By Errol Castens
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
TUPELO – Eight thousand, three hundred and two American servicemen, most of them killed while liberating Holland during World War II, are buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten, Netherlands. Another 1,723 whose bodies were never recovered have their names engraved on its Wall of Remembrance.
On several occasions throughout the year, thousands of Dutch citizens leave their routines and visit this cemetery – some of them driving for hours – to decorate graves and keep the memories alive of men and women who died liberating The Netherlands.
Dennis Notenboom, a process engineer from Dirksland, on Schouwen Island, can't imagine not doing it.
“It's because of the oppression of the Germans,” he explained while visiting with friends in Tupelo. “We suffered terribly under the Germans' persecution. We honor the Allied forces for liberating our country from our oppressors.”
Notenboom was in Tupelo earlier this month to visit with friends Robert and Adrian Caldwell and T.C. and Ann Gibbs – two couples with ties to Notenboom's region for whom he coordinated a trip last year. T.C. Gibbs' B-24 bomber was shot down over Schouwen Island, and he spent the rest of the war as a German prisoner of war. Adrian Caldwell's father, Leroy Liest, went missing in action when his B-17 was shot down just offshore.
Netherlands residents decorate the graves of their liberators with American and Dutch flags and flowers on their own Remembrance Day and Liberation Day as well as America's own Memorial Day, as well as other holidays.
Remembrance doesn't stop there, though. Families across The Netherlands have gone through a committee review to be allowed to adopt specific graves at Margraten, the last of which were adopted this month.
“It started in 1946, and then it was local people, but now it's all over the Netherlands,” Notenboom said.
“When one (adopter) passes away, it will be passed on to brother, sister, son or daughter. It's a family tradition.”
Once the committee approves an application, he said, the individual or family begins researching the life of the serviceman whose grave they have adopted.
“You want to find out what they looked like, what they were doing before the war,” he said. “You collect their stories, and there's a database where all these are kept. The soldiers' personal life stories are written down so they won't be forgotten.”
Some adopting families have come to know the families of their adoptees.
“The bond is closer when you know more,” Caldwell said.
Because his plane was never found, her dad has no grave, but his name is engraved on the marble wall at Margraten. Notenboom has two adopted graves there, and since getting to know the Caldwells he always pays his respects.
“He's sweet to do this to my dad's name,” Caldwell said. “When he drives to Margraten, he goes by and says hello.”
Beyond that, Notenboom – a process engineer, husband, father of two preschoolers and Dutch National Guardsman – will also coordinate one last underwater search for Liest's plane this summer.
“He has volunteer divers and the boat (ready) when he goes back,” Caldwell said.
Notenboom's first-time visit to the States started with a week in Flushing, Mich., where new American friends helped piece together information about one of his adoptees, who had been killed at the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.
When he arrived in Tupelo, the Caldwells took him immediately to visit their friends the Gibbses, where he got a taste of Southern hospitality from their whole neighborhood.
“I had made a homemade sign – Dennis, welcome to the USA and Mississippi,'” Ann Gibbs said. “I put out one flag, and when I came home from an errand, all my neighbors had put out flags, too. They were just lining the street. Then (the neighbors) came piling into the house to meet him.”
During his stay here, Notenboom spoke to a dinner club and the 8th Air Force Historical Society, met two more Tupeloans with relatives buried near his region and was presented with a key to the city by Tupelo Mayor Ed Neelly.
While his hosts express dismay that stateside cemeteries are not as well kept as those in western Europe, they were glad to share one example of Americans' devotion to Dutch war dead. Several pilots from the Netherlands lie buried at a cemetery in Jackson, where their graves are kept nicely by veterans' organizations.
“Most of them were killed in training, but a lot of them married American girls and came back over here and chose to be buried with their buddies,” Caldwell said. “At least we're happy to be able to tell Dennis that there are some Dutch here that are still being honored.”
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.