A New Jersey soldier is buried in Europe. A stranger makes sure his grave isn’t forgotten.
By BARRY CARTER | NJ Advance Media Group | Published: July 28, 2019
EDISON, N.J. (Tribune News Service) — Sylvia Peters recently placed flowers on the grave of an American World War II soldier from New Jersey.
She made the half hour drive last month to Belgium from her home in the Netherlands. Standing in plot B, row 13, grave 42, Peters thanked Army Sgt. William Lawrence, of Passaic County, for the sacrifice he made on Sept. 18, 1944.
He was assigned to the 119th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed "Old Hickory" and "Workhorse of the Western Front." On that day, his division played a big part in driving German forces from her hometown of Schaesberg in the Netherlands.
A month later, Lawrence, who was just 24, died from his injuries on Oct. 3 in Belgium, another battleground during the Allied invasion.
“It is important to me that these men, who have made the greatest sacrifice for us, are never forgotten," Peters said.
His final resting place is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, where he’s one of 7,987 American soldiers. His name, date of birth and death, is engraved on a white cross.
After the war, thousands of American soldiers were buried in cemeteries all over Europe and grave adoption programs started in 1945 to honor them.
Peters adopted two graves in Margraten, Netherlands in 2017, where no less than 8,031 Americans are buried. She decided to look after Lawrence’s grave this year after learning that graves had not been adopted in the Belgium cemetery.
The program there — Sentinels of Memory — is run by the American Overseas Memorial Day Association, a Belgium organization that was started in 1923 by a group of Americans living in Brussels and Antwerp.
As part of the program, people who take on the graves are encouraged to visit the cemetery once a year, and if possible, find what they can about the soldier.
Peters sent an email that my editor forwarded to me, hoping to find family members of Lawrence. She had names, but no luck in reaching them.
“I would like to let them know that there will be...good care (taken) of his final resting place and that he is still not forgotten after so many years," she said.
Our research department discovered that he had a nephew, Robert Baksa Sr. of Bergenfield, and his son, Robert Baksa Jr. of Orlando, Florida.
Patricia Baksa, the wife of Robert Baksa Sr., praised Peters for what she has done, though she didn’t have much more information to share about Lawrence.
Her husband, born in 1940, was only four-years old when Lawrence was killed, so she said he doesn’t have many memories. Family stories that were passed down, Patricia Baksa said, recount how Lawrence didn’t have to serve because he was the sole support for his mother, but he chose to enlist anyway.
After he was killed, Baksa said, Lawrence’s sister, Elizabeth, traveled to Europe to place flowers on his grave. His son, Baksa Jr., 53, of Orlando, said he placed flowers on his great uncle’s grave in the 1990s.
“I think she (Peters) is remarkable," Patricia Baksa said. “She has our gratitude."
Peters said she visits the graves of the soldiers buried in the Netherlands a few times a year on Memorial Day, Christmas and liberation day for the Netherlands.
“I will also do this for Sgt. Lawrence," she said.
She hopes her daughter follows in her footsteps and passes the tradition on to her children.
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