Five Days of Remembrance 2014

Memorial Day weekend 2014 in Belgium began on Friday 23 May with a small 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 last year.  Mr. Marc Lewyllie, Mayor of Heuvelland attended the ceremony as did representatives of the United States Embassy, the United States Air Force, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and, of course, AOMDA.  

After Kemmel, two ceremonies were held at the Lijssenthoek Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Poperinge.  The first was AOMDA’s traditional isolated grave ceremony to honor Private Harry King, Sergeant Stan Beattie and Lieutenant James Pigue.  Following that, AOMDA conducted a separate ceremony in honor of the Americans who served in Commonwealth armed forces during the First World War, of whom 47 are buried at Lijssenthoek.  We were honored by the presence of Mark Storella, Chargé d’Affaires of the United States Embassy, Lt. Gen. David Hogg, and Mayor Christof Dejaegher of the City of Poperinghe at both ceremonies.  Chris Dickon, an American historian who has recently published a book about the subject, told the story of the Americans who served under a Commonwealth flag. The US Air Force element at SHAPE provided an honor guard, and an Army bugler to play taps.

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 200 local residents attended the ceremony, as well as Chargé Storella, General Hogg, Mayor Luc Dupont, relatives of Gilbert Malrait, and members of the US Air Force accompanied by an Army bugler.  Following the ceremony, the City of Ronse hosted a special reception in the town hall for all of the attendees.  The highlight of that reception was when two members of the US Air Force ceremonially folded the same 48 star flag that had draped Malrait’s casket when he was returned to Ronse.

The first event on Saturday 24 May was a small wreath laying ceremony at the war monument in Neuville-en-Condroz, where a local brass band played the national anthems.  The Memorial Day ceremony at the Ardennes American Cemetery itself began promptly at 10.00 with the arrival of the Representative of the King.  Chargé Storella, Lt. General Hogg, Mayor Cortis, and ABMC Commissioner Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel all offered moving tributes.  Following the tributes, school children from Neupré sang the American and Belgian national anthems.   The Air Component of the Belgian Defense provided a memorable flyover by two F-16s.  Following the ceremony, Chargé Storella and General Hogg met with the Next of Kin who travelled to be present on this day of remembrance.  Mayor Cortis then offered a reception at which two local school children recited John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields.  

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.  This year, the luncheon was held in Aubel and nearly 200 people participated.

At the Henri-Chapelle Memorial Day ceremony in the afternoon, Chargé Storella, General Hogg, Commissioner Diamonstein-Spielvogel, and Mayor Jean-Luc Nix of Welkenraedt all offered homage to the fallen.  Our allies in the Belgian Air Component provided a flyover by a C-130, and school children from the community of Henri-Chapelle read letters written by soldiers from the trenches of the First World War.  There is no doubt that the highlight of the ceremony was when ten veterans of the Second World War presented a wreath in honor of their fallen comrades.  As they returned to their seats, thousands of attendees erupted into spontaneous and sustained applause. Following the ceremony, Chargé Storella and General Hogg met the veterans as well as the Next of Kin of those who are buried in the cemetery.  Afterwards, a small wreath-laying ceremony was held at the war monument in Henri-Chapelle.  

The day ended with a reception offered by the community of Welkenaraedt at which honored the WWII veterans were honored.  One of those veterans in turn gave a heart-warming speech thanking the citizens of Belgium for remembering, and saluting the people of Belgium for the strength and courage during the war.

On Sunday 25 May, a small wreath laying ceremony took place at the war monument in Waregem, and then the Memorial Day ceremony at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.  We were truly honored by the presence of General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who offered a memorable tribute linking the sacrifices of the past with today’s challenges.   The most unique aspect of the ceremony at Flanders Field is its very long tradition of involving young people in the ceremony.  Continuing a tradition that began in 1923, the school children of Waregem sang the American and Belgian national anthems at the ceremony.  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, Claudia Villacian, a student at the Antwerp International School, rendered an emotional reading of John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields that will not be soon forgotten, while Kenneth Berth from the Stedelijke Kunstacademie in Waregem did the same in Flemish.  So moved was the King’s Representative that he made a special point of thanking them before leaving the ceremony.

On the morning of Monday 27 May, AOMDA organized its annual isolated grave Memorial Day Ceremony in honor of Staff Sergeant Gerald Sorensen at the old community cemetery of Ganshoren.  Seventeen members of the Sorensen family made a special trip from the United States to Belgium in order to attend this ceremony.  Chargé Storella, General Hogg, Mayor Hervé Gillard of Ganshoren, representatives of the local veterans association, Boy Scouts from Troop 457, and a few dozen other individuals were in attendance.  Evelyn (Sorensen) Whyte, cousin of Sorensen (and Maid of Honor at his wedding), offered a tribute that left no eye without a tear.  Kim Lively sang the Chanson des Partisans (the anthem of the Resistance), as well as the Belgian and American national anthems.  Following the ceremony, the attendees walked to the Town Hall of Ganshoren, tracing the footsteps that Sorensen’s widow took in a similar ceremony that was held in 1947.  The town of Ganshoren then offered a reception in honor of the family.  This was a Memorial Day ceremony that will never be forgotten!  

At the beginning of the afternoon, AOMDA held two ceremonies at the Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, near Leuven.  The first was our traditional isolated grave ceremony in honor of Lt. Donald West.  About 30 local school children attended this ceremony and, in a very moving tribute, each placed a flower at Lt. West’s grave. As the reader will understand by reading his biography, Don West was a pilot and a true hero, and the story of his sacrifice struck a special chord among the USAF personnel in attendance.  Following the ceremony for West, AOMDA conducted a separate ceremony in honor of the Americans who served in Commonwealth armed forces during the Second World War.  As at Lijssenthoek on Friday, Chris Dickon again told their story.   We were deeply honored by the presence of Chargé Storella, General Hogg, and Mayor Louis Tobbak at both ceremonies, as well as the local school children.  The Belgian Military Commander of the Province of Flemish Brabant was also present, and provided an honor guard and buglers for this ceremony.

Following Leuven, AOMDA held the ceremony for Private First Class Joe Farina at Comblain-la-Tour.  Farina is buried in the family tomb of Joe and Madeleine Paccioitti, 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.  The Pacciotti’s grandson Daniel Defays joined us for this ceremony, as he does every year.  However, we were also honored by the presence of Mayor Patrick Lecerf, and some Aldermen of the City of Hamoir, as well as General Hogg.  Mayor Lecerf is working closely with AOMDA to renovate Farina’s grave and preserve it as a historical monument into the future.  

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.  Kim Lively brought tears to the eyes of the Belgians with American roots as she sang for both of the countries that they love so dearly.  Following the ceremony, Fernand and Dominique offered a small reception in the village.

Finally, although it was not an official part of AOMDA’s Memorial Day ceremonies, on Tuesday 27 May, AOMDA took the visiting 17 members of the Sorensen family on a tour of the sights where Gerald Sorensen stayed in Belgium, where he served with the Secret Army, and where he fought his final battle and died.  A small ceremony was held at the village of Marcq-lez-Enghien in his honor, hosted by the members of the Fraternelle of the Secret Army with whom Gerald Sorensen fought and in whose defense he died.  

2014 is truly 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 2014 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:
  • Chargé d’Affaires Mark Storella, who attended all three of the Memorial Day ceremonies at the American Cemeteries as well as the isolated grave ceremonies at Lijssenthoek, Ronse, Ganshoren and Heverlee.
  • Lt. General David Hogg who attended the two Memorial Day ceremonies on Saturday, as well as each and every one of the isolated grave ceremonies on Friday and Monday.  In light of the onerous time commitments on his schedule, General Hogg has given the phrase "above and beyond the call of duty” a new meaning this Memorial Day.
  • General Philip Breedlove likewise took a full day from a very busy schedule to remember America's war dead by attending all of the events at Waregem on Sunday.  His presence was truly inspirational.
  • Mike Yasenchak, Bobby Bell, and Chris Arseneualt (Superintendents of the Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle and Flanders Field American Cemeteries) as well as Jeff Hays, Vincent Joris, Lou Aske, Liolnel Raboz, and Chris Sims who honor America’s fallen each and every day of the year.
  • Mayor Arthur Cortis of Neupré, Mayor Jean-Luc Nix of Welkenraedt, and Mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem of Waregem for the beautiful wreath laying ceremonies and receptions
  • Mayor Marc Lewyllie of Heuvelland, Mayor Christof Dejaegher of Poperinghe, Mayor Luc Dupont of Ronse, Mayor Hervé Gillard of Ganshoren, Mayor Louis Tobback of Leuven and Mayor Patrick Lecerf of Hamoir for the outstanding community support we received at each of our isolated grave ceremonies.
  • The volunteers of the United States Army Garrison Benelux and SHAPE 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 Lijssenthoek and Heverlee.
  • The United States Air Force Staff Element at SHAPE for providing the honor guard, bugler, and colors for each isolated grave ceremony.
  • A special thank you to Kim Lively for singing the national anthems at each and every isolated grave ceremony, as well as the British national anthem at Lijssenthoek and Heverlee and the Chanson des Partisans at Ganshoren.
  • Brian Dick and Col. Pinckham representing the US Embassy and the US Military at each and every isolated grave ceremony.
  • The volunteer guides for the ceremonies at the Ardennes and Henri-Chapelle American Cemeteries, including the American Legion Post BE02.
  • The Boy Scouts of Troop 194, 325, 457 and Venture Crew 511 for the assistance at the ceremonies.  A special thank you goes to Troop 457 and Pierce Keesling of Troop 194 for helping to make the ceremonies at Ganshoren and Heverlee so memorable. 
  • Philippe Vanderdonckt, Frenande Romaine, and Domonique Zucaro for making the isolated grave ceremonies at Ronse and Queue-du-Bois happen in the splendid way that they did.
  • Serge Vandendriessche, Jennifer Schlegel, and everyone else who played roles big and small in making the Sorensen family’s visit to Belgium such a success!!!!
  • 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, Joseph Schram, and Laura Hoffman.