maandag 27 mei 2013

Dutch FM remembers fallen US soldiers at the Netherlands American Cemetery

69 years ago, on a beautiful September Sunday, my mother and her parents were walking home after a family visit and were caught in the crossfire between German troops and American soldiers who were liberating Heerlen. After having been told to hide by GI’s, they ran into a house where they later had their first encounter with their liberators. My mother told me, the other day: “These boys, front line troops, were famished and ate the food offered to them with their fingers, straight from the frying pan.”

Dutch FM Frans Timmermans
In the months to come, the inhabitants of Heerlen would become very friendly with the American troops, my mother, six years of age, learning very quickly that she could trade small clippings of her red hair for big chunks of American chocolate. My great-aunt Clara fell in love with Pete Kotovic, a Polish-American soldier from Troy Michigan, who made her his bride. They went to Troy, had three children and more grandchildren, a great life, fulfilled when my aunt passed away last year.

I wanted to share this with you, because it is just a very small and personal testimony of the profound attachment this part of the Netherlands feels with the young American men and women who were prepared to risk their lives so that young Dutch men and women could live full lives in liberty, could become parents and grandparents, could pass on to next generations their memories of occupation and oppression, so that we would understand the true value of freedom.

In these fields lie the remains of more than 8,000 young men, boys often, who’s lives were cut short, who were denied the possibility to marry, to become fathers and grandfathers, to live life’s full circle. One of them is pfc  Leo Lichten, from Brooklyn, NY, twenty years old when he was mowed down by a German machine gun, less than twenty miles from here, across the border at Prummern. In the last letter he wrote, to his best friend Paul Slater, he stated that he was resigned to his fate and that he knew he was fighting the necessary fight against tyranny. This letter is one of the most moving testimonies of a young man willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for liberty. Not at home, not in his country, but overseas, for us, for our freedom. We have adopted his grave as a small gesture of gratitude for his and his fellow soldiers’ sacrifice.

Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten 
100 Years after President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, President Lynden B. Johnson made the following comments on Memorial Day. “Until the world knows no aggressors, until the arms of tyranny have been laid down, until freedom has risen up in every land, we shall maintain our vigil to make sure our sons who died on foreign fields shall not have died in vain. As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too--a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people--so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain…” How true these words ring today, with recent memories of terrorist attacks in Boston, London and Paris.

As I stand here to honor these heroes, I am compelled to also remember American diplomats who have died in the service of their country. In the last year alone five of them were killed in the line of duty. I’m thinking of Ambassador Chris Stevens who died in Benghazi months after our countries had helped to liberate Libya from the scourge of dictatorship. I’m thinking of Sean Smith, information management officer who was in Benghazi on a short assignment while posted in The Hague. I’m thinking of his wife Heather and their children Samantha and Nathan. I’m thinking of Anne Smedinghoff who was killed a few weeks ago while delivering textbooks to a school in Southern Afghanistan. These were courageous people, fighting the good fight for peace, liberty and justice worldwide. As SoS John Kerry said: “we send diplomats today, so that we do not need to send troops tomorrow.”

Let me finish with a few lines of poetry, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

But in this camp of Death

No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath,

No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

(Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 27 May 2013)

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