Six Days of Remembrance 2016

Memorial Day weekend 2016 in Belgium began on Thursday 26 May with a ceremony at Gent in honor of Private John Beckaert. Beckaert was a Belgian who emigrated to America before the First World War. He joined the Massachusetts National Guard, which was federalized into the 28th Infantry Division when America entered the war. He was killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

Later that day, we held a ceremony at Eeklo for Private First Class Charles Roegiers. Roegiers and his family emigrated to the US from Belgium shortly after the First World War. He volunteered for the US Army at the outbreak of the war and was killed in action in Luxembourg in the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge. While at the cemetery in Eeklo, we learned about Richard Van Den Driessche. Richard was born in Flint, Michigan to Belgian parents, but the family returned to Belgium before the Second World War. He joined the Belgian Resistance but was ultimately captured and brutally murdered by the Nazis. Accompanied by his surviving brother Arnold, we visited the grave of Richard. Arnold was deeply moved by the gesture.

Friday afternoon 27 May began with a reception at the town hall of Heuvelland hosted by Mayor Marc Lewyllie. We then held a ceremony at the Kemmel American Monument, near Ieper. From July to early September 1918, the US 27th and 30th Infantry Divisions trained and fought near Kemmel as a part of the British Second Army, which itself was part of Army Group Flanders under the overall command of Albert, King of the Belgians. The United States government erected the Kemmel American Monument after the war in memory of their service, and AOMDA began holding a Memorial Day ceremony at the monument a few years ago.

After Kemmel, we conducted ceremonies at the Lijssenthoek Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Poperinge to honor Private Harry King, Sergeant Stan Beattie, Lieutenant James Pigue, and the Americans who served in British and Commonwealth Armed Forces during World War I. In addition to the traditional playing of Taps and the Belgian and American national anthems, Last Post and the British national anthem were included in the ceremony. Mark Storella, Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Belgium, read the tribute at the ceremony.

At the end of the day, Philippe Vanderdonckt and the community of Ronse organized AOMDA’s Memorial Day ceremony for Second Lieutenant Gilbert Malrait. About one hundred residents of Ronse attended the ceremony, including members of Malrait’s family. For a look at happened at the ceremony, see this VIDEO. Afterwards, the City of Ronse hosted a small reception for the attendees.

The first event on Saturday 28 May was a small wreath laying ceremony at the war monument in Neuville-en-Condroz, where an excellent local brass band played Taps, Last Post, the national anthems, and some WWII-era music. The Memorial Day ceremony at the Ardennes American Cemetery itself began promptly at 10.00 with the arrival of the Representative of the King. Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer, Vice Admiral John N. Christenson, Mayor Cortis all offered moving tributes. Following the tributes, school children from Neupré sang the American and Belgian national anthems. Following the ceremony, Ambassador Bauer and Admiral Christenson met with the Next of Kin who travelled to be present on this day of remembrance. Mayor Cortis then offered a reception following the ceremony.

Between the ceremonies at the Ardennes American Cemetery and the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, AOMDA hosts a luncheon each year in honor of the serving members of the American and Belgian armed forces who defend our freedom and who volunteer the their time to participate in the Memorial Day ceremonies. Nearly 200 people participated in the lunch this year, which was kindly sponsored by Federal Express.

At the Henri-Chapelle Memorial Day ceremony in the afternoon, Ambassador Bauer, Admiral Christenson, and Mayor Meurens of Aubel all offered homage to the fallen. Our allies in the Air Component of the Belgian Defense provided a flyover by a C-130. School children from the Youth Community Council of Aubel read a special tribute that they composed themselves. There is no doubt that the highlight of the ceremony was when WWII veteran Andre Jamar of the 77th Evacuation Hospital presented a wreath in honor of his fallen brothers-in-arms. Following the ceremony, Ambassador Bauer and Admiral Christenson met with Mr. Jamar as well as the Next of Kin of 14 soldiers who are buried in the cemetery, including one set of brothers who are buried side-by-side. After the ceremony, a small wreath-laying ceremony was held at the war monument in Aubel. The day ended with a reception offered by the community of Aubel.

On Sunday 29 May, a wreath laying ceremony took place at the Oudenaarde American Monument. From 31 October 1918 until the Armistice on 11 November, the US 37th and 91st Divisions liberated this area of Belgium, including Oudenaarde itself which was the largest city liberated by the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The United States government erected the Oudenaarde American Monument after the war in memory of their service, and AOMDA began holding a Memorial Day ceremony at the monument a few years ago.

The ceremony at the Flanders Field American Cemetery began at 15.00 that day. Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer, Vice Admiral John N. Christenson, and Mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem offered moving tributes. In addition, this ceremony has two very special traditions. Since 1923, elementary school children of Waregem, from the 4th to 6th grades, have sung the American and Belgian national anthems at this ceremony. As usual, they brought tears to the eyes of many of the attendees. After they finished with the national anthems, the children decorated the graves with flowers in an act of remembrance. Following another tradition that began in 1985, Austin Muraille, a student at the International School of Brussels, rendered an emotional reading of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Field that will not be soon forgotten, while Jens Dewulf from the Stedelijke Kunstacademie in Waregem did the same in Flemish.  Following the ceremony, a wreath-laying ceremony took place at the War Monument in Waregem, followed by a reception at the City Hall.

On the morning of Monday 30 May, AOMDA organized its annual isolated grave Memorial Day Ceremony in honor of Staff Sergeant Gerald Sorensen at the old community cemetery of Ganshoren. Although rain poured heavily upon the assembled dignitaries, everyone recognized that our discomfort was nothing compared to the sacrifice that Sorensen and his adopted Belgian brother Roger Abeels made for our freedom. The Song of the Resistance was played, and Archibald MacLeish’s poem Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak was recited in both English and French, as is our tradition in this ceremony.

Later that morning, AOMDA held ceremonies at the Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, near Leuven, in honor of Lt. Donald West and the Americans who served in British and Commonwealth Armed Forces during the Second World War. We were delighted by the presence of about 30 local school children at this ceremony, who each placed a flower at Lt. West’s grave and those of his crew mates. Following this, we visited the grave of Gerald Johnston, an American who served in the Canadian Army. A brief concluding ceremony was held at the Cross of Sacrifice, which included Taps and the singing of the national anthems.

Following Leuven, AOMDA held a ceremony for Private First Class Joe Farina at Comblain-la-Tour. Farina is buried in the family tomb of Joe and Madeleine Pacchiotti, in whose home he was quartered in the weeks leading up to the Battle of the Bulge, and whose son Louis was Resistance fighter who had been murdered by Nazis. Thanks to the support of Mayor Patrick Lecerf, the local participation in this ceremony grows each year. The Mayor offerd us a small coffee and cake following the ceremony.

En route to Queue-du-Bois, AOMDA stopped by the grave of Alexander Heingartner in Liège. Heingartner was the American Consul in Liège during the First World War and he was instrumental for the Commission for Relief in Belgium for delivering food supplies to the Belgians during the war. Unfortunately, he died just before America entered World War I and was buried in Liège. Only recently did the US Embassy learn of his burial in Liège.

Monday ended in Queue-du-Bois at the grave of Lt. Robert (Bobby) Garrett. Fernand A.L. Romain and Dominique Zucaro again organized a group of local families to join us for this Memorial Day ceremony, who arrived with American flags flying. In fact, four of the people in attendance were children of American soldiers who had been stationed in Queue-du-Bois during the war. It was a truly moving ceremony, that took place in both French and English. Following the ceremony, Fernand and Dominique offered a small reception in the village.

Finally, on Tuesday 31 May, AOMDA held a ceremony at the grave of Lt. Charles Goffin, a Belgian who joined the US Army Air Forces in World War II. He ultimately died on 8 September 1944 on a mission mapping the Siegfied Line, and was eventually buried in his home town of Graide.

2016 was a Memorial Day Weekend to remember!

There are hundreds of people who we should thank who contributed to the Memorial Day ceremonies and AOMDA in 2016 in a variety of different ways, great and small. Space does not permit us to do so. However, there are a few individuals who we would like to draw particular attention to:

  • Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer who, in addition to the ceremonies at the Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle, and Flanders Field American cemeteries, attended the ceremonies for Gerald Sorensen and Don West in the pouring rain.
  • Mark Storella, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Embassy, who attended the ceremonies at Kemmel, Lijssenthoek, and Ronse.
  • Vice Admiral John L. Christenson who attended all three Memorial Day ceremonies at the American cemeteries, as well as the Sorensen ceremony on Monday.
  • Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield, who attended the ceremonies at Henri-Chapelle, Oudenaarde, Leuven, Comblain-la-Tour and Queue-du-Bois.
  • Mike Yasenchak, Bobby Bell, and Chris Arseneualt (Superintendents of the Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle and Flanders Field American Cemeteries) as well as Vincent Joris, Lou Aske, Liolnel Raboz, Emilie Duflo, and Kaat Vanderjeugdt who honor America’s fallen each and every day of the year.
  • Mayor Arthur Cortis of Neupré, Mayor Jean-Claude Muerens of Aubel, and Mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem of Waregem for the beautiful wreath laying ceremonies and receptions.
  • Mayor Marc Lewyllie of Heuvelland, Mayor Hervé Gillard of Ganshoren, Mayor Louis Tobback of Leuven, Mayor Patrick Lecerf of Hamoir, Schepen Sofie Baecke of Gent, Schepen Ann Van Den Driessche of Eeklo, Schepen Ignace Michaux of Ronse, and Schepen John Adam of Oudenaarde, for the outstanding community support we received at our isolated grave ceremonies.
  • The volunteers of the United States Army Garrison Benelux and the US Military Delegation at NATO for serving as the Honor Platoon, wreath bearers, and Color Guard at each ceremony on Saturday and Sunday.
  • The Belgian Defense for the outstanding support at so many different levels for the Memorial Day ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday as well as the ceremonies at Kemmel, Lijssenthoek, Ronse, and Heverlee.
  • The United States Air Force Staff Element at SHAPE for providing the honor guard, vocalists, and colors for each isolated grave ceremony.
  • A special thank you to Amber Grimes for singing the national anthems at the isolated grave ceremonies.
  • Brian Dick, Kevin Brugmans, and LCDR Katrina Dusek for representing the US Embassy and the US Military at each and every isolated grave ceremony.
  • The various veterans’ organizations that participated at each of our isolated grave ceremonies.
  • The volunteer guides and "people managers” for the ceremonies at the Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle, and Flanders Field American Cemeteries. We would especially like to thank the American Legion for their assistance in this regard.
  • The Boy Scouts of Troop 194, 457 and Venture Crew 511 for the assistance at the ceremonies.
  • Daniel Defays, Fernand Romaine, Philippe Vanderdonckt, and Domonique Zucaro for making the isolated grave ceremonies at Ronse, Comblian-la-Tour, and Queue-du-Bois happen in the splendid way that they did.
  • The AOMDA Foundation’s corporate sponsors and private donors who provide the resources that are required for AOMDA to achieve its mission, particularly our Patron Sponsor FedEx.
  • Finally, all of those individuals who give so freely of their time throughout the year in support of AOMDA’s mission. In that regard, we would particularly like to recognize Patricia Vancraenbroeck, Eric Osterweil, Bill Bergman, Sandrin Coorevits, Joe Schram, Rhonda Perraudin, Austin Muraille, and Laura Hoffman.