Memorial Day Weekend 2012 in Belgium and The Netherlands – Part II
Back to Part I – Henri-Chapelle
“Oos Heim” Margraten
Having made the trip from Henri-Chapelle, Belgium to Margraten, The Netherlands in a very relaxed 25 minutes – the weather and scenery were so utterly beautiful. It was one of those days where you could just not help but smile and thank God you are alive – I stopped the car at “Oos Heim” (local dialect meaning “Our Home”), Margraten’s community center and walked inside. Margraten, itself, dates from the 13th century and is a small village sitting on top an ancient plateau surrounded by lush farmland, apple orchards, and wooded areas. It has a population of a few thousand, and the American cemetery is the final resting place for 8,301 G.I.s. Sixty-eight years ago on 13 September 1944 when it was liberated from the Nazis, the population was only several hundred, and in 1946, at its largest, the cemetery contained almost 20,000 graves.
Inside “Oos Heim” I met some incredible people. My primary reason for being there was to meet, Peter Schrijvers, the author of the book The Margraten Boys (see post Citadel Men and Margraten Boys). I greeted people, took a cup of coffee, and sat a few minutes in the auditorium before joining the line of others waiting to meet the author and having him sign copies of his book.
During that time I met and spoke with Nicole Sproncken who just a few days earlier I had met via Facebook. She saw the Citadel shirt I was wearing, came up to me, said, “You must be Roger” and offered her hand. We had connected because she had read the “Citadel Men and Margraten Boys” post and had shared it with her social network. Nicole moderates several Facebook groups which are open “For all the people who adopted a grave at the [Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle, Normandy, or Netherlands] American Cemetery or a name on the Walls of the Missing. Also for the relatives of all the soldiers buried and memorialized at this cemetery. And last but not least for all the veterans in the United States.” I enjoy participating in these FB groups because we here in Europe are able to bring family in the States closer to the cemeteries and their loved ones, and the families in the States are sharing their loved ones’ stories with us. In this manner, the fallen heroes continue to live and be remembered.
I also spoke with the man standing behind me in line. I cannot remember how we got to it, but, at some point in the conversation, he pointed to the cover of The Margraten Boys and said, “That’s my adoptee [Sgt. Michael DeFebio].” I immediately responded with “You’re Ben Savelkoul.” I had read his name in the book, but that was actually the second time I had seen it. While searching the web for details of the Citadel Men at Margraten I came across Ben’s website dedicated to the 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. It is a very content rich website which really impressed me. As an American, what I found most remarkable was how many American Cemeteries the Dutchman has visited – 14 of the 24 overseas cemeteries plus Arlington and Gettysburg.
Another extraordinary person I met in “Oss Heim” is Bert Kleijnen. Bert is a board member and volunteer of the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery Margraten. The origins of the foundation go back to February 1945 when the “Citizens Committee Margraten” was established. The objective of the committee was to put a large-scale adoption program in place for the cemetery even though at the time the cemetery was “temporary”. Adopters were expected to regularly visit the adopted grave and place flowers there. The program was so well subscribed that on the first Memorial Day in 1945 all 18,764 graves had been adopted. The history of the cemetery and the foundation are forever intertwined, and The Margraten Boys tells this story.
I had first read about the history of the cemetery at Margraten in the local newspaper, Dagblad De Limburger, when I first moved to the Dutch province of Limburg in 2004. Since then, I wanted to read the book Crosses in the Wind written by Captain Joseph “James” Shomon, the U.S. Army officer commanding the 611th Graves Registration Company who sited and oversaw the layout of the cemetery in its first year and a half. Captain Shomon is memorialized in Margraten village where a street is named after him. He died in 2003 and now rests in peace in Arlington National Cemetery.
While I knew that the English version is no longer available, I still asked about the English version at the table where Dutch versions were being sold. Mr. Kleijnen confirmed that the English version is out of print, but then he spontaneously offered me his own personal English copy. I still need to pick this up from him, but I must say that his generosity touched me deeply.
I finally met and spoke with author Peter Schrijvers. I showed him photos of Margraten’s eight Citadel Men and told him of their unique bond – all having attended a small military college in Charleston, South Carolina. I then asked him to sign a couple copies of his book which I have posted this past week to relatives of Margraten Boys back in the States. I also had him sign a copy I intend to donate to the school.
Although my time at “Oos Heim” was short, not longer than an hour, it was an intense experience and an honor to meet four Limburgers who have made remembering the lives and sacrifices of the American G.I.s who liberated this part of Europe an integral part of their own lives. As I walked out of the building, got into my car and headed towards the cemetery I could not help but smile and thank God that I live in a community with such special people. May God continue to bless and watch over all of those who watch over the Margraten Boys and our eight Citadel Men.
End Part II
Back to Part I – Henri-Chapelle
Select one of the options at the top of the right hand column to follow this blog and not miss the next post: Part III – Netherlands American Cemetery
I also shot a short minute and a half 360 degree video of the cemetery. You can find it on The Citadel Memorial Europe’s Facebook page by clicking here.