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Joe's Neighborhood

‘Our boys’ — Part 1

5/21/2014

The old Dutch couple moved slowly along the narrow reflecting pool. Flowers and a vase were cradled in the woman’s arms. They stopped. The man took the vase from the woman and carefully, with obvious complaint by his joints, went to one knee next to the pool. He dragged the vase through the water and then handed the dripping vase to his wife. Pushing both hands against his bent knee, he forced himself back into a walking position. The man adjusted his coat. With his wife by his side, he continued the slow walk along the pool toward the stairs. Looking past the old couple, and just on the other side of the stairs, the tops of marble crosses and stars of David could be seen glimmering in the early morning sun. And in the far corner, an America flag was flying far from home.

ALFRED WESTVOLD. Hometown in Jasper County, Iowa. Killed on April 7, 1945, east of Muhlhausen-Thuringen, Germany. His wife was Helen, his only son was Larry.

The cemetery near Margraten, the Netherlands, might have been sitting smack in Iowa farm country from outward appearances. When the bus from Maastricht left my wife and me on the side of the road, we found ourselves in the middle of lush spring wheat fields without a town or a person in sight. It was the wrong country for “amber fields of grain,” but it felt like home.

joes1The engraved stone wall across the road announced: Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. This road in front of the cemetery, the road we traveled to arrive, was originally built by the Romans for the war campaigns of Caesar. This same road was used by the Germans to invade France. And the road was later used by the Allies to attack Germany. During late1944 through 1945, however, this road carried truckload after truckload of dead boys, sometimes 1,000 a day. The trucks were unloaded at this very location — the last stop.

ADOLPH PEDERSON. Hometown in Emmet County, Iowa. Killed on November 28th, 1944, in Germany. Bernice was his wife. He had six sisters and one brother.

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Although the Netherlands wasn’t totally liberated by the Allies until 1945, this little section in the southeast corner of Holland was freed by September of 1944. It became a staging area for troops heading into Germany and other parts of the Netherlands. Many soldiers who came through here were put up by Dutch families and made Dutch friends. Many of these same soldiers returned in the trucks, killed in nearby Germany. More than 17,000 bodies. The majority of the dead were eventually returned to their hometowns in America. But 8,301 stayed in this restful spot next to their comrades — hallowed ground.

joes2CHARLES CLOUGH. Hometown in Hardin County, Iowa. Killed on November 22, 1944, in Mullerdorf, Germany. His dad was Charles. His mom was Eldona. He was killed by a German sniper on Thanksgiving Day.

Forty sets of brothers are buried here, side by side. Four women caught in the maelstrom of the Second World War are also. When bodies were found that could not be identified, they were given a marker that says: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” There is even one grave with two unidentified bodies together. It is suspected they were killed in a tank explosion. Melded together in the heat, it was felt “unethical” to separate them.

EDWIN WULFEKUHLE. Hometown in Clayton County, Iowa. Killed on July 28, 1943, somewhere in the North Sea. Wife was Ruth. His only son was Edmund. He was last seen bailing out of his plane.

joes3Two long walls separated by a reflecting pool provide the roll call for 1,722 missing American soldiers. In 1994, the remains were found of one young soldier whose name was on this wall of the missing. His funeral was the last to be held at the cemetery, nearly 50 years after the end of the war.

GEORGE KERBY. Hometown in Appanoose County, Iowa. Killed on February 23, 1945, in Hilfarth, Germany. His dad was David. His mom was Cora. George was promoted to Private First Class nine days before he was killed.

Ah, but there’s another story this cemetery tells.

In late 1944 and early 1945, as the bodies poured into Margraten, the Dutch town folks responded by assisting in any way possible, including digging graves when the bodies became too many for the American Burial Corp. When the war finally ended, the Dutch communities were at a loss as to how to thank the Americans and to show respect for those who gave their lives. On Memorial Day in 1945, just weeks after the end of the war, 30,000 Dutch showed up at this cemetery to honor the American dead. Even more amazing, all 17,000 graves were decked out in flowers provided from Dutch gardens. After the ceremonies were ended, the Dutch refused to go home. They remained at the cemetery to pray for the dead. No one left. And the next year? More than 50,000 Dutch showed up at the Margraten cemetery. Yup, 50,000 Dutch to honor our dead.

RICHARD WESTFALL. Hometown in Tama County, Iowa. Killed on April 1, 1945, at Eisen, Germany. His mom was Nora. His dad was Carroll. He also had two brothers who fought in the war, George and Raymond.

A translator used frequently by the American army staff back in 1944 was the Margraten town clerk, Joseph van Laar. After the war ended, an American soldier asked van Laar to periodically bring flowers to the grave of his cousin. Peter Schrijvers, in his book about the cemetery and town, says that van Laar responded: “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family… I will adopt his grave.”

LYLE EVANS. Hometown in Linn County, Iowa. Killed on April 6, 1945, near Dortmund, Germany. His wife was Alice.

And so it began. The request for adoptions from American relatives overwhelmed van Laar. Soon the mayor of Margraten decided to form a committee to organize the adoption process. The Dutch responded to the committee’s request for volunteers in overwhelming numbers. Grave after grave was given a family. And now, nearly 70 years later, every grave is adopted; every missing person has a family. Yup, more than 10,000 adoptions.

As for the adopters, sure, they bring flowers to the graves, they write letters to the families when the families request, they send pictures of the grave or pictures of the name on the wall, but, mostly, they remember. They remember when we all might forget. And their remembrance is kept alive by their children. The caretaker at the cemetery said that some graves are tended by the third generation of the same Dutch family. The dead passing on the memory of the dead. Amazing.

On Memorial Day this year, every grave will again have flowers. And, once again, thousands from the surrounding communities will come for the ceremonies to honor the dead. How can this be? Schrijvers offers a clue: “When the Dutch talk about the soldiers whose graves they have adopted, they rarely mention ranks or last names. Instead, they speak of Jack, or Gustav, or Antonio, or, just as naturally and caringly, of ‘our boys.’ ” You see, this is personal. As van Laar said to the American soldier, “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family.” And so they do.

joes5What about the dozens upon dozens of Iowa boys resting on this hill? Don’t worry. Each one of them has a Dutch family. These families are bringing flowers, brushing off the cross, or the Star of David, or the carved indenture into the stone wall. Grass will be clipped, bird droppings whisked away, a wet cloth wiped across the smooth white marble. Rest assured, the grave will be prepared for this Memorial Day, someone will speak his name aloud, and every Iowa boy will be remembered and honored.

PAUL LUTKER. Hometown in Scott County, Iowa. Killed on January 2, 1945, in Belgium. Wife was Lenora. Daughter was Nancy.

Meanwhile, the old Dutch couple made their way up the stairs to the large field of graves. The old man trailed just a little behind his wife. They seemed intent as they headed into the field of graves. They had a job to do. An important job. They had flowers to deliver to their boy.

“Our boys.” CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

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