|Newsweek: 29 May 2006
The Important of The Overseas Military Cemeteries
|This article aptly explains the pull of the European American cemeteries. Attend one ceremony and you'll never forget it. David Atkinson is now Superintendant at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, adjacent to Belleau Wood. When wounded Marines from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
visit, David barbecues for the men fresh out of Iraq and Afghanistan, his personal tribute to their comrades underneath the French soil.
|BY JONATHAN KEEHNER
A Chance to Honor Our Best Ambassadors
We must do more to remember the dead American soldiers whose sacrifice forever binds us to Europe
On an overcast morning at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium, a few miles from the German border, David Atkinson gathered supplies for the day: a small American flag and pail of sand. As he worked, he explained that rubbing the sand on the headstone would make the inscription stand out in our photographs. “We avoid clay or iron oxide in order to not stain the marble,” said the 50-year- old superintendent with the fuzzy accent of someone used to conversing in four languages daily. Atkinson was additsaing my father, my older brother and me. We had come to Belgium to visit my grandfather’s grave— a first for his two grandsons. Henri-Chapelle is the resting place for 7,992 American World War II dead.
As we stood overlooking a gentle valley patchworked with farms, we felt far from the carnage that took place on that spot at the Battle of the Bulge in early 1945. Many of those buried at Henri-Chapelle perished while repulsing Germans in the Ar dennes or advancing across the border. Atkinson was doing for us what he had done for countless others: preserving the memory of a relative who had never come home. As it turned out, his own father died serving the United States. His parents met during the first world war, and after his father’s death he was raised in his mother’s native Normandy, where, he recalled, he had played in abandoned German bunkers.
Atkinson led us into the visitors’ room—a dark space overwhelmed by an enormous granite map on one wall.Engraved in black stone were arrows representing Allied advances. Searching the map, I was able to find the 83rd Division, my grandfather’s unit.Soon we exited onto a massive lime stone colonnade bordered by rectangular pylons. Surrounded by hundreds of engraved names was this inscription:
HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES
OF AMERICANS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES
IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY
AND WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES.
As we walked toward my grandfather’s grave, past row after sweeping row of crosses and Stars of David, I felt pride- and shame that I had never done this be fore. I was grateful when Atkinson broke the silence to tell us about himself. His career with the American Battle Monuments Commission began with World War I memorials. Having worked at several across Europe, he found himself frustrated by the cemeteries of the Great War. “Of the thousands buried at these places, weknew the story—the real story—of only handful,” he said. He wondered how coming generations would ever understand the sacrifice of those men.
Now, at Henri- Chapelle, he oversees thriving “adoption” program, where local Belgians can sponsor a dead soldier, commemorating his grave and staying in touch with his relatives in the States. Some sponsors even play host to visiting Americans. It turned out that a Belgian couple had adopted my grandfather. They are from somewhere called Foyr, arid I wonder if perhaps I’ll stay there someday.Atkinson’s vision for Henri-Chapelle extends to the American school system. Last February he mailed letters to every governor, requesting support for a program that would have children research soldiers from their hometowns—beginning with those for whom there are no biographies or photos. So far, 15 states have responded.
We arrived at number 71, row 02, plot F and the headstone of Private MerleJ. Miller. An Iowan killed in action less than a year after being drafted, my grandfather left behind an only child aged 14 months. My dad, who was given his stepfather’s surname, reached out to caress the marble. At 61, this was as close as he could remember being to his father. When it was my turn, I moved in at an angle, avoiding an invisible six-foot rectangle. Imitating my father’s gesture, I reached for the headstone. It felt cold and smooth, and I too realized this was as close as I’d ever be to my grandfather.
The way Atkinson sees it, these dead men are ambassadors, at a time when both Americans and Europeans have departed from their shared postwar vision. People on both sides of the Atlantic need to be reminded of how close they once were, and perhaps can be again. It is the new generation of Americans Atkinson thinks most about these days. He hopes his school program will ultimately lead to an online data base for all World War II dead.
For the sake of his important work, I can only hope he’s right—and perhaps further his vision a little by sharing it with those who will listen.
KEEHNER lives in New York City.
12 NEWSWEEK MAY21, 2006