Memorial Day in Western Europe

AMERICAN MILITARY CEMETERY AT HENRI-CHAPELLE, BELGIUM

Every Memorial Day millions of Americans attend services at cemeteries throughout the USA to honor our fallen servicemen, yet most of us are unaware that similar services are held at American military cemeteries in Western Europe, where almost 125,000 American soldiers still lie, far from home.
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One of the biggest Memorial Day ceremonies takes place every year near the small Belgian town of Henri-Chapelle where several hundred Americans and Belgians gather on the beautiful green gentle slope of the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in the Ardennes Mountains of southeast Belgium. In 2006 I had the honor of attending the ceremonies.

The U.S. Marine Corps honor guard in dress uniform marched in perfect precision from the side of the cemetery to lead off the ceremony, the bright sun glinting off their medals and swords. Over 20 dignitaries came to pay tribute to the 7,992 U.S. military servicemen who lay there; most died in the ferocious fighting during Hitler’s last gasp campaign, known in the U.S. as the Battle of the Bulge, and to the locals as the Battle of the Ardennes. Others died during the advance into Germany or in the bloody Battle of the Hürtgen Forest.

The President of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA) welcomed attendees sitting or standing on the gently sloping grass bank in front of the long limestone memorial hall colonnade at the entrance to the cemetery, and then I heard a distant roar. Suddenly two USAF A-10 Tankbusters swooped through low over the cemetery, only a few hundred feet over our heads, in missing man formation.
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The ceremony continued with an invocation by a pastor — in English, French and Flemish (Belgium is a bilingual country) — followed by tributes from the burgomaster (mayor) of one of the small local towns, a U.S. military committee member from NATO, and the Ambassador of the United States. Although their speeches were eloquent and moving, my eyes kept wandering out over the long rows of perfectly aligned white crosses behind the speakers.

No matter where you stand in this huge 57-acre cemetery, rows of white crosses radiate out into the distance in perfect curved lines like spokes of a pinwheel. Small American and Belgian flags about a foot high were planted at the base of each cross; the staggering number of white crosses makes it hard to understand at a conscious level that each represents a young man who died in these rolling hills and snow-clad mountains in fall and winter of 1944, and spring of 1945.
Looking at these crosses and hearing the local burgomaster thank us for liberating his town, I couldn’t help but feel proud of the contribution the U.S. made to liberate Western Europe; however, my pride was tempered with sadness, realizing that thousands of men died without ever knowing the outcome of the war.

Benedictions and the Belgian and American National Anthems followed a lengthy wreath laying ceremony. I learned later that some of the wreath layers were Americans whose relatives died there; others were Belgian citizens who adopted many of the buried soldiers. They come to the site several times each year to maintain the grave, place flowers and attend memorial ceremonies, standing in for American relatives who cannot attend. The wreaths are laid out in rows below a bronze statue of an archangel, standing atop a tall white stone column.

After the ceremonies I wandered around the cemetery looking at the white marble crosses. They are engraved with the serviceman’s name, rank, division, state of origin and date of death. I saw many crosses with the same date of death, evidence of particularly heavy fighting and casualties. Frequently I saw a cross with the words, “Here Rests In Honored Glory A Comrade In Arms Known But To God.” I learned there are 94 such unknowns buried there.

The information sheet I picked up from the museum room tells me there are 33 sets of brothers buried side by side, plus one area with three brothers lying beside each other. These soldiers came from all 48 states in the Union that existed in 1944, plus the District of Columbia, Panama and England.

The long Memorial Hall, or colonnade, has 24 pylons and 48 faces each engraved with the seals of the wartime states, three territories and the District of Columbia. The names of 450 missing servicemen whose remains were never found are engraved on the faces of the columns. Through the bronze doors of the chapel stands a magnificent blue marble altar, surrounded by flags of the Air Force, Armor, Christian and Jewish Chaplain, Engineers, Field Artillery, Infantry and Navy Battalions.
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The Museum and Visitor’s Room at the south end of the colonnade has a large campaign map of Swedish black granite that shows the military operations in northwestern Europe from the D-Day landings at Normandy to the end of the war. A lot of craftsmanship has gone into this map with its inlaid mosaics, engraved and colored sections, anodized aluminum and bronze.
I came away from this serene resting place knowing that Belgium has never forgotten the ultimate sacrifices made by these young soldiers during WWII.

The AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION maintains 24 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil, with 20 in Western Europe and England. Memorial Day services are held at them all. To learn more about the American Battle Monuments Commission, visit www.abmc.gov.

The ceremonies in Belgium are organized by the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA; visit www.aomda.org). The 2009 Memorial Day ceremonies at Henri-Chapelle will be held on Saturday, 23 May.

The HENRI-CHAPELLE AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL is two miles northwest of the village of Henri-Chapelle, which is on the main highway from Liege, Belgium, to Aachen, Germany (18 miles/29 km from Liege; 10 miles/16 km from Aachen).

Visitors can reach the cemetery by train from Paris (Gare du Nord, 5½ hours), from Brussels (2 hours) and Liege, Belgium, or from Germany via Aachen, to Welkenraedt, Belgium, where taxicab service to the cemetery (4½ miles) is available.

If you are traveling by car from Brussels, take the E-40 in the direction Aachen. Then take the exit for Battice and follow the signs to the village of Henri-Chapelle (about 14 kilometers.) At the entrance to the village, the cemetery is sign-posted to the left.

photos by Mark Hubis