Honoring the Liberators of southern Netherlands: Memorial Day 2015

“Life started again,” said Hank Verouden, a 75-year-old Dutch man, as he stood on the grounds of Netherlands American Cemetery on Sunday explaining what it meant when the Americans liberated the town where he grew up in September 1944. “We have to be thankful for what these boys did for us.” Hank, and his wife Maria, were amongst the more than 6,000 people gathered at Netherlands American Cemetery for the 2015 Memorial Day Ceremony.

“70 years after the end of World War II in Europe, we take time to pay tribute to the more than 10,000 Americans who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and are memorialized here on these hallowed grounds,” said Superintendent Keith Stadler, as he offered opening remarks during the ceremony. More than 150 next of kin from across the United States attended the event, including a large group traveling as part of the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON).

Every moment of the two hour ceremony reflected the respect and honor, deserving of those men and women that paid the ultimate sacrifice during World War II. From the perfectly pressed uniforms of the active duty Dutch and American military participants to the moving and emotional remarks delivered by the guest speakers, the ceremony brought the crowd to tears, and delivered goose bumps during the missing man formation flyover.

“Today we, the people of the Netherlands, say thank you. We say it with the deepest respect and from the bottom of our hearts,” said Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. “We say thank you to our liberators. Thank you for enabling us to stand here today in freedom.” Throughout the ceremony, Americans and Dutch alike echoed the same themes of friendship, gratitude and the unbreakable bond forged between the United States and the Netherlands from the war. “We hold a very special place in our hearts for these unknown warriors," said Theo Bovens, the King's Commissioner in the Province of Limburg.

Arthur Chotin, whose father SSgt. Max Chotin is buried in the cemetery, served as a special guest speaker, thanking the Dutch for their unending devotion to those buried and memorialized in the cemetery. “By making these dead part of your family, you have become part of our family. You have created a bond between us that will never be broken,” said Chotin. “So, from this day forward, from now until the end of time, hartelijk bedankt, a heartfelt thank you.”

The feeling of appreciation between the Dutch and Americans is mutual, and it was most readily apparent as Hank Verouden stood there in the cemetery after the ceremony, choking back his words as he thought back to September 1944. Just five years old at the time, he carries with him a permanent scar. “He’s missing part of an ear,” said his wife Maria. “It was during the liberation time.” Missing the top quarter inch of his right ear, Hank was hit by a stray bullet during gun fire exchange between the Americans and Germans, just before his village was liberated. “We had to run and go home, and suddenly there was shooting,” said Hank. “Two centimeters and I wouldn’t be here.” He and Maria stood there on those hallowed grounds as a way to show their thanks and appreciation for what their American liberators had given back to their country 70 years ago.

 Throughout Memorial Day Weekend

Prior to the ceremony on Sunday, Netherlands American Cemetery had been buzzing with activity for days. Because every headstone and every name on the Wall of the Missing has been adopted by a local citizen, thousands of visitors came through the cemetery to lay flowers. “Because of these people, we have our freedom,” said Colinda Partouns, a local Dutch woman. “Although it was 70 years ago, we have to remember.” Partouns was visiting the cemetery with her father, her sister, and her niece and nephew. Between the group they have adopted five gravesites and names on the Wall of the Missing.

Along with the thousands of floral bouquets, an American flag and a Dutch flag adorned every headstone at the cemetery as part of the annual Memorial Day weekend tradition. To assist with this large undertaking boy scouts, girls scouts, active duty military, and local university students volunteered their time at the cemetery to place flags at the 8,301 headstones. Nadine Boesten, a student from Maastricht University who grew up in the area, helped with the flags. “It’s really important that our generation doesn’t forget about this, and how many people gave their lives from our freedom.”

Cosat Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Runion, who participated in the ceremony on Sunday, best summed up the true meaning of the events this weekend . “I hope everyone remembers what this weekend is all about and that everyone takes the time to remember those who never came home,” said Runion. “For those of us who serve it’s nothing in comparison to those who have given their lives.”