A Chance to Honor Our Best Ambassadors; We Must Do More to Remember the Dead American Soldiers Whose Sacrifice Forever Binds Us to Europe
Keehner, Jonathan, Newsweek
Byline: Jonathan Keehner (Keehner lives in New York City.)
On an overcast morning at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium, a few miles from the German border, David Atkinson gathered supplies for the day: a small American flag and pail of sand. As he worked, he explained that rubbing the sand on the headstone would make the inscription stand out in our photographs.
"We avoid clay or iron oxide in order to not stain the marble," said the 50-year-old superintendent with the fuzzy accent of someone used to conversing in four languages daily. Atkinson was addressing my father, my older brother and me. We had come to Belgium to visit my grandfather's grave--a first for his two grandsons. Henri-Chapelle is the resting place for 7,992 American World War II dead.
As we stood overlooking a gentle valley patch worked with farms, we felt far from the carnage that took place on that spot at the Battle of the Bulge in early 1945. Many of those buried at Henri-Chapelle perished while repulsing Germans in the Ardennes or advancing across the border. Atkinson was doing for us what he had done for countless others: preserving the memory of a relative who had never come home. As it turned out, his own father died serving the United States. His parents met during the first world war, and after his father's death he was raised in his mother's native Normandy, where, he recalled, he had played in abandoned German bunkers.
Atkinson led us into the visitors' room--a dark space overwhelmed by an enormous granite map on one wall. Engraved in black stone were arrows representing Allied advances. Searching the map, I was able to find the 83rd Division, my grandfather's unit.
Soon we exited onto a massive limestone colonnade bordered by rectangular pylons. Surrounded by hundreds of engraved names was this inscription:
Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves.
As we walked toward my grandfather's grave, past row after sweeping row of crosses and Stars of David, I felt pride--and shame that I had never done this before. I was grateful when Atkinson broke the silence to tell us about himself.
His career with the American Battle Monuments Commission began with World War I memorials. Having worked at several across Europe, he found himself frustrated by the cemeteries of the Great War. …