Margraten – The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial

“Since 1945, every grave in the cemetery has been adopted by a Dutch family, or in some cases, a Belgian or German family, as well as local schools, companies and military organizations.”

Margraten, Netherlands – Situated on 65 acres in the town of Margraten in the province of Limburg, stand rows, endless rows, of white marble crosses and Jewish stars of David.  This is what one sees when overlooking the American War Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the only American military cemetery in the Netherlands.

The cemetery site has a rich historical background, lying near the famous Cologne-Boulogne highway built by the Romans and used by Caesar during his campaign in that area.  The highway was also used by Charlemagne, Charles V, Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  In May 1940, Hitler’s legions advanced over the route of the old Roman highway, overwhelming the Low Countries.

In September of 1944, one of the largest airborne operations from WWII started – Operation Market Garden.  Taking part in the operation were forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, and Dutch resistance, comprised of 41,628 airborne troops, one armored division, two infantry divisions, and one armored brigade.

Its aim was to establish the northern end of a pincer ready to advance deeper into Germany.  Allied forces would advance north from Belgium, 60 miles (or 97 kilometers) through the Netherlands, across the Rhine and consolidate with the airborne troops north of Arnhem on the Dutch-German border who were ready to close the pincer.

Limburg was the first province that came into contact with the Allies.  The U.S. 30th Infantry Division liberated this site on September 13, 1944.

But the war wasn’t over. In late 1944 and early 1945, thousands of American soldiers would be killed in nearby battles trying to pierce the German defense lines.  Booby-traps and heavy artillery fire, combined with a ferocious winter, dealt major setbacks to the Allies, who had already suffered losses trying to capture strategic Dutch bridges crossing into Germany during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.

Now, the U.S. Military needed a place to bury its fallen.  The Americans ultimately picked a fruit orchard just outside Margraten.  By 1946, beside thousands of other Allied and German forces, 17,742 American soldiers had been buried in Margraten.

In the following years, thousands of U.S. soldiers were repatriated to the United States per request of their relatives.  At the same time, the bodies of the Allied and German soldiers buried in Margraten were transferred to other cemeteries.  The bodies of the remaining American soldiers were reburied in Margraten, which was finished in 1949.  The cemetery as we know it today was dedicated on July 7, 1960.

The cemetery’s tall memorial tower can be seen before reaching the site.  From the cemetery entrance, visitors are led to the ‘Court of Honor’ with its pool reflecting the tower.  At the base of the tower facing the reflecting pool is a statue representing a mother grieving her lost son.  To the right and left, respectively, are the visitor building and the map room containing three large, engraved operations maps with texts depicting the military operations of the American armed forces.  Stretching along the sides of the court are the ‘Tablets of the Missing’, on which 1,722 names are recorded.  Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified.  Among those buried in Margraten are six Medal of Honor recipients.

To the Dutch, the Americans were liberators.  They haven’t forgotten.  Unique to the cemetery is the connection with the Dutch people.  For over 70 years, the Dutch have come to a verdant U.S. cemetery outside this small village to care for the graves of Americans killed in World War II.

Since 1945, every grave in the cemetery has been adopted by a Dutch family, or in some cases, a Belgian or German family, as well as local schools, companies and military organizations.  They stay in touch with the family of the deceased and research the life of the service member as a way to honor their sacrifice.  They bring flowers to the grave on special occasions such as the deceased’s birthday or certain holidays.

Today, the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery Margraten manages this program.  More than 100 people are on a waiting list to become caretakers.

On this beautiful day in September, 2017, bearing bouquets for men and women they never knew, but whose 8,301 headstones the people of the Netherlands have adopted as their own, they came once again to remember the liberation, 73 years ago.  For the American relatives of the fallen, it was an outpouring of gratitude almost as stunning as the rows of white marble crosses and Jewish stars of David.

By making these dead part of your family, you have become part of our family.  You have created a bond between us that will never be broken

At the cemetery’s commemoration of the liberation of Margraten, thousands of people poured into the 65-acre burial grounds just a few miles from the German border, including scores of descendants of American war dead who had traveled here from all over the United States.  They were eager to pay tribute to parents or grandparents who had died to defeat the Nazis.  But they also wanted to thank the Dutch families who had been tending to the graves of their loved ones, often passing the responsibility from one generation to the next.

“There is a bond between us,” said one descendant whose grandfather is buried here.  In Dutch, he said, “Door het maken van deze dode deel van uw famile,” which translated means – “By making these dead part of your family, you have become part of our family.  You have created a bond between us that will never be broken.”

To the Dutch people and those from surrounding countries who visit the graves of these men and women, decorating them with flowers to express gratitude for these soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, this American says, “hartelijk bedank,” a heartfelt thank you.

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Dr. Katherine Harris

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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