By Kevin DowneySeptember 12, 2009
HENRI CHAPELLE, Belgium - They were city kids and cowboys, farmers and students, rich and poor.
Each of the nearly 8,000 gravestones here tells the story of ordinary young men from towns across America who became heroes to local residents 65 years ago Sept. 11 during this area's liberation from German aggressors.
Approximately 300 U.S. and Belgian citizens, including U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. Carter Ham and three World War II veterans, paid tribute to the Soldiers buried at the American cemetery here in a ceremony coinciding with the anniversary of terrorist attacks against America Sept. 11, 2001.
"Today as we celebrate the 65th anniversary of Belgium's liberation from Germany during the Second World War, we also remember the tragedy that befell our nations eight years ago," said Ham during his key note speech. "In my opinion, these two events are linked in more ways than the date. In both cases, our citizens sacrificed their lives for the pursuit of freedom and democracy.
Ham said he relished commemorating this date with dual historic importance.
"We must always remember, we must always pay respect," the general said, eschewing prepared statements to speak in a more personal tone.
Ham joined veterans, family members and town officials in laying wreaths at the base of a monument in the cemetery to honor the sacrifices of the Soldiers lying beneath the ground nearby.
One of the U.S. veterans from the war in attendance was George Ciampi, assigned to the 607th Grave Registration Company here as an 18-year-old private. His unit gathered bodies of Soldiers killed in the region, including U.S. casualties of the Battle of the Bulge, for burial at the cemetery.
"As a teenager, I looked into the eyes of death of so many of my fellow Soldiers, many of whom were my age," he said. "I am so glad these faces and their supreme sacrifices are not forgotten by the Belgian people. "
During the ceremony, Belgian veterans from the 5th Fusiliers Battalion displayed their unit's colors beside a U.S. color guard comprised of Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, based in Fort Riley, Kan. Local school children waved U.S. flags on both sides of the audience as the USAREUR band played patriotic songs in the background.
Belgian citizen Mathilde Schmetz, who organized the event with her husband Marcel, said the ceremony honors the U.S. Soldiers buried here for giving the country back its freedom six-and-a-half decades ago.
"Each and every gravestone here tells the story of young American Soldiers who gave their lives for the liberty of another country and for people they did not know," she said. "We have a duty to honor these Soldiers. We must thank them for their sacrifice."
Guest speaker John O'Hare, who served in the 117th Infantry Regiment during the original counterattack in Normandy in 1944, said the Soldiers he fought beside were idealists, but with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
"The men buried here never pretended to be superhuman," O'Hare said. "They died without knowing the sacrifices they were making would allow freedom to prevail in Western Europe and throughout the world.
"They only believed that good would triumph over evil."
Henri Chapelle is one of two U.S. cemeteries in Belgium containing the remains of World War II Soldiers.