by Ambassador (ret.) Brenda Brown Schoonover
Monday, May 27, 2013, the last Monday in May was this year’s American Memorial Day, the day we honor men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. As is customary, there were commemorative ceremonies held throughout the country at a various military sites and cemeteries plus countless community events and parades and, of course, lots of picnics and barbecues transitioning into outdoor summer activities.
Not only do Americans celebrate Memorial Day on U.S. soil, we also honor our military heroes abroad at official ceremonies, particularly in countries where there are American military cemeteries. Of the several countries where I have served during my Foreign Service career, three have American military cemeteries, the Philippines, Tunisia, and Belgium.
There is something very special about visiting American military cemeteries and monuments outside the United States, especially if one is able to attend the Memorial Day events. I find the experience both exhilarating and somber. It provides the opportunity to honor our fallen heroes most often near the terrain where they actually fought and died. And, it reinforces my sense of national pride and offers valuable history lessons and insights into the significant role the United States played in defense of liberty in the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th Century.
Every cemetery I have visited has been in a beautiful, serene setting, pristinely landscaped and manicured under the direction of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Established by Congress in 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission manages 24 U.S. military cemeteries and 25 memorials, monuments and markers on foreign soils. Nearly all are designed to honor those who died in service in the First and Second World Wars. The Commission is responsible for maintaining the sites and for commemorating the service and achievements of the U.S. Armed Forces where they have served dating back to1917, the year the U.S. entered the First World War. In addition, ABMC designs and constructs memorial monuments in foreign countries.
I am most familiar with the Memorial Day Weekend observances in Belgium during my tour as the Deputy Chief of the Mission of the U.S. Embassy from 2001-2004 when I spent considerable time as the Chargé D’Affaires ad interim (acting ambassador). In that capacity, I was the embassy’s principal representative at several Memorial Day Weekend events held at the three American cemeteries in the country. In addition, I participated in numerous remembrance events at other sites; for example, the American federal monuments in Kemmel and Oudenaarde (Audenarde). The Kemmel Monument was erected in 1929 to recognize the bravery and achievements of the 27th and 30th Divisions whose soldiers fought in the World War I Ypres-Lys Offensive alongside the British Army from August 18 to September 4, 1918. The Oudenaarde Monument was erected in 1936 to honor the 40,000 American troops who participated in World War I operations in the area.
An impressive annual event held in Bastogne is the town’s Historic Walk and Nuts Festival commemorating, among other things, the World War II Battle of the Bulge. Fought in 1944 in and around Bastogne in response to Hitler’s last major effort to stop the Allied Armies from crossing the Rhine, the winter offensive was one of the biggest and bloodiest of the war. The chock-full, all-day ceremonies take place mostly outdoors in blustery December in weather similar to what it was like during the actual battle of 1944. There are special honors to the U.S.101st Airborne commanded by General Anthony McAuliffe near where General McAuliffe uttered his infamous response to the Germans message to surrender with his one word, “Nuts”, which reportedly initially confused the Germans as to whether the general meant yes or no; however, they fairly quickly got the meaning.
The parade through the streets of Bastogne passes Mercenary Square the site of a monument to renowned American General George S. Patton. Many Belgians participants are dressed in World II uniforms on foot or riding in a long caravan of incredibly well-preserved American military vehicles tenderly cared for all these many years by individuals and communities. You may see U.S. military medical vehicles with some passengers dressed as medics attending to others posing as the wounded. On a lighter note, there are a number of vintage American jeeps with drivers accompanied by children and the occasional dog brought along for the ride. There is so much to say about this special event in a special town. My advice is that you weather the elements and experience it yourself.
But back to the focus on the Memorial Day Weekend events at the three American cemeteries, all located on land provided in perpetuity by the Belgian Government. The American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA) is a key player in organizing all three cemetery events. A group of Americans in Paris created the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA) in 1920 to perpetuate the memory of American military personnel who died in the liberation of Europe by initially celebrating Memorial Day at the six World War I military cemeteries in France. AOMDA’s success in France led resident Americans in Belgium to establish a similar organization in 1923. A dedicated, all-volunteer, non-profit organization made up of civilian and military personnel, AOMDA-Belgium consists of representatives of the American Embassy (particularly the Office of the Defense Attaché), the American Battle Monuments Commission and the AOMDA Foundation. Members coordinate with the Belgian national and local governments and various American officials and participants on the details of the annual programs. Tirelessly, they do a remarkable job.
On the weekend before the Monday Memorial Day, ceremonies are held at each cemetery with the Ambassador or his or her representative participating in all three. Events at the two World War II sites are on Saturday, the Ardennes Cemetery in the morning and Henri-Chapelle in the afternoon. On Sunday afternoon, the program is at the World I cemetery, Flanders Field, located in the Flemish town of Waregem.
At all three locations there is an array of participants and attendees: Belgian citizens, including school children; American residents and tourists; Belgian government and military officials, including the King’s representative; U.S. military personnel; diplomats from the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Missions to the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) and the European Union and a few diplomats from other countries. Various members of the religious community, the American Chamber of Commerce and American Women’s Club join the procession of wreath-layers. The President of AOMDA is the master of ceremony. Several distinguished attendees give testimonials to the fallen Americans. Both American and Belgian Armed Forces units salute with military honors. Weather permitting, there may be an aircraft flyover performed by the United States and/or the Belgian Air Force.
A Closer Look at the Three American Military Cemeteries in Belgium:
The World War I Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial
After the First World War, the United States Government allowed the repatriation of the war dead to be guided by the wishes of the Next- of- Kin. Some relatives requested permanent interment in Europe. As a result, in 1919 the American War Department began establishing permanent World War I cemeteries sites in Europe: six in France, one in England and one in Belgium, which is Flanders Field, the smallest of eight American cemeteries commemorating the First World War in Europe.
Located on a little more than six acres in Waregem in the Flemish region of Belgium, Flanders Field is about forty miles west of Brussels. It stands on what was once a temporary battlefield cemetery where the American 31st and 91st Divisions suffered numerous losses. In 1921, the Belgian Ministry of Defense authorized its use as a permanent cemetery. The cemetery contains 411 identified burials and 21 unknown all who died between 1917 and 1918.
The Sunday afternoon ceremony usually includes a flyover with fighter aircraft performing the Missing Man Formation.
On May 30, 1927, there was a very special flyover. Just nine days after his solo trans-Atlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh paid tribute to his fallen countrymen by dropping a bouquet of flowers while the Memorial Day ceremonies were in progress. The flowers were wrapped in the airmen’s silk scarf, which is stored in the town of Waregem.
One of the most moving features is the more than 80-year tradition of the singing of the Belgian and American national anthems by about 100 area elementary school children. After they perform, the children scatter and place flowers and flags at each gravestone.
A more recent tradition, established in the 1980s, is an American high school student from one of the schools in Brussels recites Canadian soldier, physician and poet, John Mcrae’s poem, “In Flanders Field”:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.
The World War II Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial
Before the events at the cemetery at the Ardennes Cemetery, the citizens in the town of Neuville-en-Crodroz line the streets as the American Ambassador or his or her representative and others dignitaries set out in a procession to lay wreaths at the town’s war memorial.
About forty miles southeast of Brussels and not far from the city of Liege, the Ardennes Cemetery is in Neuville-en-Condroz near the southeast edge of Neupre, Wallonia. The approach to the cemetery and Monument leads to an impressive façade bearing a massive high relief sculpture of an American eagle with three figures symbolizing justice, liberty and truth.
The ninety-acre property is home to 5,328 graves of soldiers who perished in various battles in the area: the Battle at Hurtgen Forest on the border between Belgium Germany, the Battle in Aachen (Germany) and the Battle of the Bulge in and near Bastogne, Belgium. There is also a list of 462 names inscribed on the granite tablets, The Walls of the Missing.
World War II Henri-Chapelle Cemetery and Memorial
The Henri-Chapelle Cemetery, located in Aubel/Hombourg is approximately seventy miles southeast of Brussels, eight miles from Liege and sixteen from Aachen. Although given its name it is actually a mile and half northwest of the Walloon of village of Henri-Chapelle.
The approach to the cemetery offers a stunning vista of the Belgian countryside, a former battlefield. The site of fifty-seven acres situated on a beautiful plateau, has 7,992 gravesites of many who also died in the Battle of the Bulge. There are 35 pairs of brothers and in one case three brothers buried side- by-side.
It should be noted that the number graves increased from 7989 to 7992 in 2002 when the remains of three discovered Missing-in-Action (MIA) soldiers were, at the request of their families, interred in Henri-Chapellle. The three additions were PFC Saul Kokovitch, PFC Jack Beckwith and Sgt. Frederick Zimmerman of Company “C” who perished on December 15 and 16, 1944 in the rugged terrain in Hurtgen Forest. Their remains were found in 2001 thanks to the efforts and success of a remarkable team of four Belgians: Jean-Philippe Spedem, Marc Habique, Jean Louis Seel and Jean-Luc Monestrey. Armed with maps, war documents, metal detectors, picks and axes, the members dedicate their spare time to combing likely sites in search of Americans recorded missing in action in the area. The group is fondly known by the U.S. 99th Infantry Division Association as , “The Diggers”. They had been on the trail of three missing individuals for more than ten years.
Of the many of my rewards has been the opportunity to greet and shake hands with the Belgian World War II veterans and survivors including members of various women’s auxiliaries. Each year, they come donned with metals, faded berets and parts of or complete World War II uniforms – some miraculously well-preserved and well fitted. The aging Belgians show a genuine appreciation and gracious expression of their gratitude to the Allied Forces for the sacrifices Americans made to preserve freedom in Belgium. It rains a lot in Belgium, particularly in this region in the spring; so, more often than not, they stand unflinchingly in a downpour or a constant mist during the ceremonies. Their display of loyalty has endured over these many years only diminished by their dwindling numbers as they age, are too frail to attend or pass away. They show a particular affection for the young American honor guards who most resemble the brave young Americans they encountered seventy years ago when they themselves were young. But time is running out and the numbers of veterans and survivors are now down to a precious few—the more reason to treasure their presence.
There are American tourists who have very personal reasons for being there. They might be survivors returning to honor those who did not make it back home or family members who have traveled from the U.S. to pay their respects to their loved ones buried far from home. Sometimes they include generations of one family such as a surviving grandfather accompanied by his son and grandson.
Yet another rich tradition is when the President of AOMDA and I, as Chargé D’Affaires, have met family members at the gravestone of their loved-one. The president does the introductions and I thank the person or persons for making the journey and place an American and a Belgian flag at the headstone expressing gratitude for the service of their deceased relative. As protocol dictates, I say the words, “On behalf of a grateful nation.”
This year’s 2013 Memorial Services in Belgium were held at the three cemeteries on the weekend preceding Memorial Day, Saturday and Sunday, May 25 and 26. The American Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, spoke at the ceremonies. In his Saturday morning speech at the Ardennes, entitled “Standing Together”, Ambassador Gutman posed questions of why the American military came in defense of Europe during the World Wars and why even today thousands of Belgians attend the ceremonies, many repeatedly, and some adapt and maintain gravesites as the Ambassador poignantly states, “vigilantly with love…remembering people you have not met, visiting the graves of fathers whose children you do not know, graves of children whose parents grieved many years earlier and thousands of miles away.” He asked, “Do you come for us — the United States of America — to heal our wounds…. Or do you come for you — for the once occupied now long free Belgium?” In addressing the Belgians, the Ambassador concluded, “You see they came to you….and now you come to them…because we stand together. We did then, we do now, and we shall tomorrow.”
In looking back over the treasured times I have had the honor to be in the role of the American Embassy’s principal representative at remembrance events, I am reminded that Americans are most certainly not alone in thanking and honoring our fallen heroes and those connected to them. There are still the faithful Belgian old-timers who remember, who come year after year as unofficial emissaries of their country. There are the school children who come in the droves year-round; and, the elementary students in the Waregem, who practice throughout the year so that they can sing not only their own national anthem, but that of another country. Let’s not forget the diligent caretakers keeping the U.S. WW II vehicles in running order so they are at the ready when occasions call for them to be display symbolizing the vital importance of those workhorses in war. Add to the list the determined and persistent Diggers, who since 1988 have made it their mission to continue the search for American soldiers missing in action since the 1940’s. I had the honor of attending the June 2002 ceremony for the three interred soldiers heretofore Missing-in-Action for 57 years. The program’s brochure was aptly entitled “The Final Journey”. A family member shared that she wanted her loved one’s remains to be interred next to his comrades in the land and near the people he had fought for. One of the Belgians who had discovered the remains explained that he does what he does as a way of thanking the Americans for liberating his parents and grandparents. To him the soldiers are like family. It was obvious he was gratified that his efforts had culminated in three more heroes being bestowed their rightful honors and given resting places on Belgian soil. It was also clear he and his fellow Diggers would continue their labor of love.
The Ambassador’s speech in May of this year reinforced my own conclusion. We on both sides of the Atlantic, in our own way, pay homage to those who rest in the beautifully tended tranquil fields far from home. Individually and collectively, we humbly express our appreciation on behalf of our grateful nations.
Brenda Brown Schoonover, a native of Maryland, retired from the U. S. State Department Foreign Service in 2004 after more than 30 years of U.S. Government service. In addition to her volunteer assignment, she was also on the Peace Corps Staff in Washington and in Tanzania. There, she met her late husband of forty years, Foreign Service Officer Richard (Dick) Schoonover. She accompanied Dick on his tours with the United States Information Agency in Nigeria and Tunisia. After Brenda joined the State Department, the couple had tandem assignments in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Belgium. Brenda was also U.S. Ambassador to Togo in West Africa. She currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is on the advisory boards of the University of North Carolina’s Global Education, the International Affairs Council in the Research Triangle, IntraHealth International and Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service. She is President of American Diplomacy Publishers.