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Remembering America’s Fallen Overseas

June 1, 2010
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One more Memorial Day post. The following is reprinted by permission and thanks to Lee Wahler:

Dear friends, colleagues and those front-line warriors:

This weekend will have passed with millions of Americans going about their way to their lakes and rivers to escape the heat and cities in which they live as Memorial Day weekend is usually the prelude to summer vacation. Many of us will take a moment, day or use the entire weekend to reflect on what TODAY really means…while others are rushing home from their sales bargains and in relaxed states from their ‘weekend away’.

I have had specific reasons to hold this day in higher regard than I had before June 1, 1964…the day I joined the Navy.
Since then I have been fortunate to have had a career that allowed me to travel to Western European countries and I saw, by chance, what some of those Belgians, Dutch, French and Luxembourgers do this particular weekend.

In May 2000, Melba and I visited the town of Wervik, BE which is about 2.5 hours NW of Paris. I was there on a Kiwanis-related project. While there, our hosts brought us to a ceremony called “The Last Post” which can be viewed in the website http://www.lastpost.be/ In short, this is a magnificent and poignant NIGHTLY tribute to the over 58,000 British Empire solders who are MISSING IN ACTION from the battles of WW1. Our host told us he had another surprise for us and took us to the Catholic church. There, where a memorial to Australian Cavalryman CPL Robert Leggett was to be placed, was their flagpole with OUR FLAG flying from it. According to Luc, it was the first time that our flag had flown in their town and because of our Kiwanis relationship in the Leggett project, the town council authorized the flag to be flown for us.

A second surprise awaited us though and that came the next day. After checking out of the hotel, Luc had us follow him NE about 15 minutes to the town of Waregem. Three turns later, he stopped and I noticed a large American flag in front of me…he had driven us to the Flanders Field American Military Cemetery. When we entered this small cemetery, we met Superintendent Tom Cavaness, b. Auburn, CA and raised in Tahoe Vista. He was delighted that he had visitors from his home county!

We were taken to the cemetery grounds and saw that each grave had already been decorated with American and Belgian flags in preparation for the next day’s Memorial Day ceremony. The local populace helped decorate the graves.

From there we headed east to the Ardennes American Military Cemetery in Liege, BE. Here are buried men who died mainly during the Battle of the Bulge and some from the MARKET GARDEN operation that mid-September. The graves were already decorated with American and Belgian flags as well. I was able to locate and decorate the grave of the brother of one of my fellow Kiwanians. As we were leaving, we were introduced to a former WWII RAF pilot and his British Army nurse wife. They came from England to decorate the grave of their “adopted son”…an American paratrooper they befriended before he jumped into Normandy.

On to Luxembourg where we were to stay for a couple of days. As we arrived at Superintendent Lee Atkinson’s residence, four mini-vans were waiting to turn into his driveway and we let them pass. Each van’s door opened and out came over a dozen boys and their adult drivers. They were American Boy Scouts from nearby AF bases in Germany. The next morning, they were out decorating all but two rows of graves with American and Luxembourg flags. At around 10:00am, about 100 citizens showed up and they started decorating all but two rows with a single yellow rose. The Memorial Service was to start at 2:00pm and during that ceremony, attended by what looked like about 1,000 Luxembourgers, everyone was given a flag or a rose and invited to decorate the remaining graves.

Two days we were at Normandy American Cemetery and there too, every grave was decorated with an American and French flag and there were hundreds of people walking the grounds bringing flowers to decorate as well. This was Memorial Day weekend in these Western European cities and villages where cemeteries operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission (http://www.abmc.gov/) are located. In one community, the village of Belleau which is home to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Belleau Wood battlefield, superintendent David Atkinson is very aware that the local populace wants to host visiting next-of-kin of the soldiers and Marines buried there.

The over 8,200 men and two nurses buried at the American cemetery in Margraten, NL have each been “adopted” by a Dutch family as their own son or daughter. Only one family is allowed to adopt a fallen warrior and one can adopt a soldier only if that family decides to no longer care for that warrior’s grave.. To our knowledge, NOT ONE SOLDIER HAS BEEN TURNED OVER TO SOMEONE ELSE! I believe that this custom has started at Normandy.

The Western Europeans in these battle areas also decorate the graves on the Fallen Warrior’s birthday, date he was killed, May 8th (VE-Day), D-Day, Armistice Day and mid-September to honor the sacrifices of Operation: MARKET GARDEN.

I am assuming that such activities take place in Italy (Florence and Sicily-Rome); Tunis, Tunisia and in the Philippines (Manila American Cemetery, Cabanatuan (Prison Camp of the Bataan Death March) and on Saipan, in Papua and Guadalcanal where ABMC also maintains Memorial Monuments.

This is not a ‘chore’ or ‘project’ for these citizens…it is an ongoing tradition of Honor and Respect that has been passed on since 1919 and extended in 1945. What is very gratifying to see is all the children that accompany their parents, grandparents and great grandparents…some of the latter who may have saved the lives of our downed fliers, hid lost paratroopers like the Dubocq family in Normandy or led our troops out of possible ambush sites as they pushed north and east from Normandy and Italy.

In closing, Memorial Day is a day of reflection for me on the memory of FTSA William Dennis III, KIA 15 March1967 on the Long Tau River, Republic of Viet Nam; RD1 Wilbur “Pops” Cosson, one of my patrol officers who was KIA 7 July 1967, Long Toan Secret Zone, Co Chien River, Republic of Viet Nam; LCDR James B Mills, USNR, MIA 21 SEP 1966 (whose POW/MIA bracelet was given to me by his sister Judy on Armistice Day 1986) and SFC Allen Johnson, USA Special Forces, KIA 26 April 2005, Khanaqin, Afghanistan.

Today I dedicate to those Warriors who fell and gave up their tomorrows….for all of the todays we have enjoyed.
With respect, I close this post with the following presentation…

Ken Delfino
United States Navy (ret)

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