Group looks after graves of GIs found in foreign cemeteries
Stars and Stripes May 26, 2008
YPRES, Belgium — Joe died in the Battle of the Bulge. Jerry fell fighting for the Belgian resistance. Don’s plane blew up. Bobby was murdered in a fruit orchard. Harry caught pneumonia. Shrapnel did in Dave. And Jim probably perished leading his men in a charge.
The seven men — casualties of either World War I or World War II — are among the hundreds of thousands of fallen U.S. servicemembers that Americans will collectively honor this Memorial Day.
What sets them apart from most is they were laid to rest in "isolated graves," or war graves outside the purview of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The commission is responsible for two dozen military cemeteries overseas, from Meuse-Argonne near Verdun, France, to Manila in the Philippines.
But what also separates these men from the rest is that they were forgotten long ago by American authorities in Belgium, where all are buried. In the case of three of them who died in World War I, the existence of their graves at one site may have been overlooked for as long as 60 years, said James Sheridan, a longtime member of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association-Belgium.
"That memory was probably lost with the Second World War," Sheridan said.
And any paper trail on the four from World War II ends in mid-1950 as far as Sheridan can tell.
"Until 2003, I knew nothing about the isolated graves," said Sheridan, a vice president of the association. "And no one with AOMDA knew anything about them, nor did anyone with the embassy."
Isolated graves can be found in town cemeteries, Allied burial grounds or even, as the commission says on its Web site, "in the fields where they fell throughout Europe." The commission estimates there are "several hundred."
There are a few countries known to have isolated graves of U.S. war dead. In France, for example, there are 183 plots at 123 sites, according to the American Overseas Memorial Day Association. Headquartered in Paris, the association’s list also mentions graves in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The seven soldiers and airmen in Belgium are interred at five locations, two of which are British war cemeteries. The other three sites are community graveyards.
Today, with respect to the World War I soldiers, "we do keep track and inspect the graves," said Chris Sims, assistant superintendent of the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium.
After the respective world wars ended, the families of fallen soldiers were given three choices. The remains, which had been placed in temporary sites, could be returned to the United States for burial, interred in one of the ABMC cemeteries, or left in place. However, the last option required a ton of paperwork and permission wasn’t given lightly, Sheridan said.
There are pictures of Memorial Day ceremonies held in Belgium in the 1920s, but Sheridan and Sims speculate that after World War II, American authorities forgot about the three doughboys buried in the Lijssenthoek Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery west of Ypres.
Sheridan said an associate of his stumbled upon a document in 2003 that mentioned the three World War I soldiers: Pfc. Harry King, Sgt. David Beattie and 1st Lt. James Pigue. That led Sheridan to contact Sims, who dug through the available paperwork to confirm their find and locate three more from World War II.
Last spring, officials learned of a seventh isolated grave.
It belongs to 2nd Lt. Robert Garrett, a B-24 pilot shot down over Holland in March 1944. Shielded by the Dutch and Belgian Resistance for six months, Garrett was randomly shot dead just east of Liège by a retreating German SS soldier, Sheridan said, citing Army records. At the time, Garrett was dressed in civilian clothes, picking fruit with a female member of the family that harbored him all summer.
While the association Sheridan belongs to focuses on Memorial Day activities, particularly those held at war monuments and American cemeteries, he is continuing his research on the seven.
"When I learned of their existence," said Sheridan, a professor at American University in Brussels, "I took a vow that they would never be forgotten again."
Compared to the four soldiers of World War II, far less is known about King, Beattie and Pigue.
In World War I, soldiers died of disease at an alarming rate. One of them was King, who succumbed to bronchial pneumonia while based in France. King and two brothers immigrated to the United States from England before the war. When hostilities broke out, one of King’s brothers joined the Canadian army, while he signed on with the U.S. Army. Both died in the war and it was the parents’ wish they be interred in the same cemetery.
Beattie and Pigue’s family requested that their remains not be disturbed once they were laid to rest in Lijssenthoek.
According to two accounts Sheridan has unearthed, Beattie was a forward artillery observer in western Belgium in August 1918 when a German shell exploded nearby. A piece of the shell struck Beattie above the left temple.
Pigue died the previous month on the first day of the Second Battle of Marne. The circumstances surrounding his death are unknown, but Sheridan postulates the Tennessean most likely died while leading his men in the Allied offensive.
Among the seven, it’s hard for Sheridan to pick a favorite. He says each man is special in his own right.
Pfc. Joseph Farina spent seven weeks with a Belgian family before he left for the Battle of the Bulge. Like Farina, the patriarch was of Italian descent. Having lost a son in the war, he and the rest of the household grew fond of Farina. The soldier asked to be buried in the Pacchiotti family plot should anything happen.
First Lt. Donald West jumped into the fray with the Canadian air force in the summer of 1941. He flew a Lancaster for two years before transferring to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Due to his familiarity with the bomber, West continued to fly with his Canadian crew. When his Lancaster was hit during a bombing mission in November 1943, he stayed with the burning plane to give others a chance to bail out. The aircraft exploded before West could do the same.
Last week, when Sheridan visited the pilot’s grave in a meticulously groomed British cemetery, it was obvious the professor felt a special affiliation. West drove a beat-up car, kept a diary, played tennis and left behind unpaid bar bills. "He had fun, like my students," Sheridan said.
There are other Americans buried in the same cemetery near Leuven, but, unlike West, they didn’t don a U.S. uniform during the war. And that’s where Sheridan and others draw the line, in terms of the special recognition.
Stories of all seven servicemembers are on the AOMDA-Belgium Web site.
Perhaps the most touching one of them all involved Staff Sgt. Gerald "Jerry" Sorensen. A B-17 gunner, the Idaho native survives a plane crash, links up with the Belgian Resistance and befriends a family. Sorensen died in combat with SS troops just three hours before the Belgian town he was operating from was liberated.
Jenny Abeels, whose family took Sorensen in, remembers her American friend as a polite and grateful young man. Her older brother, Roger, laughed, fought and died alongside Sorensen.
"They were always together," said Jenny Abeels, who is now near 80. "When the Red Cross found their bodies, they were in each other’s arms."