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.

12 thoughts on “Memorial Day, 2016: Americans in Europe

  1. bob carey May 30, 2016 / 3:24 am

    Superb photos.
    It is impressive how well kept these cemeteries are.
    As a matter of curiosity, how did the Germans treat the cemeteries during WW2 when they occupied these areas?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 30, 2016 / 3:35 am

      They usually took decent care of them, although at times they were damaged in action. So were the monuments, as in the case of Montsec, near St. Mihiel. The Germans were far more destructive of the 1918 armistice site.

      • bob carey May 30, 2016 / 9:29 am

        Thanks.
        I do believe that the Germans destroyed the railroad car in which the armistice was signed.
        Strange as it seems I think that Hitler had a certain empathy for the WW1 soldier because of the horrors of the trenches that he experienced first hand, with the exception of the Jewish soldiers of course.

  2. John Foskett May 30, 2016 / 7:26 am

    Very well done – both with the camera and the “pen” (word processor). The Korean War gets labeled the “forgotten conflict” but in less than 6 months in 1918 we lost 116,000. I had no idea that their sacrifice was so extensively honored on foreign soil. Lafayette did indeed remember…

  3. Shoshana Bee May 30, 2016 / 9:22 am

    Thank you so much for commemorating Memorial Day as it was meant to be: The Remembrance of our Fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Marines (not some damn sale at the local department store) I have been to a few of these cemeteries whilst living in Europe, and I still get choked up just looking at the pictures.

  4. TF Smith May 30, 2016 / 11:56 am

    Nicely done.

    There is a lovely piece in the Washington Post today about the US WW II cemeteries in GGE Netherlands, where there is an active an on-going program where individuals – including families going back 3-4,generations at this point – have adopted each US soldiers grave, and decorate them at appropriate dates including Memorial Day (which is, after all, not celebrated as such in Europe). Quite movingly written.

    There are US war cemeteries in Asia and Africa, as well; expect the ones in the Philippines get a fair number of visitors, but the one in Tunisia might be an interesting place for a visit, given the course of history in recent years. Don’t know if there are any in the eastern Med littoral countries and/or Iran, although the were Americans stationed in each region during the war.

    Thank you for the writing and the photos.

    Best,

    • Jeffry Burden May 30, 2016 / 6:32 pm

      I spoke today about that U. S. military cemetery in the Netherlands, and the longstanding “adoption” program, in a Memorisl Day talk I gave at Fort Harrison National Cemetery near Richmond. When I related the fact that there is a waiting list to adopt a grave, there was an audible reaction from the crowd. Powerful stuff.

      • TFSmith June 4, 2016 / 3:51 pm

        Sorry for the late response – very glad to hear there was a true reaction from the crowd. It is a moving story.

        Best,

  5. TF Smith May 30, 2016 / 11:58 am

    Also wanted to mention Kilmer wrote La Rouge Bouquet, which is an impactful piece of poetry and still used as an elegiac tradition by units of the NYNG in services for KIA.

  6. scott s. May 30, 2016 / 2:20 pm

    Frank Luke was memorialized through the U.S. Army’s naming of Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, T.H. in 1919. Subsequently (after the Army Air Forces transferred to Hickam Field in 1939) the airfield was renamed in keeping with US Navy practice. Fittingly, a new Army Airfield in Arizona would receive the name Luke Field (now Luke AFB).

  7. Mike Musick May 30, 2016 / 7:20 pm

    I especially liked the outstanding photos in this post. A recent highly readable and fast-paced narrative of service and sacrifice is Mitchell Yockelson’s “Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I.”

  8. Phil R. May 30, 2016 / 11:29 pm

    Great pictures. I am planning a visit to NE France next year, to investigate the possibility of organizing some tours in 2018 to coincide with the centennial of the peak of US involvement in the Great War, during the summer and fall of 1918.

    Regarding the Frank Luke caption above, a protocol item of order: those to whom the Medal of Honor has been awarded are considered recipients, never “winners.” The Medal of Honor cannot be won.

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