In the United States, Memorial Day honours its military personnel who have died while serving in the US Armed Forces on the last Monday in May. Both this and Dutch Remembrance Day are held in Margraten and at the Netherlands American Cemetery.
Each year on May 4, the Dutch remember the civilians and soldiers who have died in the Netherlands and throughout the world since the outbreak of World War II with two minutes of silence at 8 PM.
As part of both nations’ acts of remembrance, this American cemetery in the Netherlands demonstrates the long-running connection between the two countries. It is a space to collectively mourn the US soldiers who gave their lives to protect us.
US cemetery in the Netherlands
The Netherlands American Cemetery (Amerikaanse Begraafplaats) is a World War II military cemetery, located in the village of Margraten. It’s the only American cemetery in the Netherlands.
Here is where 8,301 American soldiers are buried and where the names of 1,722 American missing service personnel are engraved on tablets. Most died during the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
Why is it there?
The US 30th Infantry Division liberated Margraten on September 13, 1944. The war continued until May 1945. During that brutal winter of 1944-1945, thousands of American soldiers were killed during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. Its mission was to seize nine strategic bridges crossing Nazi Germany. Due to miscalculations, the Allied forces were unable to establish a coordinated stable bridgehead on the Rhine.
When the war ended in May 1945, the U.S. military needed a place to bury its dead. They settled on a fruit orchard in Margraten 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) east of Maastricht which covers 65.5 acres (26.5 hectares). Between September 1944 and March 1945, up to 500 bodies arrived each day. There were so many that the Dutch mayor went door to door asking villagers for help with the digging.
Within six months more than 10,000 American casualties were buried at the cemetery.
This village of 1,500 residents never forgot the sacrifice of the American liberators. To express their gratitude, the Citizens Committee Margraten (Burger Comité Margraten) was formed in February 1945 by a local pastor. The committee considered it its moral duty to honour these brave soldiers.
The American Cemetery was officially opened in 1960 by Queen Juliana, grandmother of the current King Willem-Alexander.
Grave adoption services
The Committee’s goals were to establish a proper cemetery and to create an adoption program for these fallen soldiers, so a local could adopt a grave and visit it regularly. They could also volunteer to contact the next of kin, stay in touch and assure them of the grave’s care.
The campaign was a tremendous success. On the first Memorial Day ceremony in May 1945 every grave was decorated with flowers. On the second Memorial Day, May 31, 1946, all the graves had been adopted, a total of 18,774 at that time. Almost 40,000 people attended that ceremony, including dignitaries such as Prince Bernhard and the American Ambassador.
The cemetery today
From 1946 to 1948 the number of graves shrank from 18,774 to the present 8,301, as thousands of families asked for their loved ones’ remains to be sent home.
At the entrance, behind a reflecting pool, is the Court of Honor. The walls on either side of the Court of Honor contain tablets of the Missing soldiers engraved on English Portland stone. A rosette is placed next to a name signifying that the person has since been identified. The American Cemetery is Europe’s third-largest war cemetery for unidentified soldiers who died in World War II.
A spot of US soil in the Netherlands
The Netherlands granted the land of the cemetery to the US on eternal loan. Each grave is marked by a white marble headstone with the name of the fallen soldier. The Jewish soldiers have headstones bearing a Star of David. The six soldiers who were awarded a Medal of Honor are recognized by the gold star on their gravestone.
The Netherland American Cemetery is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, established by the US Congress in 1923, and is an agency of the executive branch of the federal government. Two other American cemeteries abroad have adoption programs — both in Belgium — but Margraten is the only one where every grave has a volunteer caretaker and a waiting list.
Have you visited this touching memorial ground? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Jo Spätgens/Supplied
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in May 2021 and was fully updated in May 2022 for your reading pleasure.