Memorial Day in France

Memorial Day is an American holiday meant to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our countryWhile living in DC, we regularly visited Arlington Cemetery to pay our respects. Now, we have the ability to visit one of the many American cemeteries over here in Europe.

We decided to drive into France over the Memorial Day weekend to spend time at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold. I visited there once as a young Airman stationed at nearby Ramstein Air Base, and was glad to return there with Martin and the kids.

In the days before the trip, the kids and I researched two soldiers from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area who are buried there. Both girls are familiar enough with my hometown, and I wanted to personalize this visit in some way for them.

 We arrived about an hour before the Memorial Day ceremony took place, and I thought that would be plenty of time to find a nice spot for all the speeches and wreath-laying, but I underestimated the amount of interest for this day. Traffic was backed up for miles leading into the cemetery, so Martin parked the car at a nearby shopping center, and we walked. While I wasn’t surprised by all the American and French military uniforms, I was amazed to see soooo many French families coming out, all ages and generations, waving both American and French flags, and honoring the people buried there in their town.

That was really something.

 

The ceremony was 90 minutes long and included speeches from every mayor of every village in a 50-mile radius (or so it seemed), plus some representatives from the American and French militaries. There were also a few dozen wreaths to lay, and at one point, a C-130 Hercules from Ramstein Air Base flew overhead. (I used to fly in that type of aircraft all the time. Hearing it again brought back a lot of memories.)

The weather was nice and mild when the ceremony started, but by the middle of it, the sun broke through the clouds, and it got sweltering hot pretty fast. We watched as the military men and women standing in formation started to sway and fall out.

We found relief ourselves inside the Lorraine memorial itself. Shortly after we stepped inside there, some men quickly ushered in an older gentleman and seated him in the corner. We realized it was one of the distinguished visitors, a French WWII veteran wearing his old uniform and all the ribbons and medals he earned for his service. He looked a bit flushed from the heat, but was in good spirits, and even though we couldn’t understand what he was saying, we could tell he was really animated as he spoke with the younger French soldiers tending to him.

Once the ceremony was over, we made our way into the rows of white headstones. The night before, I sent out Martin to buy “a bunch of flowers” and he came back with an armful of them. Lola insisted on carrying  them all as we sought out our two soldiers.

Those girls took this task so seriously. They knew what made this cemetery special, that the people buried here were from America, that these Americans fought and were killed in the surrounding countryside. We researched as much as we could about the lives of the men we were honoring, and I explained to them that these men came from the same hometown as me. As soldiers, they more than likely said goodbye to their families, to their hometown by leaving through Union Terminal in Cincinnati, where they visited many times before moving here.

I also explained that because these men died and were buried over here in Europe, their families in the United States usually couldn’t get over here to visit them. Travel and transportation just wasn’t what it is today. But since we live over here now, this is something we can do.

So we did.

SSGT Ralph W. McArter was from Northern Kentucky. He served with the 87th Infantry Division, 347th Infantry Regiment, and was declared dead on Dec. 15, 1944. He was 21 years old, and left behind a wife named Lillian Michaels McArter who lived in Highland Heights, Kentucky at the time. The Cincinnati Enquirer published an announcement of his death on January 6, 1945, which means Mrs. McArter probably learned of her husband’s death over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

I wanted to learn more about Mrs. McArter, and I landed on her obituary from 2013. Her obit included a photo of a sweet, smiling lady. To read about her life was really incredible, and heartbreaking. It mentioned that Ralph and Lillian had a baby girl named Gayle in 1944, but Gayle died during birth. And then Ralph died that December. It takes my breath away to think of that loss. Lillian didn’t remarry until almost 10 years later, and I was happy to read that she found happiness with another military man, that they traveled all over together before settling in Texas where she was loved by so many.

The flowers we left at Ralph’s grave were certainly for him, but also for his baby daughter and Lillian, too.

TSGT Thomas Schultze was from Cincinnati, Ohio. I learned about him via an archived news article from the Cincinnati Enquirer. The article described how Tom was a single man with no family left in Cincinnati, and the reporter could only find former classmates who remembered him from their school days. Almost everyone who could speak of him mentioned he was good looking and charming, lucky with the ladies and appealing to other men. He was part of  Company K of the 359th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division, and likely stormed the beach in Normandy on D-Day. There’s no known photo of him, and nobody knows for sure how he was killed, although he was killed while fighting in the Moselle river valley nearby in November 1944.

I hope somewhere, wherever it is that we go when we’re finished here, he was pleased that three ladies — one of them herself a former enlisted girl from Cincinnati — and two gents paid him a visit and left him some flowers.

 

Since we had extra flowers, we decided to randomly pick some others to decorate their graves. Jaz wandered over to this gentleman’s grave. 2nd Lt. Douglas H. Nichols was from New Jersey, and served with the 320th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division. He was killed on Dec. 8, 1944. I wasn’t able to find anything about him beyond the information pertaining to his grave at the cemetery.

 

At one pointMiss C asked me if there were any women buried at the cemetery, and I admitted that I didn’t know, that I assumed there wasn’t because women in the military didn’t serve overseas back then. Not even five minutes after I said that, we came up to this grave. I knew that Red Cross nurses were overseas during World War II, and that some were killed in action, but I didn’t realize they were buried in Europe, too.

Needless to say, we left behind flowers for her.

Marjorie S. Sefton from New York was with the Red Cross when she was killed in May 1945. From what I could find online, she was born in 1898, meaning she was old enough to be the mother of the men she was working with out there. I suspect it was unusual for a woman of her age to be overseas in that capacity, and I like to think her experience brought a lot of wisdom to those around her. She died on May 16, a few days after victory was declared in Europe on May 8. I could not find any information as to how she died. It could have been an illness or accident, or perhaps injuries she sustained earlier.

In any case, it was a loss for her family and friends, and for our country.

 

Lola noticed the gold lettering on this grave, and decided to leave flowers here for Medal of Honor recipient Frederick C. Murphy. Because of his distinguished medal, it was easy for me to learn more about him. He was from Boston, Massachusetts, and was killed in Saarlautern, Germany, not far from the cemetery. He was a medic who sacrificed his life in an attempt to save others. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Virginia, who gave birth to their daughter just a few weeks after he was killed. A federal center and elementary school were named in his honor.

 

The visit was an incredible experience for all of us, and for so many reasons.

There was a moment in the beginning of our day, as we were walking with the crowd into the ceremony, when a lady in front of us dropped a huge wad of cash. It was Euro, which is colorful, and we knew from the colors that it was a lot of money. We saw it fall from her open purse and bounce between the feet of those around her, and as she walked ahead oblivious to her misfortune, I leaped forward to get it before it all got separated and lost. At the same time, the girls saw what happened and cried out for her attention, but it quickly became clear that she did not understand what the kids were saying in English.

So Martin took the money from me and ran up ahead, calling to her in French. She stopped and turned, and we could see her make the connection as she looked from the money in his hand to her purse, which hung open and empty next to her.

“Merci!” she exclaimed, a bit flustered as she took the cash. She quickly pulled a bill from the top and tried to give it to Martin, saying something that I couldn’t understand, but assumed was her expressing her appreciation. Martin held up his hands and shook his head, using the limited French he knows to tell her there was no need. We began moving again with the crowd.

“You American?” she asked him, walking alongside us.

“No,” he said. “I am German.”

She slowed her pace, and gave him a look of confusion. “You are German? Here?”

Martin pointed over to me and the kids. “My wife is American. And so are my kids.”

“Ah!” she said with a smile. “America! My son in New York City. I visit there next month!”

By that point, we reached the ceremony location, and with a few more nods and expressions of appreciation, we went our separate ways. The whole exchange was amusing, and I imagine it would have been even more amusing, and confusing, if Martin would have explained he was also in the U.S. military, too.

But as I watched my family walk around the cemetery, I couldn’t help but think about that exchange with the French lady. Just a few generations ago, such a thing would have been unfathomable.  And yet, there we were, my German-American children being led by their German father to leave flowers on the graves of American soldiers who died fighting his own grandfather in that same region of France.

We may never understand the ways of the world, but we do know the men and women buried there at that cemetery fought for a peace they never realized. Because of those sacrifices, my family lives in that peace with friends and family around the globe.

We will never forget that.