Memorial Day, 2016: Americans in Europe

Last June I traveled to Luxembourg, Belgium, and France to visit various military sites, including a host of battlefields. I happened to be present at the bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, just as I had been present at the sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg.

I remember those visits well. Yet what impressed me most was the number of American military cemeteries in the area, commemorating the dead of World Wars I and II. I spent a good deal of time exploring several World War I cemeteries, including the largest (Meuse-Argonne) as well as the smallest (Flanders Field), which I visited first.

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The entrance to the American military cemetery at Flanders Field.
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Signs of remembrance inside the chapel, featuring the ever-present poppy.
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The graves surround the chapel at Flanders Field. Although they seem to be many, this is the smallest World War I cemetery there.
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This soldier died on the day the war ended.
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You see many crosses, but you also see the Star of David.

The Aisne-Marne Cemetery is located near Belleau Wood. You can see the edge of the woods behind the chapel.

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Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, near Belleau Wood, France.
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Some 2,289 Americans are buried here.
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The graves went on and on under a clear sky in a meticuously-maintained resting place.
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Looking eastward … this cemetery is not far from Chateau-Thierry, and Belleau Wood is just behind it.
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At each cemetery, there is a chapel, containing the names of the unidentified dead. The US 2nd Division held this position.

Perhaps the eeriest moment during this part of my visit came when I traveled to a nearby German cemetery, only to discover that you could see the American cemetery from it:

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Former foes face each other in common repose.

As we moved through France, we came upon more cemeteries. Not all were to American soldiers, of course; that’s a story for another day, and I told part of it earlier this year in recalling my visit to Verdun.

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Here is the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, where 6,012 Americans are buried.
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Trees line the cemetery, enclosing the major sections.
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That fact would have come as great comfort to Joyce Kilmer, who is buried here.
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One American soldier killed during World War I is not buried in a World War I cemetery, although he’s buried in France. That’s Quentin Roosevelt, whose mother arranged for this monument to be erected in Chamery just after the war. A fighter pilot, Roosevelt was shot down in the skies behind this fountain on July 14, 1918.
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Roosevelt’s plane crashed in the fields behind the fountain. Today his body rests next to that of his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., at the American military cemetery at Normandy.

As much as one wants to comprehend the ebb and flow of military operations, these cemetaries draw upon one’s emotions as much as they force one to think about what war costs.

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Here is the American military cemetery at St. Mihiel, south of Verdun.
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This memorial overlooks some of the 4,153 Americans buried here.

 

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The doorhandles to the chapels are doughboys.

We saved the largest cemetery for last, and for a particular reason. It was late one afternoon when we arrived at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, and so our visit was somewhat hasty, although I achieved my most important objective.

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The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the largest American World War I cemetery.
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There are 14,246 Americans buried here.
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One of them is Arizona’s own Frank Luke, America’s second-leading aerial ace and a Medal of Honor recipient, known as “The Balloon Buster.”

We often visit Civil War battlefields to see where men fought and died, but we often think of the battle itself. In these cemeteries, one thinks of the lives lost and the sacrifices made … something to remember this Memorial Day.