Dutch Group Collecting Thousands of World War II Soldier Photos to Honor Fallen at Netherlands American Cemetery

Thousands of white marble headstones dot the landscape at Netherlands American Cemetery, where more than 8,000 Americans that lost their lives in World War II eternally rest. Each Latin cross and Star of David headstone is a testament to the sacrifices made by these young Americans in the fight to liberate Europe.

Through The Faces of Margraten, running May 1-May 5, 2016, the Dutch will pay special tribute to these soldiers by placing a personal photo of the soldier next to his headstone or name on the Walls of the Missing. This effort, which first began in 2015, is a unique tribute created and organized by Dutch volunteers who want to thank the Americans that gave their lives during the liberation of the southern Netherlands.

Because World War II ended more than 70 years ago, collecting these photos has not been a simple task. During the inaugural Faces of Margraten in 2015, personal photos were available for about 3,300 of the 10,023 American soldiers buried in or memorialized at the cemetery. For this year’s tribute, the group has brought the photo total up to more than 4,000. They’ve done this through countless hours of outreach to American families and media outlets. Small town American newspapers have printed stories about this effort—leading to the discovery of photos in dusty albums and yearbooks.

Last year 25,000 grateful Dutch citizens came to the cemetery during the Faces of Margraten to pay their respects. "The number of people that came out showed that people widely continue to recognize the importance of remembering those to whom we owe our freedom, even 70 years after the end of World War II. Moreover, the visitors' responses revealed that people were touched by the fact that they could look straight into the eyes of our liberators,” says Sebastiaan Vonk, chairman of the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, which organizes The Faces of Margraten tribute.

The photos will be placed next to the headstones from May 1-5, 2016 when the Netherlands observes the 71st anniversary of their liberation. “This Dutch initiative sends a powerful message that not only are the sacrifices made by so many young Americans over 70 years ago still appreciated, but they are as relevant today as they have ever been,” said Keith Stadler, Superintendent of Netherlands American Cemetery.

"If you look at all the photos, you will see many young men and women, sometimes with their parents, with their brothers and sisters, their friends, sometimes with their own children. Looking at these photos makes you realize that they were not just soldiers; they were young individuals like us with a family, friends, interests, and dreams. We could have been them had we lived in a different time and place," Vonk remarks.

Adopting Graves at the Cemetery—a Long Tradition

Since 1945, Dutch locals have adopted the graves of the soldiers buried in Netherlands American Cemetery. Out of heartfelt respect and gratitude, these adopters regularly visit the graves and decorate them with flowers. Many of the adopters also correspond with the soldiers’ family back in the United States and have formed long-lasting friendships.

Seventy-one years after the war, younger generations have taken up the responsibility to remember these soldiers. "When I speak to people they sometimes say that the youth no longer cares about the past and those who fought for their freedom. I do not believe that. Many young Dutch people show an interest in the war and continue to visit these cemeteries, and many, like me, have adopted a grave and are volunteers for The Faces of Margraten tribute. We will continue to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for many years to come," said Vonk, age 23.

More information about the project can be found at www.thefacesofmargraten.com.

About the American Battle Monuments Commission:
Established in 1923 by Congress, ABMC is a U.S. government agency charged with commemorating the service, achievements and sacrifice of the U.S. Armed forces where they have served overseas since 1917. ABMC administers our nation’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and federal memorials. For more information visit www.abmc.gov, or connect with us on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram.