Overseas memorials honor US service, sacrifice
There is a good chance you have heard of or seen pictures of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. But less well known are another 23 American military cemeteries overseas that honor 125,000 US servicemen and women. All of them hold the promise of a memorable visit.
David Bedford, superintendent of the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England, says first-time visitors are often initially confused. “They don’t know how to take it because there is a sort of sad calm and reverence here,’’ he says. “They frequently say that it is beautiful, but immediately recant by asking, How can something like this be beautiful?’’
The reaction is the result of the planning that went into the creation of each cemetery. Teams of sculptors, landscape designers, memorial architects, mosaic artists, and muralists were employed to create sites that would attract visitors to come and reflect on the accomplishments of the deceased. Several are close to Rome, London, and Paris.
When a tour of Italy I was on made an unexpected stop at the Florence American Cemetery at the request of our young guide, everyone was teary-eyed and silent as we returned to the bus after walking through the memorial building and the perfectly manicured grounds. Several long moments after the bus was underway no one had yet spoken. Then our guide said softly: “Many of your countrymen died so I could live in freedom.’’
“We want more Americans to experience firsthand how those who sacrificed so much are honored forever,’’ says Mike Conley, public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission, the US government agency that has been the guardian of the cemeteries since 1923.
Allegra Smick, a teacher at the Waring School in Beverly, has been to Normandy several times as a chaperone for ninth-grade students who spend a month in France each year on an exchange program. During the latest trip in March, each student was given the location of a grave of a Massachusetts soldier to find, and then asked to write a short story about the experience. What Theo Burbank, 14, wrote shows the emotional impact a visit can have:
“When I reach Plot G, Row 14, Grave 34, and see ‘Everett J. Foote’ engraved into the cross, I feel like I know him. I know this isn’t possible — he wasn’t a relative of mine, and he died long before I was born. But as I read his name over and over again, I feel like I must.
“I spend a few minutes just looking at Everett’s grave, trying to soak in every detail. I know we have to leave soon, but I’m not ready. I want him to know that I came here, that I found him among this sea of tombstones.
“ ‘Goodbye Everett,’ I whisper, hoping that somehow the words will make their way through the ground and find him. ‘And thank you.’ ’’
Only about 10 percent of all visitors to the cemeteries are from the United States. Karl Rosenbaum of Stoystown, Pa., and his wife and son visited the grave of Karl’s uncle, PFC Robert Rosenbaum, at the Brittany American Cemetery last year. Alan Amelinckx from New Orleans, acting superintendent, spent hours using a map to carefully explain what was happening in the area the day Rosenbaum’s uncle perished. After escorting them to the grave, Amelinckx rubbed sand from the beach at Normandy into the inscription. “Ever so slowly the name appeared until it looked like it had been carved yesterday,’’ Karl recalls. “I left knowing my uncle is so well cared for. It meant a lot to me.’’
Eight years ago Catherine Corpening of Hickory, N.C., visited the grave of her father, Tech Sergeant Ira Royster, with Royster’s great-grandson Judson, 12, at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium. Judson took out an eagle-shaped arrowhead he had found and brought from home and hung it on the gravestone.
Last year when Corpening returned, she mentioned her grandson’s gesture to the superintendent. “We knew it must have been very special to someone,’’ she was told. “We found it and kept it in your dad’s file.’’ Now the memento is back home in a frame in Judson’s room.
US visitors are often surprised at the reverence displayed for each cemetery by local communities. Superintendent Michael Yasenchak at the Netherlands American Cemetery says, “Most local families have a deep sense of devotion to their American liberators.’’
Every cemetery has an American Memorial Day ceremony when US flags and a flag of the home nation are placed by each grave. “We have about 6,000 people and American and Dutch dignitaries who attend each year,’’ Yasenchak says. “Most attendees are Dutch.’’
Many local citizens participate in “adopt-a-grave programs.’’ At the Netherlands cemetery all 8,301 graves have been adopted, sometimes by second and third generations who voluntarily visit the grave of their adopted soldier.
Since the end of World War II all remains have been returned home and no new ABMC cemeteries have been created. The only new burials allowed are of the few remains still being discovered.
For next of kin who visit, it often alleviates any anxiety of a long past decision to have a relative interred so far from home. When Corpening returned to North Carolina after her first visit, her uncle admitted that for 50 years he had been uncertain of the advice he had given Corpening’s mother that her husband should be buried alongside the men with whom he fought and died.
“I told him that there was not a more serene place in this world,’’ Corpening says. “I will always know he will be honored and taken care of forever.’’
Jim Winnerman can be reached at email@example.com.