An American Pilgrimage: Reflections from US Cemeteries in Belgium and France

July 11, 2023

Had been there to be a pilgrimage for Individuals, it appears to me these hallowed and majestic fields ought to be the locations: the cemeteries the place the heroes of a few of our hardest, bloodiest and most consequential fight campaigns are buried.

Trying throughout the panorama, I imagine their tales can nonetheless be heard within the whispering breeze rustling the timber close by.

The order of all of it is tough to grasp. Listed below are 5,274 pristine white headstones completely aligned in rows atop magnificently maintained acres of inexperienced, amber, and gold, stretching to the horizon. It belies the chaos by which these fallen comrades gave their lives.

This journey brings me to the Ardennes American Cemetery and the Henri-Chapelle American Cemeteries, each close to Brussels, Belgium; the Suresnes American Cemetery and the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery close to Paris, France. I’ll depart profoundly modified.

On the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, which marks the birthplace of fight aviation, I return with the wings my spouse’s grandfather wore in fight right here 104 years in the past. Within the crypt close by, a collection of magnificent stained glass home windows depict a vibrant American Eagle leaving New York for France, and the next vicious battles that left some 116,000 Individuals lifeless as they turned the tide in World Conflict I. The final window reveals a victorious however profoundly exhausted American Eagle with head hung low from the struggling that got here from the “warfare to finish all wars.”

Commissioner Daniel P. Woodward on the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery Memorial Day 2022 returning the wings of his spouse’s (Maj Gen (Ret) Maggie Woodward grandfather to Paris for the primary time since he flew there in 1918. Picture courtesy of ABMC Commissioner Daniel P. Woodward

At Henri-Chapelle, dozens of getting old Belgians carry flags commemorating Second World Conflict battles that befell close by. Some 40 native grammar faculty youngsters wave American flags and sing the Star Spangled Banner—in English—nonetheless grateful for all we did.

Subsequent, a half dozen Belgian youngsters step to a podium and skim aloud letters written by the Individuals at relaxation on this cemetery, strange letters dwelling that talk of hopes and goals and homecomings that by no means may very well be fulfilled. In addition they converse of loss and sacrifice of the brothers and sisters who preceded them in dying.

Memorial Day 2022 honoring ceremony on the Ardennes American Cemetery. Belgian faculty youngsters getting ready to sing the American Nationwide Anthem. Picture courtesy of ABMC Commissioner Daniel P. Woodward

There’s little point out of the blackness that introduced them to combat in these fields. The Nazis, Fascists, and Imperialists get little consideration of their writing. Barely previous their childhoods, the fallen got here from throughout America, from farms and cities, East and West. We honor them by remembering.

Later, whereas strolling this stunning subject, I stumble upon a household that spans generations. The oldest, in a meticulously pressed darkish swimsuit, is hunched over and touching the gravestone of his brother for the very first time. He brings ahead a grandson who touches the gravestone too. A torch is handed. I give them distance and bow my head and say a quiet prayer,.

With every step among the many headstones, every knee taken to learn an inscription, every momentary pause to replicate on lives ripped from their goals too quickly, I really feel the feelings welling up inside me.

Within the silence, I come to imagine that they may hear my prayer, contact my tear, and really feel my spirit. But within the quiet breeze, I hear no bitterness for his or her loss; simply gratitude for being remembered.

Among the many headstones are some etched in gold, befitting these acknowledged with the Medal of Honor. However most haven’t any such recognition, simply the plain white stone that identifies them as brave and proud patriots who went into battle certain solely that to their left and proper have been individuals who would die for them, and for whom they might die if known as. They lie collectively now.

I fly with them in leather-based helmets, crushed hats, and oil spattered goggles pinned within the free stream, on missions flown deep into the center of enemy territory. Courageously climbing excessive into the solar and streaking low into the clutches of dying, their world is one with out conventional boundaries or boundaries, a vortex as an alternative of earth and sky and flak, bullets, and bombs. The size of aerial fight are unprecedented in scope and complexity. Collectively, they gained the air.

They invite me to hitch their band of brothers on the bottom, and stand subsequent to them as they peer by binoculars, caked in mud and blood with no time for ache. They fought with valor in opposition to tyranny in bitter and violent battles throughout six continents. Collectively, they gained the bottom.

Picture reveals a crew assigned to the 379th Bomb Group posing beside a B-17 Flying Fortress throughout World Conflict II, March 17, 1944. Picture courtesy of the Nationwide Archives

They take me with them into the stinging salt spray, throughout the waves, and thru the fog of warfare. Although few headstones mark their loss, their our bodies extra typically dedicated to the depths, they too have to be remembered: Collectively, they gained the ocean.

All over the world are 26 American cemeteries and 32 memorials to American values, service and sacrifice, managed by the American Battle Monuments Fee. Normandy, Halfway, Flanders Discipline, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Bulge, Panama, North Africa and all of the others, stand as beacons of the hope America introduced, and continues to deliver, a nation based on freedom, that gives assist with out compromise, every time and wherever known as.

Had been there to be a pilgrimage for Individuals, it ought to be to those locations, the place the magnificence of our Nation is seen most clearly within the tales of these at relaxation.

Come right here, my mates, and let their tales take root and reside on in your coronary heart. You’ll depart profoundly modified.

Daniel P. Woodward is a retired Air Power brigadier normal, a presidentially appointed Commissioner with the American Battle Monuments Fee, and the Govt Director of Arnold Air Society and Silver Wings, a non-profit collegiate skilled growth group dedicated to constructing navy and civilian servant leaders.