At American War Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands, are the graves of many men from Middle Georgia who fought in World War II and never made it home.
There are 10,023 Americans buried or memorialized there. Now, the Dutch want to have photos to go with the names etched on rows upon rows of white marble grave markers.
Photos have been collected for several years, but the effort ramped up in the past year in preparation for a ceremony held recently. Sebastiaan Vonk, chairman of Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, said photos have been gathered for about 3,000 of the soldiers. Those were secured by volunteers scouring the Internet and by families of the soldiers who have heard about the initiative and then uploaded photos.
“Now we are trying to reach out to families back in the U.S. through local newspapers, hoping to locate more photos in this way,” Vonk said in an email. “This will not get us all missing photos, but each photo means another name to which we can put a face.”
The photos were placed by the graves for the ceremony held May 2-5, when the Netherlands recognized the 70th anniversary of liberation from the Nazis. But the photos are still being collected to go with the online database.
The foundation’s purpose is to gather information about each American buried in the Netherlands or Belgium and put it in a database. The cemetery holds the graves of 8,301 Americans and 1,722 listed on the Wall of the Missing.
Vonk provided a list of the men from Georgia who are buried in the cemetery. None of those from Middle Georgia had a photograph at the time.
Anyone who has a photo of those listed can upload it at www.thefacesofmargraten.com. More information about each soldier also can be found at the foundation’s database, www.fieldsofhonor-database.com.
Ten men from Bibb County are listed, and one of those is Capt. William A. “Duck” McKenna Jr., who was awarded the Silver Star twice. As the third-highest combat medal, it is a rarity to get one and especially rare to receive more than one.
McKenna’s nephew William McKenna Garvin lives in Macon and has photos of his uncle. McKenna’s daughter, born just before he left for the war, now lives in California.
Garvin was born after his uncle died, but he has heard a lot about McKenna through the years. He has learned so much about the man he refers to as “Uncle Duck” that he became emotional when he started talking about how McKenna died. McKenna was killed by a sniper during a battle on Christmas Day in 1944. He was posthumously awarded a second Silver Star for his actions.
“He didn’t have to go out that day,” Garvin said. “But he said if his men were going, he was going to go, too.”
Garvin wasn’t aware of the foundation’s efforts when contacted by The Telegraph, but he said it means a lot to him that the Dutch people remember his uncle’s sacrifice.
“It would be a tremendous honor to realize that they recognize what he did,” Garvin said. “It’s a great tribute to him. He was quite a character and a heck of a good man.”
Today, the U.S. doesn’t bury fallen troops on foreign soil. But in World War II, the volume of deaths was so great and the war so intense, that logistically it wasn’t possible to bring all the fallen troops home.
The reverence that locals have for those buried there dates back to the end of the war. Vonk’s foundation is focused on gathering information about the men, but since the end of the war, locals have cared for the graves by adopting certain ones.
“Out of heartfelt respect and gratitude, the graves’ adopters regularly visit the graves and decorate them with flowers,” according to a news release. “Many of the graves’ adopters also continue to correspond with the families of soldiers back home in the United States.”
Vonk said that reverence is not just for those who lived through the war.
“When I speak to people, they sometimes say that the youth no longer cares about the past and those who fought for their freedom,” he said in the release.
“I do not believe that. Many young Dutch people show an interest in the war and continue to visit these cemeteries, and many, like me, have adopted a grave and are volunteers for The Faces of Margraten tribute,” said Vonk, who is 22. “We will continue to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for many years to come.”