Honoring our Legacy: white crosses of remembrance

By Libby Weiler, USAG Benelux Public AffairsMay 20, 2024

Row after row of pristine white crosses aligned evenly in a field of grass with both the U.S. and Belgian flag next to each.
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Plombieres, Belgium May 28, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Julie Piron, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor's Note: The following story is a part of USAG Benelux’s “Honoring our Legacy” series in which we tell stories of World War I, World War II, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and alliance achievements throughout the decades.]

CHIEVRES, Belgium – The Benelux is home to five U.S. cemeteries housing 26,875 fallen brothers and sisters of war and 3,049 missing from World War I and World War II.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) helps to honor the legacy of those fallen by telling stories otherwise forgotten.

Stories like Pfc. Alvin A. Brodbeck, who was drafted by an administrative error, was shipped to Europe, mistakenly, and died in 1945.

Pvt. Raymond P. Kelly was exempted from military service due to priesthood. He asked to be reclassified and enlisted to serve his country. He died Nov. 17, 1944 at the age of 19. All that remains is an inscription on the wall of the missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.

The endless rows of white crosses found amongst cemeteries help us remember the fallen, but they also tell a unique story. We honor their legacy by retelling a few of their stories.

Al Brodbeck, The Man Who Died by Mistake

Originally written before Mildred's death in 2016 by Jan Hendriks for D-Day in South Limburg Diary of the liberation, 1996

Grave 20 in the 3rd row of plot L is the last resting place of Pfc. Alvin A. Brodbeck, a family man from Louisville, Kentucky, who was drafted by an administrative error and – again mistakenly – was shipped to Europe where he got killed by a bullet from an SS-rifle in 1945.

Al, or Butch as he was known to his Family, was 24 years old and had gotten his sixth occupational deferment because his job, as a mechanical draftsman for the American Elevator Company, was important to the war effort. He was married and had a two-year old son who also was called Butch. The Brodbecks had just purchased a choice piece of property in Louisville where they planned to build their own home. Al had already started drawing the plans when – to his surprise – he was drafted. That was in July 1944.

What happened? The person responsible for sending in the forms for the periodic extension of his deferment had forgotten to do so. Now it was too late. A month after D-Day Butch was put into the infantry and sent to Camp Hood, Texas. After his basic training they told him that he would be assigned to Officers Candidate School in training for the Map Drawing Division in New Jersey.

But first he was given a leave to go home. He had not seen his wife Mildred and his little son for more than four months. In the ten wonderful days they were together again, they decided that Mildred and little Butch would move to New Jersey as soon as Al had found a place to live. When his furlough was over, he left by troop-train out of Louisville in a very optimistic mood. Enroute to the East Coast, someone on the train showed signs of the mumps, so his entire coach was quarantined and pulled on to a sidetrack.

This move would prove disastrous for Al, for shortly afterwards, by mistake, a train with replacements for the front hooked up his quarantined coach and took the Soldiers to New York. In spite of all the protests they were put aboard the Queen Mary and taken to Europe.

Instead of drawing maps in New Jersey he now got his baptism of fire as an armored infantry man in the northern French town of Nancy, where Al had been assigned to the 44th Armored Infantry Regiment, 6th Armored Division. His new unit was moving fast through Germany and arrived in April 1945 in Groitzsch (now East-Germany). There he was killed on Friday the 13th by SS troops volunteering for a night patrol.

Shortly after that Mildred received the dreaded telegram “We regret to inform you…

“My world was crushed,” Mildred says. “Our son was almost three years old, and I still can see his face and the fearful look in his eyes when he asked me: Mommy, are you going to cry again? After the war I had a terrible time seeing families happily reunited all around me while I was struggling alone. But thank God I was able to pick up the pieces and built for myself and my son a good living.”

Mildred, 69 by now, is a staff writer for the Douglas Daily Newspress in Castle Rock near Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she has made quite a name for herself as a hot-air balloonist. Butch Jr., now a father of three sons, became a psychologist and runs a mental health clinic for emotionally disturbed children.

At first Al Brodbeck got a temporary grave in the East-German town of Brenau, but later his body was transferred to Margraten. Where he now rests in Limburg soil for over forty years already. His wife visited his grave in 1967, together with Mrs. Liberthe Jacobs-de Graaf from Heerlen, who adopted the grave when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl.

“I hope to come again soon,” Mildred says. “Because Margraten is so far away, every year on Memorial Day we return to Louisville, where Alvin’s name is engraved in a memorial for the war dead of that town. This then has become our own little Margraten.”

The Soldier of Whom Nothing Remained

Originally written by Jan Hendriks for D-Day in South Limburg Diary of the liberation, 1996

On the memorial walls of Margraten, on both sides of the reflecting pool, there are 1,722 names. Engraved in stone, in gold-colored letters. The names of the missing. The men without a grave.

Who were they? Where did they come from? Where have they gone? Here is the history of one of them: Raymond P. Kelly from Michigan.

You will find his name at the end of the left wall. An inscription is all that is left of him. He died forty-five years ago. He was 19 years old then. His family in Detroit saw him for the last time on the April 9, 1944. It was the last day of his furlough. His father surprised him with a plane ticket so he would not have to return to camp by train, allowing him a few extra hours together with his parents and three sisters.

Eighteen years old was Raymond at the time. A cheerful boy with a deep inner life, who prepared himself devotedly for a future as a priest. Being in seminary exempted him from military service. But he did not want to be an exception. He felt that he too had to do his duty, just as all other American young men. So he asked the Draft Board for reclassification and enlisted.

After his training, Raymond became a tanker assigned to the 67th Armored Regiment of the 2nd U.S. Armored Division, the famous “Hell on Wheels.” That division would make an important contribution to the liberation of South-Limburg before breaking through the border towards the German area of the ‘Selfkant.’ One of his many letters to his Family was written on Sunday, Sept. 17, 1944, when his unit was in the Schimmert area. A few days later the tank force was on German soil.

A month later, on Oct. 15 Raymond Kelly returned to Limburg for a brief rest. He wrote about that to his parents: “I went back to civilization again. I took a good hot shower, and it was simply wonderful. I must have stayed under it for a full 15 minutes. In the streets I saw kids coming home from school with books under their arms and smiles on their faces. It’s a great feeling to know that you helped to make these children happy once again. I guess you’d call it: what we’re fighting for…”

Raymond also was impressed by the friendliness of the Dutch people and the fact that they spoke English in the stores. “But the fairy tale lasted only a short time and now I am back where these things aren’t around…”

While the first American Soldiers were buried in the fields of Margraten, Raymond’s unit steadily moved closer to the frontline. The fields and roads were full of mines and the terrain the tanks had to plough their way through, had been changed into one great quagmire by continuing rainfall. On Nov. 17 his unit reached the vicinity of Puffendorf, some kilometers southeast of Geilenkirchen, where they encountered the 11th German Panzergrenadier Regiment, equipped with Tiger tanks. Ray was an assistant-gunner in an E-Company tank. After six hours of bitter fighting his tank got a direct hit. The crew was blown to pieces. Nothing of Ray was ever found.

Three days after Christmas, when Ray had already been dead six weeks, the Kelly Family received his last sign of life: A Christmas card on which he had written ‘Merry Christmas’ in three different languages, Vroolijk Kerstfeest in Dutch was one of these. It also had a drawing of a windmill and a girl in wooden shoes.

These stories have been brought back to life to honor the legacy of the men and women who bravely fought for their lives in the Benelux.

Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium houses 368 remains with 43 names inscribed on the walls of the missing. Learn more about Flanders Field American Cemetery.

The Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium houses 5,162 remains with 463 names inscribed on the walls of the missing. Learn more about the Ardennes American Cemetery.

Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium houses 7,987 remains with 450 names inscribed on the walls of the missing. Learn more about Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.

The Luxembourg American Cemetery in Luxembourg houses 5,070 remains with 371 names inscribed on the walls of the missing. Learn more about Luxembourg American Cemetery.

The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten houses 8,288 remains with 1,722 names inscribed on the walls of the missing. Learn more about The Netherlands American Cemetery.

Additional Resources

Learn more about ABMC’s Cemeteries and Memorials around the world.