the soldiers, Cliffe Wolfe, whose name is on the wall of those missing in action at Margraten, has been adopted by a Dutch family, who were looking for some further information about him. My mom not only found volumes of information about Mr. Wolfe, who was a teacher in the Detroit area, but also through public records has been able to contact living family members, I think nieces, one of whom lives here in Florida.

“In the official military records, a description was given of where Mr. Wolfe’s body was last seen. The Dutch adopting family now has enough information to contact another Dutch group, that specializes in finding the remains of such soldiers; they are a special-interest, metal-detector group. It is feasible that Mr. Wolfe’s remains could be located; one of Mr. Wolfe’s mother’s letters, contained in records that my mom found, mentioned her desire to have even one bone of her son be found. These records illustrate so well the fact that each soldier has family and friends who suffer their loss acutely.

“Again, my thanks for your story. It is important that we never forget such sacrifices, whether from the distant past, or those sadly still happening today.”

We also received this from Hicks’ mother, Laura Phillips. We like the ending:

“I want to thank you for your article regarding the Margraten Cemetery in the Netherlands. I appreciate that my daughter, Bonnie Hicks, sent you the suggestion for this article.

“Not only does the adoptee of my cousin’s grave visit him and place flowers, but I have helped two other families get information on ‘their soldier’ and they in turn also visit and place flowers on the grave of Leslie Loveland (Mrs. Phillips’ cousin). One even took flowers on his birthday.

“I not only enjoy doing the research, I have also gotten such a personal, heart-warming pleasure from it and have made friends in the Netherlands.

“I hope this article encourages others who may have family or friends buried in our overseas military cemeteries to start the search to locate them.”

Thanks, Mrs. Phillips, we hope so too.

If you are interested in attending the D-Day anniversary reception Friday, better call for reservations. The number is 252-8467.

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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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