There is a U.S. Military Cemetery in Margraten, in the Netherlands where 8,301 American soldiers who fell in the battles to liberate the Netherlands toward the end of WWII lie buried. Like the more famous sacred grounds at Normandy, this 65 acre cemetery is marked with the simple white crosses and Stars of David lined up in perfectly regimented rows over the expanse of green well-manicured lawns. It is a place of peace, beauty and, in many cases, fading memory.
But let me tell you one of the stories from this place. It is a love story of sorts; a story of affection and the growing desire of a 13-year-old Dutch boy to get to know one of the fallen who lay there beneath the green lawns of Margraten Military Cemetery.
Maarten Vossen was born long after the war in the late 1980s. But from his very young years, his grandmother told him stories about what it was like to live under the heavy fist of Nazi rule and about the smiles she saw on the American soldiers’ faces when they came to liberate the Netherlands. The stories always included tales about the chocolate bars they brought with them in 1944.
His grandmother died in 2003 when he was only eight years old, but her stories had made a deep impression on his young mind.
When he was thirteen, he heard that people could “adopt” a grave at the American military cemetery at Margraten to take care of, so he took it upon himself to do just that. In fact, every single grave at the American military cemetery has been adopted by a Dutch person. But Vossen’s story only begins there.
When he saw the name of James Wickline on one of the crosses, Vossen knew that the man whose name was etched there was someone who had sacrificed his life for James’ freedom, and that of his country, the Netherlands. With youthful enthusiasm, Maarten began to research the man whose grave he had adopted.
He was able to get James Wickline’s personal file from the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command in 2003. He found himself moved deeply by what he found in that file. He found letters from James Wickline’s mother. They were full of her anxieties for her son, her only child.
This experience only fired Vossen’s curiosity to find out more.
He knew that James Wickline was one of the first Americans to die in this operation, that he died because his parachute did not open when he and his unit, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, parachuted into battle on September 17, 1944. But Vossen wanted to know the person of James Wickline, not just the facts; the typical information of name, rank, serial number, what unit he had been in. He wanted to know where he came from, what it was like for him to grow up there. What was his family life like? What did he look like?
Maarten Vossen visited the West Virginia in 2012 to wander around the landscape that Wickline would have been familiar with. He was able to get a few leads into the man and his family, but left with as many questions as he had gone there with.
Undeterred, on his return home to the Netherlands he was able to get in touch with the local newspaper in Elkins, West Virginia, where the Wickline family moved to after the war. As a result, he was able to get the first picture of the man who had taken up such a large and important space in his imagination.
He returned to West Virginia and was able to speak to former neighbors of the Wickline family.
He went to the high school James Wickline had attended and was able to get a copy of his yearbook. The more he found out about the person James Wickline, the deeper his connection to the man, himself, grew. He wanted to tell his story, to give him the life that he was denied as the result of his sacrifice seven decades earlier in the fields of the Netherlands.
A Dutch documentarian, Marijn Poels, heard of Vossen’s story from a member of the Dutch Parliament. He became involved, reluctantly at first, in the telling of the story of this strange, fascinating relationship that Maarten Vossen had developed with this long deceased American soldier.
After meeting with Vossen he was struck with the fact that there was a true, deeply emotional bond between this Dutch man and that American soldier, though they had never known each other in this life. Poels fell in love with the story and decided to make a film about what he called “Ageless Friends,” which will be released sometime in 2016.
Poels says, “This story is a way to talk about war in a larger context. Finally we’ve got a sort of ambassador to translate the story of the second world war.”
Poels believes that Mr. Vossen helps us to consider questions like:
What is war about?
What is freedom?
What is democracy?
For Poels, Vossen has become an ambassador to the past who can bring the story of that war to a younger generations who may be in danger of losing a lot of the sense of what freedom and democracy are and how much they often cost to maintain.
In July of 2015, Maarten Vossen’s efforts to give James Wickline a living memory came to fruition in the renaming of a bridge in Scott’s Run, Virginia. It is now called the James Wickline Memorial Bridge. Tom Bloom, the Monongalia County Commissioner, said of Vossen, “What Maarten has done through his determination and his headstrong stubbornness, which I think is great, has gotten people to realize we can never forget.”
Maarten Vossen, in his unusual care and concern for a man he never knew has given us a way of understanding how important the sacrifices made by our military during WWII were to the peoples who were liberated from the tyranny of Hitler’s Nazi imperialism. He has taught us the value of remembering those who fought and died as real people.
It is important to remember what they gave their lives for important things, yes, even transcendent things, like freedom and democracy. It is very important that we keep the understanding of freedom and democracy alive and well in the minds of all of our citizens in these times. If we truly forget the meanings of freedom and democracy, we will lose them both.
If we forget that freedom and democracy are not free, that they often require of us great cost, we will wake up one morning and discover that we do not have them any more.
We look forward to seeing the documentary “Ageless Friends” when it comes out in 2016. We wish to thank our Dutch friend, Maarten Vossen, for teaching us the value of keeping the memories of our fallen heroes alive in us.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George SantayanaWhizzco