On Sacred Ground

Nearly 125,000 American servicemen and servicewomen are interred in 24 American military cemeteries in eight overseas nations. Yet probably the most famous of all the cemeteries on foreign soil is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

In 2010, Evansville residents Greg Grabner and his wife, Victoria, visited Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 American soldiers remain interred long after the end of World War II.

“When we entered the cemetery I remember just standing there and not moving,” Greg Grabner says. “It was overwhelming. It took my breath away. Even standing there, it was difficult to comprehend the reverence that the scene conveyed. I cannot even remember talking,” he says. “If we did talk, it was only in whispers.”

David Bedford, the former Superintendent of the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England, says the first-time visitor is often initially surprised by how different the overseas cemeteries are from veteran cemeteries in the United States.

“They don’t know how to take it because there is a sort of sad calm and reverence,” he says. “Visitors frequently say that it is beautiful, but immediately recant by asking how can something like this be beautiful?”

Part of the reason for the intense feeling of reverence is because at each of the overseas American cemeteries, the soldiers died so close to where they are buried. The reaction is also the result of meticulous planning that went into the creation of each cemetery. Teams of the world’s most accomplished sculptors, landscape designers, memorial architects, and mosaic artists and muralists were employed to create memorial cemeteries meant to attract people to visit and heighten their respect for the accomplishments of the deceased, and to reflect on the horrors of war.

“When we were there it was a heavy rain and overcast, but the ground crews were out working,” Grabner says. “The statues and memorial walls were as clean as if they had been installed yesterday, not almost 70 years ago. The grass was meticulous. I was very proud of our country to see how the United States continues to remember and honor our dead so long after World War II ended.”

“We want more Americans to experience first-hand how those who sacrificed so much are honored forever,” says Mike Conley, chief of staff for the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency of the U.S. government that, since 1923, is the guardian of the overseas cemeteries.

Besides in Colleville-sur-Mer, American cemeteries are located in England, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Tunisia, the Philippines, and other cities in France. Several are close to the popular tourist destination cities of Rome, London, Florence, and Paris.

Grabner recalls being surprised so many grave markers had some type of memento left, even though the deceased died so long ago and are buried so far from home. In addition to flowers and American flags, there were dog tags, candles, and other items that had been left at many of the graves.

“Most were only in their late teens and early 20s, but they sacrificed their lives for the freedom we enjoy today,” he recalls.

I was similarly affected when I made an unexpected stop at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial south of Florence, Italy, as part of a tour. As we returned to the bus after walking through the perfectly manicured grounds and the memorial building, everyone was teary-eyed and silent. Several long moments after the bus was underway, no one had yet spoken. Then our Italian guide, who was born after World War II, said softly: “Many of your countrymen died so I could live in freedom. Thank you.”

Every ABMC cemetery throughout the world has a Memorial Day ceremony when American flags and a flag of the home nation are placed by each grave. American and local dignitaries attend every memorial.

American visitors often are unaware of the attention displayed to the American cemeteries by local communities still thankful for the sacrifices made by Americans on foreign soil. At the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, all 8301 graves have been “adopted,” sometimes by second and third generations who voluntarily visit the adopted grave and leave flowers in honor of the soldier buried there.

Following the end of World War II, all remains have been returned home. The only new burials allowed in the ABMC cemeteries are the few remains still being discovered.

For next-of-kin who visit an overseas American cemetery, the experience can be very gratifying. After Catherine Corpening of Hickory, N.C., returned from visiting the grave of her father, TSGT Ira Royster at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, her uncle admitted that for more than six decades he had been uncertain of the burial advice he had given the family. He had suggested that her father should be buried alongside the men with whom he had fought and died, and he wanted to know what she thought after her visit.

“I said, ‘Look, don’t regret this, because I’ve been there. It’s beautiful, it’s serene, and his burial place will always be taken care of,’” she says.

Grabner, who was 31 when he made his visit to Normandy, says his desire to visit the cemetery originated with his grandfather, Jack Woodward, who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II as a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. “He had instilled in me an interest in the war and he had always wanted to visit one of the ABMC cemeteries, but was never able to go,” Grabner says.

Woodward was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when Grabner returned from the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, but he was able to tell his grandfather about his trip and show him photos he had taken. “He was still able to understand what I had done and was very proud and happy,” Grabner says.

“There is no need to have a personal connection to someone interred in an overseas American cemetery to visit,” Grabner says. “Everyone should have the opportunity to go and see how we still honor those who died to ensure our freedom.”

— Greg Grabner’s wife, Victoria, is the managing editor of Tucker Publishing Group.

For more information about the American Battle Monuments Commission, visit www.abmc.gov for photos and a video tour of each of the 24 cemeteries.

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