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 Post subject: Fallen but not forgotten - Memorial Day
Post Posted: May 22, 2019 8:10 pm 
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I was born under Hitler in Holland. This article is touching
Fallen but Not Forgotten
It was the summer of 2005 when I finally visited the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten where my dad was laid to rest in January, 1945. I was only two years old when my father. William Wilson, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. My mother was left to raise three children by herself. As I grew older, I often wondered why my mother never brought my father home. Upon visiting the cemetery in Margraten, Holland, I knew almost immediately my mother had made the right decision. As I looked across the endless rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David, I was in awe of the sheer beauty of this final resting place for American soldiers who sacrificed so much for both our freedom and that of the people of Europe. It was particularly stirring to know my dad was laid to rest in such picturesque surroundings. My son, Jeff, traveled with me and since we were direct descendants of a soldier in the cemetery, we were allowed to climb a tower which overlooks the rows of crosses and the beautiful countryside. To say it was an emotional moment, would be an understatement.
It was during this visit that I learned that each and every grave site had been adopted by a member of the local community. Thus began the search to find the person who had adopted my father’s grave. What I found, has left me amazed and forever grateful. On this Memorial Day, I wish to share with you the story of one great lady whom I have never met, yet owe a boundless debt of gratitude. This lady is Bertha Bouwers who adopted my father’s grave in 1945 when she was just twenty-four years of age. At that time she was not yet married, and her maiden name was Bertha Bastin. At twenty-four, Bertha Bastin began to place flowers on my father’s grave on special days like Memorial Day, Christmas, and a day the Dutch call “Dodenherdenking” which quite literally translates into “Remembering the Dead.” She continued to faithfully adorn his grave with flowers after she married. For 70 years, she did not miss a day during these special events!
In Mrs. Bouwers later years, her daughter, Lea Hochstenbach, joined in helping her mother. When her mother passed away in 2015, Lea adopted the grave that her mother had so lovingly cared for. Lea told me that taking care of my dad’s grave meant so much to her mother, that she desires to continue the legacy. She says that her mother was always thinking of my father and was thankful for the opportunity that was presented to her. My family and I are forever grateful to Bertha Bouwers and Lea Hochstenbach for the faithfulness, dedication, and yes, love they have shown to us in caring for our father’s grave.
Born and raised in New Jersey, but having lived in Alabama longer than in any other state and having come to consider myself an Alabamian, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the plan to adopt and lovingly care for the graves at the Netherlands American Cemetery had its beginnings in a letter written by a girl in a small Alabama town. According to a 1963 Reader’s Digest article about the cemetery, this girl had lost her husband in WWII just six weeks after their marriage. She wrote to the burgemeester of Maastricht, a town near the Margraten cemetery, asking if he would locate her husband’s grave, place flowers on it, and send her a picture along with a short letter.
It’s at this point, that I see the providential hand of God at work! You see, shortly before the burgemeester received this letter, his wife had proposed the idea of adopting the graves of the fallen American soldiers in Margraten. However, the burgemeester vetoed his wife’s plan. His exact words are recorded to have been, “Out of the question, unless you get a sign from heaven.” Well, talk about a sign from heaven! The letter from this young Alabama girl was exactly that. The very next day, the baroness covered the grave of the boy from Alabama with irises and took photographs showing both the flowers and the fallen soldier’s name on the cross. She mailed the pictures with a note which began, “With all my heart I will help to give your dear one’s grave the care you would give it yourself.”
You can imagine how this Alabama widow was touched by such an act of kindness. In a desire to share this much appreciated gesture with others, she sent the picture to Life magazine, which published it. Others were prompted to send letters to Maastricht with requests similar to that of the young Alabama girl. This led to a committee being formed in response to the pleas of American family members who had lost their loved ones in battle. Also, the people of Maastricht and Margraten desired to do something to express their gratitude to the soldiers who had fought for their freedom from the Nazis, and in some cases even stayed in their homes. According to the Reader’s Digest article, the committee’s appeal for people to adopt the graves was met with an overwhelming response. All the graves were adopted, and there was even a waiting list of 3000 people who desired to sponsor a grave.
More than eight thousand soldiers are laid to rest in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten. The names of over seventeen hundred soldiers are on the Walls of the Missing. Each of these fallen has been adopted by a member of the local community. The people bring flowers to the cemetery and research the life of the service member as a way to honor their sacrifice. They think of their soldier as a member of their family and want their soldier to stay in the family. Today, the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery Margraten manages the program. With a similar intention, the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves created a program known as The Faces of Margraten. They collect photos of the fallen and display them next to the crosses, the Stars of David, and along the Walls of the Missing every two years in the early part of May, providing an even greater connection between the visitors and their liberators.
The devotion of the Dutch is a source of awe. An American descendant speaking at the 70th year Memorial Day observance asked, “What would cause a nation recovering from losses and trauma of their own to adopt the sons and daughters of another nation? And what would keep that commitment alive for all these years when the memory of the war has begun to fade? It is a unique occurrence in the history of civilization.” Their commitment fills my heart with gratitude. The phrase “fallen but not forgotten” is truly brought to life by the dedication of Dutch people who give so selflessly to the soldiers and the families they represent.
Reflecting upon the dedication and devotion Mrs. Bouwers demonstrated in looking after my dad’s grave, I asked myself, “Would I care for the grave of a stranger for 70 years?” I have not even been that faithful in visiting graves of family members to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. As Americans, we should ask ourselves if we show this level of appreciation for those who have sacrificed for our freedom.
The people of the Netherlands have a deep respect for the American soldiers who freed them from the occupation of the Nazis. An area school is named after one of the soldiers buried in the Margraten Cemetery. Children are taught that these victims of WWII are not just numbers, but they are people who also had families they left behind. Children speak with great pride of the soldier their family has adopted. The Dutch people of Margraten faithfully attend the Memorial Day observation at the Netherlands American Cemetery. The neatly cared for graves are beautifully adorned with flowers and a Dutch and an American flag. I have watched the Dutch people of Margraten observe their Memorial Day, sometimes standing in the rain sheltered only by their umbrellas. What motivates a people to do this? I believe it has its beginnings in the deep sense of gratitude in the minds and hearts of the Dutch who lived through the horrors of WWII, and who did not neglect to pass this appreciation and thankfulness unto the generations that followed.
An inscription on a wall at the Netherlands American Cemetery reads, “Here we and all who shall hereafter live in freedom will be reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.” Let us not let their sacrifices be forgotten and not let them be in vain.


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