Memorial Day 2015

Remarks of U.S. Ambassador Timothy M. Broas

Memorial Day Ceremony

American Cemetery at Margraten

May 24, 2015 | 15:00 Hours 

As delivered

Major General Van der Louw, on behalf of the King; Prime Minister Rutte; Excellencies; Minister of Defense Hennis; General Breedlove; Air Marshall Stacey; Lieutenant General Leijtens; Governor Bovens; Mayors; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you to all for being here, and thank you, Commissioner Morella, for that moving introduction.

I would first like to express my deepest appreciation for all veterans with us today, and for the families of the brave men and women laid to rest here.

If I might try a little Dutch:

En dan wil ik hierbij alle Nederlanders bedanken, en in het bijzonder de Limburgers,  voor de gastvrijheid die u altijd biedt aan de Amerikanen die hier al generaties lang komen — op deze gewijde rustplaats voor meer dan 8,000 Amerikaanse soldaten.

After the war, as our ships set off for America with many of our fallen, you pledged to take care of those who would remain behind, here in this cemetery, in your community.  To this day, you have kept your word.  You have adopted and lovingly maintained these graves for the past 70 years. America is forever grateful.

As you look across the hilltops at the beautiful white marble headstones, have you ever wondered about the graves beneath?  How did they get there, those 8,301 graves?

Let me share a story with you.  There were no mechanized excavators here in 1944.  Each grave was dug by the hands and shovels of men.  Two hundred men.  Two hundred African-American soldiers.

In the 1930s and 40s, the U.S. Army mirrored public life in America,  it was segregated.  This held until 1948, when President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces – an act that foretold the path to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

During World War Two, however, African-American soldiers served in separate units and they were mostly assigned to supportive services. They were not allowed to eat, sleep, or fight alongside their white countrymen.  They were, however, tasked to bury the dead in the cold wet soil ofLimburg in the late autumn of 1944.

One of those soldiers was a man named Jefferson Wiggins, whose family I got to know earlier this year.  His life is a classic American journey:  from a poor childhood in rural Alabama, to service in a segregated Army. He was a victim of pre- and post-war discrimination in America, but became a civil rights champion and a committed academic, earning several university degrees, including a PhD.

In his own words Dr. Wiggins described his experience at Margraten 71 years ago:

“Each of us was given a pick and a shovel.  Our job was to bury the dead.  Each soldier was required to dig a minimum of three graves a day:  almost two meters long, two meters deep, and a meter wide.  When you realize there were only 200 of us, well, you get an idea about the magnitude of the work we had to do.

And we had been commanded to give respect to those we could not even associate with in life.  But on that first day, we realized that whatever life experiences we’d had as African Americans, this was our obligation – to set aside our prejudices, our colors, and our fears, and give to these young Americans the honor, the respect, and the dignity they so well deserved.”

Today, we honor Jefferson Wiggins and all the members of the 960th Quarter Master Services Unit. They had the demanding and gruesome task of burying the thousands upon thousands of fallen who arrived here from the Battle of the Bulge and other areas where the war still raged. They were the gravediggers of Margraten.  Forgotten heroes who, despite many obstacles, dedicated themselves to country and mission.

By the way, you can read his story and his experiences at this cemetery in the book “From Alabama to Margraten,” by local author Mieke Kirkels, who is here with us today.

We are also fortunate to have some of the Dutch-born descendants of the 960th Unit here with us today.

The difficulties many of you have faced in your lives reflect, in many ways, the challenges your fathers experienced in America before and after the war.

Today I want to honor and recognize these very special Limburgers.  Thank you for being here.  I know it has not been easy, but America honors you today.

While Limburg was being liberated in the early fall of 1944, a bold allied offensive called Operation Market Garden was underway to free the rest of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation.  Since I was last here at Margraten, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to visit Nijmegen, Eindhoven, Dreel,Arnhem, and other important sites where the horror and heroism of the war played itself out during that unprecedented airborne operation.

On September 17 last year, I witnessed an impressive re-enactment of this monumental battle during the Market Garden commemorations.   Seeing hundreds of parachutes slowly descending towards the Waal River, and imagining how the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment must have felt that September morning, literally sent chills down my spine.  One of the survivors, Lieutenant Thomas Pitt of the 504th , described his recollection of the events vividly:

“They told us to get the boats and go across the river.  The boat was like a canvass material with a wood frame to it and it held about twelve men in a boat.  We had to paddle to get it across.  We got into the damn boats and thought at first it looked like rain in the water.  Then we realized it was lead coming from the Germans on the other side.  Away we went.  I’ll tell you we were paddling like mad to get across.”

What moved me most during the Market Garden commemorations was the appreciation from the Dutch people for what these young Americans did for them.  The American National Anthem was playing and American flags were waving in every small town.  Children were cheering at every turn, assuring us that as memories of the war fade into history, the sacrifices made for our freedom will not be forgotten.

Nor can our freedom be taken for granted.  The Europe we inherited from that generation of heroes – whole, free, and at peace – is once again at risk.  There is no better reminder of this, than the tragic event that ended the lives of so many innocent people in a field some 2,500 kilometers east of here in Ukraine.

An event that took the lives of 196 Dutch citizens aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014.  Innocent victims of a senseless act of aggression.  We owe it to the men and women laid to rest here at Margraten, to preserve the order they gave their lives to establish.  At a minimum, to honor their legacy, we must stand united in confronting perpetrators of chaos, extremism, and oppression to justice, wherever it may occur.

To that end, even as we speak, U.S. investigators are assisting a Dutch-led international effort to reconstruct the wreckage and determine the technical cause of the crash.  Similarly, our criminal investigators are working together to identify who was behind this tragic act of aggression, which broke the hearts of this nation, and many others last summer.

Prime Minister Rutte has said that the events of last summer reminded him of “how closely interwoven events at home and abroad can be.”  This was just as true 70 summers ago, as young Americans like Jefferson Wiggins boarded airplanes and ships to fight, risking their lives to liberate Dutch towns they had never heard of, and Dutch people they had never met, thousands of miles from home.

We should never take the lessons of history for granted, otherwise the cost shown by these headstones today will have been made in vain.  Let us never forget that there has been, and will always be, threats to our freedoms and way of life.

For us to forget the lessons of history, and the headstones among us here, is to put our children and our children’s children at risk to suffer the same tragedy that this continent, and you, The Netherlands, suffered over 70 years ago.

So while we cherish and care for the graves of Margraten, let us also preserve the lessons we learned:  that peace comes at a cost.  Freedom is not free.  It is won through sacrifice, and with it comes responsibility, a shared responsibility to defend our values wherever freedom and peace are threatened.

The United States, the Netherlands, and our EU and NATO partners are in this together.  For seven decades our partnership has endured.

And it will continue to endure, because a prosperous and peaceful future for new generations depends on it.  It depends on the decisions we make today, on our discipline, our resolve, our sacrifice.  It depends on our commitment to answer the call when one of our countries is in need of assistance that only the others can provide, even when the act of providing such assistance might be politically unpopular at home.

But the preservation of our shared values and freedoms should not be measured by public popularity or political risk.  It is measured by the arc of history, and the vision of leaders who are brave enough to bend that arc for the greater good, and the furtherance of good over evil, of human rights over suffering and depravation, of tolerance over isolation.

Let the stories and lessons of the war give us the strength to confront and bring to justice those who would tear apart our union, and rob our children, and their children, of the peace paid for with the lives of the heroes buried here at Margraten.

I am deeply honored to be here with you at this sacred place on this day of remembrance.

May God bless the fallen and all who serve, and may we be worthy of their sacrifice.

Thank you.