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.
Families of American soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten can submit photos 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.
According to the database, the following soldiers with ties to Champaign County are buried in Belgium: Lewis W. Starr (Ardennes), Wilbur R. Pullins (Henri-Chapelle), Willis R. Yoder (Henri-Chapelle), Walter C. Burke (Henri-Chapelle) and Marcus H. McCrery (Ardennes). The website is in need of a photograph of all the soldiers except McCrery.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.