David M. Shribman
This is a column about war and remembrance, and about how the sacrifice of more than 8,000 American wartime soldiers and aviators has never been forgotten. It is about respect, duty, and loyalty — three attributes that sometimes seem to be in short supply but are cultivated in surfeit in a small corner of the Netherlands that is forever America.
And so, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the American Battle Monuments Commission this year, it is appropriate to retell how, on a bright, sunny day in September 1944, more than 800 B-17 aircraft, airborne beasts known as Flying Fortresses, began their bombing in a massive effort to clear a transport route through the Netherlands.
These were the early salvos in an Allied World War II offensive known as Operation Market Garden, an offensive whose principal advocate was British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
The battle, conducted by pilots in planes and gliders and by American, British, and Polish personnel on the ground, liberated part of the Netherlands and provided a staging area for subsequent advances — yet still is deemed a failure.
Many bridges — essential in the effort to liberate Holland and to hack a path for Allied soldiers to advance into Germany — were captured, to be sure.
But in the drive toward the Nazi homeland, there remained one bridge too far — a phrase that became a popular metaphor nearly a half-century ago after Cornelius Ryan, speaking of the bridge in Arnhem on the northern bank of the Rhine, wrote an account of the battle and the Allied drive that fell just short.
Even so, Ryan described Market Garden as “one of the most daring and imaginative operations of the war.” He spoke of “the rawest form of courage,” and he saluted the fighters’ “brave but futile attempt to break through the German defenses to the north and east and get to Arnhem.”
That bravery, and the futility of the effort, now are all but forgotten in the United States. But in the Netherlands, the bravery is remembered and revered.
Very little of that memory and reverence is firsthand memory; the battle began 79 years ago this month. But tales of the struggle have been passed on, generation to generation, sometimes in awe, always in thanks.
Though Germany’s iron grip on continental Europe had been loosened 10 weeks earlier when the Allies stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day, the Dutch remained captives of the Nazis. Hungry for liberation, hopeful for the sound of Allied warplanes and footsteps on the soggy ground, there suddenly was a break in the despair, matching the break in the weather that allowed the Allies to proceed.
“The hour of liberation the Netherlands have awaited so long is now very near,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a radio broadcast. Ryan wrote that the Dutch were “hysterical with joy.” Nuns danced in a convent corridor.
Gen. John Pershing, who commanded American troops in the First World War, is sometimes remembered for saying, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
Time has not dimmed the glory of the combatants of Market Garden, which is why the fallen soldiers of that operation are remembered in a special way in the Netherlands.
The venue of that remembrance is the only war cemetery in that country, located in the Eijsden-Margraten municipality. All of the crosses, row on row, and the Stars of David, each one marking what are called the “fallen liberators,” have been “adopted,” primarily by Dutch individuals and families but also by American relatives of the dead.
Additional names engraved on the Walls of the Missing also have been adopted — so fervently, so reverentially, so dependably, that there is a waiting list for adoption, now numbering 1,000. And though there are two other European cemeteries with adoption programs, this is the only one where every grave has been adopted.
Relatives of the fallen are invited to apply to learn the names of those who adopted their family members’ graves or wall inscriptions.
“Those contacts now span the generations,” Ton Hermes, director of the Foundation for Adopting Graves in the American Cemetery Margraten, said in a commemorative video. “We see there has been a shift in the population of adopters, from people who have experienced the war to the younger generation who have not experienced the war.”
Indeed, adopting a grave now has become a matter of course for younger people, who join their parents in tending the graves — a gesture of gratitude, to be sure, but also a lesson in local and global history.
Adopters are asked to visit the graves several times a year, to decorate them on the last Sunday of May and to attempt to be in contact with the victims’ families. Many of them keep a portrait of their adopted sons in their home, and each year memorial services are held for “the men who died to liberate Holland,” accompanied by a rendition of the trumpet piece “Il Silenzio,” which Nini Rosso was commissioned to write in 1965 and which has been played on each anniversary of the liberation of the Dutch ever since.
This tradition began almost immediately. Gen. William Hood Simpson, the commander of the Ninth Army, ordered the construction of a cemetery in Margraten, with the first victim buried in November 1944. The first adoption occurred the next year, when an American captain asked a local resident, Jef van Laar, to visit the grave of a fallen friend and then to send pictures of it to his American parents. After he “adopted” the grave, additional American families made similar requests, and before long, with the support and assistance of the town clerk and a local pastor, the idea took wing.
At the start, local residents drove throughout the district in 20 trucks, visiting 60 villages to collect bouquets for the graves. Now they appear as if by magic, but really as solemn memorial.
“My family and I continue to be amazed by the degree of respect and dedication that the Dutch people have for their fallen liberators who are honored here at the Netherlands American Cemetery,” said Ryan Dakir, assistant superintendent of the American Cemetery.
Now, an average of 234 World War II veterans are dying every day, and by next year, only 100,000 are projected to remain alive. But the Dutch are keeping memories alive, one by one, row by row, year after year.
A Swampscott High School Class of 1972 member, David M. Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.