Remarks of U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Adam H. Sterling
Memorial Day Ceremony
American Cemetery at Margraten
May 29, 2016
General Van der Louw, on behalf of the King; State Secretary van Rijn; Excellencies; Admiral Bauer; General Hodges; General Farina; Governor Bovens; Mayors; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.
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. I would also like to give special recognition to the group of descendants of the African-American soldiers who fought for the liberation of Limburg who are here with us today.
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.
Every Memorial Day, America honors the brave young men and women who risked and lost their young lives for our freedom. Here in the Netherlands on Memorial Day, we Americans honor you, our Dutch friends, as well. After the war, as our ships brought many of our dead home, you pledged to take care of those who remained 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 71 years. I don’t know how to convey the depth of our gratitude, so I will just say, Thank you.
Each year we have ever fewer parents and grandparents to give us first-hand accounts of what the veterans did here 71 years ago. We live in a place and a time with less conflict, more prosperity, and more freedom than any time in human history. It is easy to see the war, not so distant in time, as distant from the concerns that preoccupy us today. But we must never forget that we are heirs to a terrible struggle for freedom.
You, the Dutch, have not forgotten. You have chosen not to forget. Your commitment to preserve the collective memory of the war is inspiring in its tenacity. And it lies at the heart of the special relationship between Americans and the Dutch.
I have attended many wartime commemorations during my three years in the Netherlands. The memory of these that will remain strongest for me is the role you always reserve for children and young adults at every war commemoration, large or small, in Amsterdam or the smallest village. This is how to convey our history, our collective memory, to future generations. It is a carefully nurtured inheritance that we cannot lose.
Let me just recognize a few of the young people who have particularly inspired me. All are about the same age as most of the soldiers buried here were at their deaths.
- Victoria van Krieken and her young team at Liberation Route Europe. They are creating an international remembrance trail connecting important milestones from modern European history. Their project reaches across national borders, grappling with individual nation states’ selective memories of the war, and underscoring the role of international reconciliation and reflection on our hard-won freedoms.
- Jory Brentjens, a dedicated young war historian at the Liberation Museum in Groesbeek who has encyclopedic knowledge of war-time events.
- Maarten Vossen, who at the age 13, adopted the grave of Private First Class James E. Wickline, who is buried here. Maarten’s quest to learn more about this young soldier led him to West Virginia, and it is captured beautifully in an award-winning documentary that just came out called “Ageless Friends.”
- And finally, Sebastiaan Vonk, a young man I met at Groningen University in my first year in the Netherlands. He told me then about the work he was doing in his free time to collect, organize, and publish personal stories about the soldiers buried at Margraten. He had a vision to give a face to each grave. Through the Faces of Margraten project, he and several volunteers have been able to collect more than 4,000 photos of the soldiers buried here. With faded black and white photographs, Sebastiaan has given these headstones a face, bringing their stories to life and allowing these soldiers to look back at us in the full glow of youth.
There are countless stories like this, of inspiring young people who are themselves inspired by the generation of their grandparents or great grandparents.
The inspiring legacy of the war-time generation they honor was left not just by those who died. Those from that generation who survived left a remarkable legacy as well. With reverence for the values that united the Allies in war and for the sacrifices of so many of their peers, they rebuilt Europe after the war based on a vision of a continent whole, free, and at peace.
Europe’s leaders vowed that the continent would never again be ravaged by violence and intolerance. To protect future generations they built institutions like the United Nations, the European Community, and NATO, institutions that cultivate trust between individuals, between governments, and between continents. Thanks to that architecture of peace, Europe has been free and prosperous for over 70 years. As President Obama said in Hanover last month,
“… Your accomplishment – more than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency, in one European Union – remains one of the great political and economic achievements of modern times.”
Today, external and internal forces threaten this architecture of peace. Terrorists and tyrants seek to roll back the clock of progress. Suspicion, nationalism, and intolerance within Europe have allowed voices calling for retreat to grow louder each day. How different this response from the courage and solidarity of those we honor here today.
Let us draw inspiration from the tremendous achievements that began with the wartime generation, many of whose members rest here at Margraten. Let us come together to defend what they made possible to build, and built. In his speech President Obama reminded us that
“This continent, in the 20th century, was at constant war. People starved on this continent. Families were separated on this continent. And now people desperately want to come here precisely because of what you’ve created…. A united Europe – once the dream of a few – remains the hope of the many and a necessity for us all.”
This is the Europe that its citizens built on the overwhelming and heartbreaking sacrifices of those we honor here today.
We Americans are moved beyond words by how you continue to care for our soldiers buried in your soil. And we are inspired by what your country and its neighbors built from the soldiers’ legacy in Europe over seven decades. As we honor those buried here at Margraten, may we all remain faithful heirs of their courage and worthy beneficiaries of their sacrifice.