Lost, but not forgotten
For nearly 60 years, no one in Pfc. Antonio Pacecca’s family knew much about his death in World War II, or about his burial overseas.
His sister, Valentina, seldom spoke of him, preferring to believe he was just away on vacation. While word of his death on March 27, 1945, was sent to Valentina’s home, her family never learned details of his death or what happened to his body. The family elected to keep his remains buried overseas, but they never visited his grave. As years passed, he was essentially lost.
But not anymore. Valentina was my grandmother, and I decided to find out what happened to her brother. With help from the American Battle Monuments Commission Web site, I did.
In fact, on a recent visit to his grave at the World War II Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands, I not only saw his gravesite, but also learned about the price for freedom paid by my family and 8,300 other American families that have loved ones buried there.
An average of 450 relatives of dead troops visit the cemetery in eastern Netherlands each year, according to the cemetery staff. “Our most important honor is to care for visiting family members,” said Frenk Lahaye, 39, a cemetery associate for 12 years.
On our visit, they took care of us. We were escorted across manicured lawns to the gravesite, where staff members rubbed sand from Omaha Beach into the engraved letters. We took photos and remained silent for a moment. “Taps” played in the distance, as the cold autumn wind scattered leaves though the rows of white headstones, either crosses or Stars of David.
Lahaye also helps explain cemetery history to some of the 400,000 annual visitors.
Most of those buried there died amid battles waged to free Europe from the Nazis. Yet, many of their stories are unknown.
Great Uncle Tony, for example, left his hometown of Hartford, Conn., with the 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. His unit had crossed into Germany by the time he was killed. That’s all we know.
Other soldiers’ stories, however, have become a part of recorded history. Among the graves lies another Connecticut-native, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, the famed 3rd Armored Division commander who was killed on the front lines near Paderborn, Germany.
Sgt. William Dukeman, 2nd Lt. James Diel, and Pvt. Robert Van Klinken, members of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — the unit whose story was told in the Stephen Ambrose book “Band of Brothers” and the subsequent HBO mini-series — were laid to rest in Margraten.
A gold star and inscription mark the grave of Lt. Col. Robert Cole and five other soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor. Cole, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, was awarded the medal for leading a bayonet charge June 11, 1944, near Carentan, France. He never got to wear the medal. A sniper killed him in Holland three months later.
The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial rests on 65 acres of Dutch farmland southeast of Margraten, along the Maastricht-Aachen highway. A temporary burial site began there on Nov. 10, 1944. Most of the troops buried there were killed in Germany, but U.S. military leaders insisted that troops not be buried on enemy soil, Lahaye said.
Once the military decided to keep Margraten as a permanent site, soldiers buried in the 82nd Airborne Division cemetery in Molenhoek and the 101st Airborne Division in Son — casualties from Operation Market Garden — were taken to Margraten.
At its peak, 17,738 troops were buried there. The last burial was in March of 1946. After that, about 60 percent of the remains were shipped to stateside cemeteries at the request of families.
After World War II, locals adopted each of the graves, knowing that families in America would not be able to travel often. They took over the simple things, Lahaye said, such as offering flowers or a prayer.
In recent years, many of the original adopters have passed away. But in some cases, three generations have kept their adopted grave. Cemetery officials are looking for new sponsors for th graves that no longer have one.
“We try to keep the cemetery alive,” Lahaye said. “You can beautify this place, but more important is that you have visitors to see what the price of freedom was.”
Veterans Day is Tuesday, an ideal time to visit one of the American cemeteries in Europe, many of which lie just a few hours’ drive from U.S. bases. But any day is perfect to honor those who died for freedom.
“Every visit should be meaningful. There’s a lot to see,” Lahaye said. “The guys buried here deserve a good visit, at least 30 minutes to look at battle maps and time to wander though the graves area.”
A trip to a soldier’s graves, whether a family member or not, can speak volumes on history and sacrifice.