In November, 1944 the bodies of American soldiers who had been killed in nearby battles arrived in the village of Margraten, in the Netherlands. The war wasn’t over, and booby-traps and heavy artillery fire killed thousands of American soldiers trying to pierce the German defense lines during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. The U.S military needed a place to bury its fallen. The Americans ultimately picked a fruit orchard just outside Margraten.
Right from the start the people of Margraten took the Americans to their hearts. The company commanders stayed in the Mayor’s home and the enlisted men slept in the schools.
“After four dark years of occupation, suddenly [the Dutch] people were free from the Nazis, and they could go back to their normal lives and enjoy all the freedoms they were used to,” explained Frenk Lahaye, an associate at the cemetery. “They knew they had to thank the American allies for that.”…
Between late 1944 and spring 1945, up to 500 bodies arrived each day, so many that the mayor went door to door asking villagers for help with the digging.
Over the next two years, about 17,740 American soldiers would be buried here, though the number of graves would shrink as thousands of families asked for their loved ones’ remains to be sent home.
On May 29, 1945, 20 trucks from the 611th collected flowers from 60 different Dutch villages. Nearly 200 Dutch men, women and children spent all night arranging flowers and wreaths by the dirt-covered graves and their makeshift wooden crosses and Stars of David.
The adoption program was the brainchild of the town clerk and a local pastor. Every grave has a volunteer caretaker, and a waiting list.
For 70 years the Dutch have come to a verdant cemetery outside this small village to care for the graves of Americans killed in World War II. Today they came again bearing Memorial Day bouquets for men and women they never met, passing the responsibility from one generation to another.
Here is a film of that first Memorial Day in Margraten, in the Netherlands in 1945, No color, no sound, but it’s not needed. Very moving.
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