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Reflections on Visiting the United States Military Cemetery in the Netherlands

Friday, September 14, 2012

Harry Sharp of Sikeston (left) poses with his uncle, Clarence Edward Felker Jr., who was later killed in World War II.
(Submitted photo)
Every year as I attend the Memorial Day Service in Veterans' Park, I think poignantly of those I know who have given all. The most personal of those memories is the one my uncle Clarence Edward Felker, Jr. who was a P-47 pilot in the European Theater.

When taps are played at the end of the service, I look skyward into that same air that was over Parks Air Base where my uncle earned his wings. He was decorated three times and almost survived the war. He was killed in May of 1945!

After the war the family was given the option of bringing his body "home" to Sikeston or having it buried in a U.S. Military Cemetery in Europe. The family chose the latter, and he was buried in the United States Military Cemetery in the Netherlands. The beautifully maintained cemetery is near the small town of Margraten and just a few miles, well kilometers, east of Maastricht, the first Dutch town liberated by the Allies. This cemetery is one of many in Europe, but it is the only U.S. military cemetery in the Netherlands.

Each grave in the cemetery was "adopted" by a Dutch family who tended the grave and communicated with the family back in the United States. My uncle's grave was adopted by the family of Joseph Ramaekers who wrote to my grandparents and my aunt giving them great comfort. Given our instant communications today it is hard to imagine the steps that were taken for my grandmother to talk personally with Mr. Ramaekers. A "phone call" was arranged by Mr. Willard "Bill" Shain who lived across the street, and he was a ham radio operator. Mr. Shain call letters were WRLO; "Radio's Lost Orphan," and he was known to me affectionately as Uncle Bill.

Well Uncle Bill managed to contact another ham radio operator in Holland, and they discussed setting up a "phone" call. So one day Uncle Bill contacted the man in Holland who called Mr. Ramaekers while Uncle Bill called my grandmother. The connection was made, but there would have been one small problem; one end of the conversation was in English while the other end was in Dutch. Solution: Mr. William "Bill" DeKriek had come to my grandmother's house, and he did two-way translation of the call. I remember what a special day that was for Grandmama to talk with Mr. Ramaekers.

The flag which draped my uncle's coffin was sent home, and it was used in at least one Memorial Day display at the Memorial Park Cemetery. What became of the flag is not known, but every time I see a 48-star flag I am nostalgically reminded of my uncle and those many, many men and women who gave their all that we might have the freedoms we enjoy today.

My parents, H. Garwood and Ruth Felker Sharp, were the first family members to visit my uncle's grave in the Netherlands. During that visit in the early 1960s my mother made a special point to visit the home of the family who had adopted my uncle's grave. When she arrived at the house there was a family gathering, and none of them spoke English. My mother felt embarrassed and awkward having just "crashed" a family gathering for who knew what reason. Glancing around she saw her brother's picture in the living room and suddenly she was family! A picture of Mr. Joseph Ramaekers has also graced a living room of our family for many, many years.

During a business trip to Brussels and Paris in 1975 I took a couple days to go to Maastricht and visit my uncle's grave also. It was February, it was winter, and it was cold. I took the train from Brussels to Liege then a small one-car train on to Maastricht. The next morning I took the bus toward Margraten having been told that I could stop the bus when I saw the cemetery before I got to Margraten. Well, I arrived in Margraten having not seen the cemetery. I got off the bus and looked for someone who could tell this lost American where he could find the cemetery. I was finally directed to a bicycle shop where the owner spoke English. I was told the cemetery was a couple kilometers back down the road from whence I had come. So off I walked. Several minutes later as I walked into a fog bank the entrance to the cemetery barely emerged into view.

Fortunately, the office was open, and I was greeted warmly as a family member of a service member buried there. I received a small U.S. flag, a booklet about the cemetery, and directions to my uncle's grave; Section O, Row 10, Grave 11. That section was toward the far end of the cemetery, just to the right of the central walkway, and near the tall flagpole.

It was very emotional for me to see the white cross headstone with his name. Pleasant memories flooded my memory only to be interrupted by the memory of the telegram arriving telling the family that he had been killed. I stood there in the cold for quite some time; a time of great importance and great emotion. I removed my gloves, placed them on the grave as praying hands, and placed the small flag in their grip. A picture was taken of the gloves, flag, white marble cross, and the flagpole in the background.

This year my wife Anita and I attended the Memorial Day services at Veterans Park with our granddaughter Crystal. The service this year was especially important because on the traditional Memorial Day, May 30, we would be in Holland to visit my uncle's grave at the U. S. Military Cemetery! When the service ended we walked over to the brick walkway filled with bricks to remember or honor Sikeston veterans who served our country; many of whom gave it all. One of those bricks was for my uncle. Two other bricks are for uncles who served in the Pacific during WW II.

We flew from St. Louis to Brussels, Belgium where we boarded a train and traveled to Maastricht, Netherlands. Our hotel was directly across from the Maastricht train station. The bus to Margraten, and on to Aachen, Germany, was less than a block from the hotel, and this time we knew where to get off of the bus.

The day was pleasant and sunny when we arrived at the cemetery. In contrast to the 1975 visit, I was not the only person visiting the cemetery. When we went into the office we were again greeted warmly as family members; the only ones to visit that day. The man attending the office was an American, and he gave us his full attention. We signed a book of visiting family members, then he locked the office and escorted us to my uncle's grave.

He carried a bucket of sand and an American flag which was a good bit larger than the one I received in 1975. He placed the flag in the ground just in front of the marble cross, then told us that the sand was from Omaha Beach in Normandy, the site of the D-Day landings. He asked me to rub the sand into the name on the headstone so it would show up well in photographs.

A few years ago we visited Omaha Beach with our grandson Eric, and it is another place of overwhelming emotion. Using sand from that beach to highlight the inscription on my uncle's marble headstone was another touching moment.

This visit was important for many reasons; a reconnection with my past and my family, sharing the experience with my wife and granddaughter, and passing the torch to another generation. The weather forecast had been for rain, but the day like the experience was bright and sunny.

My cousin Mary Margaret, who now prefers to be called Mary, was 13 months old when her father was killed. The last few years also brought separate visits by her and by her son Ned. Even though they never knew him personally, the visits were profoundly moving to both of them.

The U. S. Military Cemeteries in Europe are beautifully done and beautifully maintained, and at least in the Netherlands they are adopted by local families. When one surveys the sea of white marble crosses and Stars of David the impact is significant. Then add to that the many other U. S. cemeteries scattered across Europe, and the impact is more than sobering. Next Memorial Day do more than wave a flag or attend a service, get on your knees and give thanks for the freedom they defended just for you!

This visit to my uncle's grave was not so much a journey as it was a pilgrimage. I will never forget him, and I will not forget my visits to his grave. It is my prayer that the importance of the role he played will continue to live in my family long after I am gone. Our legacy of freedom should never be taken lightly and never forgotten.

Harry G. Sharp, III

Former Officer in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers

Vietnam Era Veteran; Stationed in Uijongbu, Korea and Fort Campbell Kentucky

Written after the May 30-31 visit to my uncle's grave in the Military Cemetery

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