By Joshua Keeran
Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.”
While the families of American soldiers who have died in defense of freedom throughout the world know too well the harsh reality behind Kennedy’s famous words, there are foreign nations like the Netherlands where the locals continue to pay their respects to those men and women in the U.S. military who gave the ultimate sacrifice over seven decades ago so they could live in freedom.
Ever since the people of the Netherlands were freed from Nazi Germany occupation on May 5, 1945, by Allied Forces, the Dutch have been paying their respects to the American soldiers who died in nearby battles during World War II by adopting their grave or name on the Tablets of the Missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.
Located in the Dutch city of Margraten, the permanent American military cemetery is overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. The cemetery contains 8,301 graves and a Tablets of the Missing memorial, which contains the names of 1,722 American soldiers missing in action. One of those graves contains the remains of Champaign County native John R. Emory, while the name of fellow county native, John H. Spriggs, is listed on the Tablets of the Missing.
Dutchman Sebastiaan Vonk is one of the thousands of residents of the Netherlands who currently adopts one or more of the 10,023 graves and/or names located in the cemetery. He adopted his first grave at the age of 13.
“Ever since the end of WWII, people have adopted the graves of these men and women out of a deeply heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifices that they made for our freedom,” Vonk said. “They truly are our liberators and heroes.”
Vonk added the “Adopt-A-Grave” program, which was founded in 1945 by Dutch citizens, currently has a waiting list of 300 Dutch wishing to adopt a grave or name in the Margraten cemetery.
“As part of adopting the grave, many visit the graves regularly to bring flowers,” he said. “Moreover, many have conducted research on the soldier whose grave they have adopted, hoping to learn more about them. It was, and it is, not uncommon that adopters correspond with the soldiers’ families. In fact, transatlantic friendships between families that began just after the war continue to exist today in some cases.”
Unfortunately, many adopters have been unable to locate the one thing in particular they’ve sought out to find – a photograph of the American soldier who died so the Netherlands could be liberated.
Vonk has been helping his fellow Dutchmen put a face to the name of the soldier they’ve adopted through the Fields of Honor – Database, a website he developed in 2007 at the age of 14 to collect and display information and photographs of the nearly 24,000 American soldiers buried in Margraten and two other American military cemeteries in Belgium (Ardennes and Henri-Chapelle).
The Faces of Margraten tribute born
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Netherlands’ liberation from Nazi Germany occupation, a Dutch nonprofit known as the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, which Vonk serves as chairman of and helped found in 2011, put together the first annual The Faces of Margraten event in May 2015.
Leading up to the tribute, which was attended by 25,000 people, the foundation called on volunteers to help find photographs of the soldiers buried or memorialized in Margraten that had yet to be found and posted to the Fields of Honor – Database.
With the help of countless volunteers, the foundation was able to locate photographs for 3,300 of the 10,000-plus soldiers. From May 2-5 of 2015, these photographs were placed beside the graves and in front of the Tablets of the Missing at the cemetery.
“For the first time in 70 years, our liberators were literally given a face, and not just on the Internet,” Vonk said. “The 3,300 photos were testimony to many individual lives that were lost during the war.”
With the second annual The Faces of Margraten tribute scheduled to take place May 1-5, the race is on to find additional photographs to put even more faces to the names.
“We expect to have 4,000 photos on display this year,” Vonk said. “Soldiers’ families continue to contact us with additional photos, and we have been able to successfully reach out to other families through the U.S. media.
“It is just very important for us that we get the word out about this project, and I would like to call on everyone to help spread the word. We have 4,000 faces now, but sadly, 6,000 are still missing,” he added.
Wanted: Photographs of local heroes
Before the second annual The Faces of Margraten event takes place next month in the Netherlands, an Indianapolis woman is hoping her efforts will lead to the discovery of photographs for some of the 6,000 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial who have yet to have their photograph featured in the tribute to those who died while serving in World War II.
After reading about efforts to put faces to the names of the 10,023 American soldiers buried or memorialized in the cemetery in Margraten, retiree Teresa Hirsch, who has always been interested in the events of World War II, decided in March 2015 to volunteer her services to the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves – the Dutch nonprofit group behind The Faces of Margraten tribute.
Over the past year, Hirsch’s efforts have paid off as she has been able to find photographs for nearly 150 American soldiers buried or memorialized in Margraten. She even had the opportunity to attend last year’s The Faces of Margraten event where she got to see first-hand what her work means to the Dutch citizens who have adopted graves and/or names of the missing.
“I’ll never forget the guy who yelled out to his friend, ‘They have a picture of my soldier,’” Hirsch recalled. “I spoke to him and he said he’s been adopting the liberator for 15 years but never knew what he looked like. I realized that someone had sent in the photo, and this is what it looks like when they are found. That’s irresistible to me.”
Hirsch added she plans to travel to the Netherlands again this year, but before she leaves, she has some work left to do here in the States as she calls upon readers of Civitas Media-owned newspapers throughout Ohio to help her locate photographs of the following soldiers buried in Margraten (biographical information gathered by the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, the Dutch nonprofit organization behind the Faces of Margraten tribute):
• Donald Bryant, of Allen County, was a rifleman in the 29th Infantry Division. Son of Donald and Hilda Bryant, he was killed on April 6, 1945.
• Pfc. Milo Whipple, of Darke County, served in the 4th Infantry Division. Son of Alba and Ella Whipple, he has been listed as missing in action since December 1944.
• Lt. Robert K. Young, of Darke County, was a pilot during WWII. Son of Albert and Edith Young, he was killed in a vehicle accident following Victory in Europe Day on May 10, 1945.
• Lt. Dwight Beatty, of Fayette County, served in the 99th Infantry Division. Son of Walter and Mary Beatty, he was killed on April 11, 1945.
• Pfc. Arthur Courson, of Greene County, served in the 19th Special Forces Group. Son of Robert and Nina Courson, he was killed in a vehicle accident on April 30, 1945.
• Cpl. Myron Burdge, of Shelby County, served in the 101st Airborne. Son of Harry and Frances Burdge, he was killed while serving as a paratrooper.
Families of American soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten can submit photos for use in the May tribute by visiting www.thefacesofmargraten.com. For families unsure if their loved one is buried in Margraten, they can search cemetery records by visiting www.fieldsofhonor-database.com. The website also contains information for American soldiers buried in Belgium at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery as well as at Ardennes American Cemetery.
Hirsch added enough can’t be said about the gratitude the Dutch have for their liberators, and the emotional ties they have to those soldiers who gave their lives so the people of the Netherlands could be free of Nazi Germany occupation.
“The few (grave adopters) I have spoken with their feedback has been simply wanting to make sure the U.S. family knows someone is visiting their loved one and bringing them good thoughts and flowers locally,” she said. “It has to be one of the biggest act of kindness out there.”
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.