Anybody remember the old saying about what you should do when you visit a National Park? The one that goes “Leave only footprints and take only memories.”
For some reason these words were running through my head last night as I watched a PBS documentary called “Hallowed Grounds.” The show profiled 21 of the 24 overseas American military cemeteries lovingly maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. (The three not shown are in Brookwood, England; Corozal, Panama; and Mexico City.)
The World War I and World War II cemeteries stretch across eight countries, from England to Tunisia to the Philippines. Eleven of the cemeteries are in France. All told, there are 117,982 American men and women buried in the ground they fought and died for during these two wars.
One of the stats about a couple of the cemeteries jumped out at me: at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium there are 7,989 headstones for the 7,992 dead (three graves have two sets of remains that could not be separated). There are 66 white crosses in 33 pairs marking where brothers rest side-by-side. A set of white crosses belong to three brothers who are buried together. The Brittany and Sicily-Rome cemeteries, are each the resting place for 20 pairs of brothers. And, at Epinal, 14 pairs of brothers are buried together.
The most extreme example of this is, of course, on the wall listing those missing in action at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. Brothers George, Frances, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan were crewmates aboard the USS Juneau and all five died when it was torpedoed and sank Nov. 13, 1942.
These aren’t all of the American servicemen and women who died overseas in these two wars, but they are the last Americans to be buried near the battlefields where they fell. After World War II, America brought its war dead home from Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan (to name a few).
I wonder why we no longer honor our dead near their battlefields? Is it because we can bring them home more easily? Or are there other reasons? In the Pacific and Africa, and across Europe, these cemeteries are the footprints and memories of Americans who fought and died in two world wars.
One part of the show struck a particular chord with me when some of the cemeteries - particularly those in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Philippines - were described as popular destinations for schoolchildren on class trips. Many of the pictures of the cemeteries included groups of children walking amongst the rows of white crosses and Stars of David.
I thought to myself, and I have no idea what the answer is, “When was the last time American students visiting D.C. went to Arlington National Cemetery?” You see them all the time at the Fashion Center at Pentagon City, but I’m curious how many have visited Arlington, only two or three miles away?
Anyway, unlike my usual course of action, I’m not going to belabor this point. I will merely leave you with a list of the cemeteries and links to them if you’d like to read and learn a little more about these special places.
World War I
Flanders Field, Belgium
St. Mihiel, France
World War II
North Africa, Tunisia
Mexico City, Mexico