Memorial Day Remarks in Margraten, The Netherlands

May 27, 2012


By
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, U.S. Army Europe Commanding General

MEMORIAL DAY REMARKS
MARGRATEN, THE NETHERLANDS
27 MAY 12

This weekend, Americans honor those who have sacrificed for freedom and liberty.

We memorialize the brave men and women who sacrificed for a cause greater than themselves.

There are dignitaries at various battlefields in the united states and throughout europe, all speaking about our heroes who gave so much for others.

But for Sue – my wife – and me, the field here at Margraten will forever symbolize how to remember our heroes.

Because we will always remember our visit here, last Christmas Eve.

You see, we had been invited to attend the Christmas Eve mass at the De Schark Cave. A place very close to here.

Many of you know of it and have been touched by it, and some played a part in the story of the De Schark Cave.

For those who don’t know the story of the cave, during the bloody winter of 1944, when bitter cold denied respite from the gruesome fighting, and when bombs fell like an incessant rain on friends and foes alike, young men -- civilian and soldier -- gathered in the cave to celebrate Christmas mass.

For some, it would be there last.

Carved out of the sandstone by the brothers of the Beyart Monastery centuries ago, the De Schark Cave became the place where those recently liberated, and those who liberated them, came together for a short time.

An emotion as conflicted as Christmas in wartime itself – and I have spent three Christmas’s in combat, and know the confliction -- the hope of everlasting life, blended with the foreboding and desperation of imminent danger.

On one side of the cave were the newly liberated Dutch people, tasting freedom for the first time in four years
They were happy, grateful for their American liberators huddled on the other side of the altar.

But the Americans, on the other side of the cave, who had been in the area resting after months of heavy and costly fighting, were only beginning to heal when orders came telling them they would reinforce their brothers in an attempt to stop an enemy assault near a place called Bastogne.

These young men tempered the celebration of that night with a sobriety known only to those who face inevitable, mortal danger.

(pause)

Sixty nine years have passed since that service, and since the 300 Americans who shared communion with their Dutch brothers signed their name on the wall of the cave and left to fight on not-so distant fronts.

Very few would see another Christmas.

And in the sixty nine years since, the seeds of hope and joy, planted by those young men and watered with their blood and tears, have blossomed, year after year, into one of the most incredible examples of human compassion and gratitude Sue and I have ever seen.
We learned of this story, last Christmas eve when we visited here.

(pause)

Before we went to mass, though, we came here.

On a cold, rainy Christmas Eve afternoon, when most Europeans are gathering with family, we did not expect what we saw.

Arriving here, we observed a steady stream of Dutch families, all with flowers, and cards, visiting the graves of Americans who they did not know, but whom they had adopted.

As we entered the cemetery, we saw an elderly man carefully tending a grave.

We watched him as he spent several minutes in silent reflection, pausing to wipe a drop of rainwater off the tombstone of the soldier he had adopted.

As he got up to leave, Sue and I approached, and gently asked him if the grave was of someone he’d known, and what that Soldier’s story may have been. And that’s when we learned about the incredible story of the people of Margraten.

(pause)

On the hallowed grounds of the Margraten Cemetery lie interred 8,301 young American men. A further 1,722 men whose identity is known only to god are memorialized along the court of honor by the reflecting pool.

And although the American Battle Monuments Commission preserves this sacred place with diligent reverence, the people of Margraten enliven each of these graves through the blessings of gratitude and living memory.

It amazed us to find that since the graveyard was established in December, 1944, the people of Margraten have taken it upon themselves to adopt this site, to honor each American grave and the soldier to whom their only connection is eternal gratitude.

And that elderly man was paying his respects, an act of respect learned from his father and one he’d soon pass on to his son, so that the people of Margraten will never forget that young American men died so that those they didn’t know would be given freedom.
(pause)

The legacy of Margraten will forever live with this old soldier and his bride.

(pause)

Sixty nine years have brought healing and hope to Europe, and a friendship with America born through common suffering and a love of freedom, and the knowledge of its price.

Today our young men and women - Dutch, American, British, German, Polish and many others -- join an alliance on new battlefields in distant lands, where the cost of liberty is no cheaper than it was in 1944.

And those soldiers, who our nations have sent forward once again to carry the torch of freedom against the darkness of tyrants, remind us of our commitment to one another. And to freedom and liberty.

The price of liberty is high. Those who are asked to pay that price should always be honored, and should always be in our memory.

The people of Margraten understand that, and for that this soldier is very grateful.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.