Belgians honor American WWII liberators
September 29, 2011
THIMISTER-CLERMONT, Belgium, Sept. 29, 2011 -- For some, remembrance is a word. For others, it can be a call to act.
More than 300 Belgians, inspired by remembrance of their country's liberation by American Soldiers from German occupation in World War II, adopted the graves of American war veterans, many of them V Corps Soldiers, buried at the two U.S. military cemeteries here in a ceremony held Sept. 22.
The Belgians, who spanned three generations in age, gathered at Henri-Chapelle in Hombourg and Ardennes, in Neuville-en-Condroz, both in the French-speaking Wallonian region of Belgium, to be recognized for adopting these graves and to place flowers at the headstones of their adopted American war veterans.
"It's amazing to see a showing of so much appreciation for something that happened almost 70 years ago," said Brig. Gen. Ricky Gibbs, acting commanding general of U.S. Army V Corps, who attended the ceremonies.
Seated together near the podium at Ardennes cemetery, classroom-size groups of Belgian schoolchildren waved American flags while a Belgian Army band played "Stars and Stripes Forever." Nearby, a U.S. Army color guard stood at attention throughout the ceremony, bearing both the Belgian and American flags. At Henri-Chapelle, the scene was similar.
"It's such a wonderful thing to see the young people, who represent the third generation after the war, take part in the adoption of these graves," said George Ciampa, 86, of Torrance, Calif., the featured American guest speaker at both ceremonies. Ciampa was a 19-year old Pfc. with the 607th Graves Registration Company, attached to V Corps' 29th Infantry Division, when he landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Michel Duchene, the president of an association of retired Belgian Army NCOs, Cercle Royal le Briscard, agreed.
"Part of the reason we do this is to get the younger generation involved," said Duchene, 62, of Liege, Belgium. His organization co-sponsors the event and has been providing certificates to the grave-adopting volunteers since 1991. "And we do this also because of our tendency to forget," he said.
Ciampa said he was with the initial unit that established Henri-Chapelle cemetery during the war. "We had like 17,000 bodies buried here," he said. "It's a real solemn feeling not knowing which bodies I had handled then."
Ciampa said that his unit buried the German war dead as well.
Following the war, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, the executive-branch organization that oversees and maintains U.S. memorials and military cemeteries, about 60 percent of all American veterans buried in overseas cemeteries were returned to the U.S. at the request of their families. Even so, 93,238 U.S. World War II dead remain overseas, resting an ocean away from their homeland and families.
"Often the graves were forgotten, and very few people would come to visit and place flowers," said Mathilde Schmetz, of Thimister-Clermont, Belgium, co-sponsor of the graves adoption project. "It was very sad, and we thought that maybe we should do something to thank these men, who gave their lives, so many of them, to give us our freedom."
Mathilde Schmetz and her husband Marcel, 86, have dedicated the past twenty years of their lives to making sure the sacrifice of American Soldiers in Belgium is not forgotten.
In 1991, they created and opened the Remember Museum, adjacent to their home in Thimister-Clermont, with the mission to honor the American Soldiers -- specifically V Corps' 1st Infantry Division -- who liberated their hometown and region from German wartime occupation.
The Schmetz's mark the day of their liberation as Sept. 11, 1944, and every year since the museum's founding, they celebrate this day by inviting and hosting 1st Infantry Division, or Big Red One, veterans from America at their home.
One Big Red One veteran who said he has been coming to Belgium for "10 years now," is Bill Ryan, 86, of Melbourne, Fla., who also landed on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Mathilde and Marcel are our best friends in Europe," he said. "They still love and respect us and I mean that sincerely."
Another American guest of the Schmetz's, college student and Oklahoma Air National Guardsman Caroline Hayworth, 23, of Oklahoma City, has been visiting the Schmetz family each year for the past four years to do volunteer work. She plans her trip to coincide with the annual liberation day celebration September to help them prepare.
"When you see how much they sacrifice to honor our guys you can't help but to want to help them," she said. "They give up their own lives to honor ours."
V Corps' Gibbs, who served previously as the Deputy Commanding General of the Big Red One, felt a deep personal connection with both the veterans being honored and his personal hosts, the Schmetz family.
"It's humbling," said Gibbs, "Truly humbling."