SIDNEY — To look at the photo — row upon row of white crosses marking the graves of U.S. servicemen and women — it would be easy to assume that this is like many another World War II cemetery in Europe.
The assumption would be wrong. Because this photo is of the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten. And the people of Margraten have, for 73 years, made sure those graves — all 8,300 of them — are cared for and the people who lie in them are remembered and appreciated.
That’s why a few weeks ago, Jenny Brown, an adult services assistant at the Amos Memorial Public Library here, got an unusual request for information. Teresa Hirsch, who splits her time between Indianapolis, Indiana, and Bradenton, Florida, was looking for a photo of one Oscar C. Drees. Drees is one of three Shelby County soldiers buried at Margraten.
The others are Arnold Fleming “Bud” Hawvermale and Clarence L. Mullen, both of rural Shelby County.
“I get inquiries once or twice a week,” Brown said. She’s the Amos staffer who responds to requests for genealogical information. “Usually it’s people looking for obituaries. This was different.”
To understand why, this story has to look back to 1945. That’s when residents of a small town in the Netherlands began to “adopt” graves of Americans killed in the war. The adopters visited the graves often and decorated them with flowers on holidays. Today, three generations later, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to do so. Some correspond with the families and descendants of those service members in the U.S.
Every single one of the graves at Margraten is adopted. So are the names of another 1,700 Americans who are listed on a Wall of the Missing. It is the only cemetery of American war dead in the world in which every grave is so cherished.
The adopters don’t refer to the fallen as soldiers, airmen, sailors or servicemen. The call them liberators. Those 10,000 men and women gave their lives to liberate the Netherlands and the rest of Europe from the Nazis. The Dutch have never taken that sacrifice for granted.
The adoptions are now formalized. The group is called the Friends of Margraten.
“One of the stipulations is that you take care of (the grave) as if it were your own,” Hirsch said. The Friends started a website and in 2015 began to search for photos to display on the website and at each gravesite.
“I started having an interest in WWII a few years back. I saw a post on Facebook about someone looking for someone in Texas. ‘What if I found someone closer to me?’ I thought,” Hirsch added. Her expertise in historical research is as an amateur. It’s a hobby that threatens to consume her, she laughed.
But she did find a photo of someone closer, and then another and then another. She estimates she has provided 1,000 photos to searchers in Margraten and in Cambridge, England.
So far, the Friends in the Netherlands have posted about 5,500 photos. They’re still looking for others. Hirsch helped them find Drees.
Brown located a Sidney Daily News story about Drees’s death that included a photo. But she didn’t find it right away.
“I didn’t know where to start,” she said. After discovering that he had attended Anna High School from 1938 to 1941, she contacted several possible sources. But neither the library, the school nor the Anna Historical Society had yearbooks for those years. So she went to newspaper files to look for an obituary. She found it on the Sidney Daily News front page, May 5, 1945. It chronicled his death, April 19, 1945, in Germany, just before V-E Day. He was the 52nd Shelby County soldier to die in battle.
“During the war, everyone was dying or being captured or being released from prisoner of war camps. It was horrible reading about what went on at that time,” Brown said.
She scanned the newspaper page and sent it to Hirsch.
“I couldn’t wait to tell her when I saw his picture in the paper,” Brown said. The article provided a lot of additional information that Hirsch added to the Friends website. And Drees’s photo will be displayed by his tombstone for this year’s Memorial Day event.
Every year, there are speakers, a concert and a commemorative torch is carried through the cemetery in celebration of the Netherlands Memorial Day. Thousands attend. Thousands more visit the cemetery throughout the year, including the adopters who are sometimes surprised to see the photos.
In 2015, the Faces of Margraten project was begun. In May of that year, 20,000 people attended to view the 4,000 photos that were then on display. Hirsch was one of them.
“The inaugural event was amazing. I heard someone call out, ‘They found a picture of my liberator for me!’” Hirsch said.
In a press release by the Friends, a Dutch project organizer asks for help in putting a photo with every name at Margraten.
“Even though the war ended 73 years ago, the people of the Netherlands have not forgotten these men and women and the sacrifices that they made for our freedom,” said Sebastiaan Vonk of The Faces of Margraten tribute in the release. “We hope that, in the end, we can put a face to the name of each and every one of our liberators.
“Maybe you’re related to one of the other soldiers and have a photo tucked away in an album you haven’t looked through in years. Perhaps he is honored at a local school or an American Legion Post. If you find a photo, help us honor their sacrifice and that of thousands of other Americans by contributing the photo to The Faces of Margraten,” said Vonk.
Photos and information can be submitted at www.TheFacesOfMargraten.com. About once a year, Hirsch scrolls through the online database to see which names still need photos. She selects some to track down. The database is at www.FieldsOfHonor-Database.com.
“(It’s) one act of kindness merging with another act of kindness,” Hirsch said of her volunteer work. She’s kind to provide a photo to someone who’s kind enough to care for a grave.
“The photos are another way to make sure that these men and women are not forgotten. But they are also a powerful reminder of the cost of war for younger generations…
“‘This makes their sacrifices only more worthwhile. Their stories continue to inspire younger people today to do better in life, to strive towards a better world,” Vonk, 25, himself, said in the release.
The photo project also puts a face on history.
“I learn about this time in our history person by person,” Hirsch said.
A photo and information have been posted to the database about Mullen. But Hawvermale’s is one of the 4,500 the Friends are still hoping to find. Hirsch and Brown thought perhaps a Sidney Daily News reader would be able to supply it. They noted the great satisfaction that comes with tracking down such hallowed material.
“It’s very fulfilling just to know that someone somewhere else will see what this person looked like, to put a face with a name,” Brown said.
And in the case of the folks at Margraten, it’s putting a face with a name that’s been lovingly cared about through four generations because the person whose name it is cared enough to die for the cause of freedom.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.