On May 26th, was the annual Memorial Day Ceremony at the Margraten American Cemetery in the Netherlands. Every year one of the members of the Screaming Ducks has the honour of presenting a wreath and this year it was my turn.
It was not my first Memorial Day Ceremony but my 4th, so I knew the drill and was ready for it. We have the rule within the club that the year before you lay the wreath you accompany the wreath layer and so it did not went with me. My youngest daughter was due only a couple of days after Memorial Day 2012 and I did not dare to be on the cemetery and receive a phone call that delivery was imminent. Thus it was two years since I last visited the cemetery and in those years I forgot the vastness of the cemetery and how many eight thousand three hundred and one graves really are.
The Margraten Cemetery, for those who have never been there, is a very beautiful and well thought through cemetery. When you arrive at the Cemetery you drive past the well-kept lawns that you find around all American Cemeteries. These lawns have something special about them, they are almost too perfect. This always amazes me and that is the first step in getting my mind of the usual thoughts and on to the place I’m about to enter. You then arrive at the garden of the missing, the gateway to the Cemetery. On the left and right are all the soldiers who have died but have no known grave, the ones who have been found later on now have a bronze rosette before their names. There are 1722 names on the walls and this alone is worth a long visit but somehow I just pass through thinking every time “next year I will look at these names”.
I finally entered the cemetery and started the now familiar task of finding our seats. This gives you the opportunity to walk past the other wreath layers and to meet friends from other clubs and organisations that either attend or lay a wreath too. The weather was terrible, cold, rain and wind so our chairs were soaking wet, and we tried in vain to protect our bottoms from getting soaking wet.
Then it’s time to take our seats, the Ceremony is starting, we all rise for the dignitaries that were invited and there were lot. The Representatives from the Netherlands, America, France, United Kingdom, Poland and Germany were welcomed along with a host of Generals and the recipient of the Dutch highest order of bravery (Militaire Willemsorde) is there too. A special welcome goes out to the WWII veterans or relatives of WWII veterans that are attending the ceremony.
We are pleased to hear that 7 soldiers have been identified or the remains found and identified over the past year and their names on the wall of the missing now have bronze rosette too. One of them was a paratrooper found near Groesbeek in his foxhole with his dog tags and picture of his mother. To me it is always an uplifting thought, finally the sacrifice they made is rewarded with a place among their fellow soldiers on a field of honour.
The superintendent welcomes everybody in both Dutch and English and it makes me wonder how odd my language (Dutch) must sound to foreign ears. When you hear an American struggle through our words and sentences. Nevertheless I’m honoured that he tries and it is a testimony to his dedication in his job. Everybody in the Netherlands speaks English but still he wants to be able to say a few words in our language.
Then a speech by a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission and she starts by telling us she wanted to visit Margraten Cemetery today because this is the only American Cemetery, out of 24, that has all graves adopted! Not only that but there are 3000 Dutchmen and women on the reserve list waiting to adopt a grave. Everybody is silent and proud, proud of the soldiers and proud of the Dutch who do not forget the sacrifice of these soldiers.
More speeches follow, our foreign secretary tells about his mother who was caught up in the fighting between the Americans and the Germans not far from where we stand now. He also tells about his great aunt who eventually married one of the soldiers who liberated our country. The bonds between our two countries are many and unbreakable he says, and I cannot agree more.
More speeches follow and the story of some of the soldiers buried here is told, as are recent deaths in the diplomatic corps. We send in diplomats first so we do not have to send soldiers, we hear. This is very true but, as it seems, very dangerous too.
As we get nearer and nearer to my small but important task in this ceremony I start to get both nervous and very cold. The rain has decided to grace us in every increasing droplets but this has the bonus of my nervousness being taken for cold shivers. These two merge eventually but by then everybody attending is so cold that nobody notices me shivering. ‘Do I have to take off my hat’, is one of the thoughts that crosses my mind. Luckily I’m not the first to present a wreath and I can see what the others are doing. The hat can stay on, as it turns out. More and more doom scenarios on slipping and falling or a wet bottom being seen by everybody go through my mind when suddenly a friendly American officer stand next to my seat. It is time to rise and be ready to walk to the front. He is a very friendly coast guard officer who has only recently arrived in Rotterdam, it is his first memorial day here. He asks me how I’m doing and without thinking I answer ‘cold’. We immediately have something in common as he is cold too. We walk up to the front of the seating area and make some more small talk.
Then it is my turn, suddenly my mind is completely focussed and there is no longer any worry in me. I have a job, an honour, the crown of my years as a re-enactor, presenting a wreath. There are no spectators anymore, the rain has stopped as I walk to our wreath and then, with the help of two more officers, I place the wreath on the hallowed ground next to the wreath of the UK. A small bow and a moment of thought later and my job is done. I turn around and face the spectators and suddenly I see hundreds of people watching me and it is still raining.
We walk back to our seats and after thanking my kind officer I sit down again on my, now very wet, chair. It does not matter, I performed my task and feel very proud. The ceremony is nearly over only the closing words and prayers and the missing man formation by 4 Dutch F-16s remain.
After the ceremony, very cold an a bit tired because of all the tension we take pictures of our wreath and then take a long walk across the cemetery. Looking at names, units and dates of death. You try to remember the battles in which these brave men died and thus less anonymous. Some have died not far from where I live in Veghel and gratefulness rises in me with every grave look upon. We arrive at the grave of Lt Colonel Cole, medal of honour recipient and I realise that, only 4 day previous I was standing next to his memorial and the place he died near Best. I’ve gone full circle.
More graves follow, soldiers killed at Sint Oedenrode, Veghel, Son, Eindhoven, all the places I drive through daily and I can do so because of their sacrifice.
Eventually we walk back to our cars, cold, wet, tired, hungry but very pleased and proud to have been part of this year’s ceremony.