How a field in France became the resting place for thousands of Americans
In September of 1944 the Third US Army resumed its push across eastern France to drive opposing forces out of France and back across the border. The Seventh US Army, after landing in southern France and joined by First French Army, drove northward. The US Air Force provided key tactical support. On September 21st the Third and Seventh armies joined forces providing a solid line through France to the Swiss border. On Monday, November 27th St. Avold, France was liberated by the US 80th Infantry Division. This becomes important to our story today.
By December the eastern front was being pushed toward Germany. On December 19th, the Third Army moved northward to counter attack at the Battle of the Bulge. The many months of fighting throughout this region brought thousands of US casualties. A temporary US military cemetery was set up at St. Avold on March 16, 1945. The struggles to hold territory and move forward were paid for in the lives of much of the Third and Seventh Armies. By the end of the war, the rolling fields of the Lorraine region of France at St. Avold held the remains of over 16 thousand US soldiers.
St. Avold cemetery, France
The burial grounds of the US soldiers at St. Avold as well as four other places across France were given to the United States in perpetuity as military cemeteries. Today the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial is the largest World War II cemetery in Europe. It is bigger than the more honored and remembered memorial at Normandy. Ten thousand four hundred eighty-seven of American’s finest generation lie across this 113.5 acres of land.
There are Medal of Honor winners, ace pilots, 30 sets of brothers, 151 unknown soldiers. In addition, 444 names are inscribed on a wall to honor those who lie in unknown graves across this region of Europe. Their bodies were lost and never returned home or to one of the hallowed grounds in France or England or Belgium or the Netherlands or Italy or Luxembourg.
When you include those in the Philippines and North Africa (Tunisia), 93,236 American soldiers found their final resting place in World War II on foreign soil that became American soil over time. The ground we visited in France was handed over without charge or taxation by a grateful nation that did not forget the sacrifice of American soldiers who fought a bitter war to win freedom for others and keep the aggression away from our shores.
On Armistice Day in France, or what we call VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), May 8th, we walked the hallowed grounds of St. Avold and paid our respects to the greatest American generation. The rows of crosses and Stars of David fill the landscape and remind the few who remain that freedom came at a high price in 1944 and 1945. Americans were willing to stand beside people of another land to win freedom, and now many lie there in eternal rest.
I signed the guest book at one in the afternoon. I noticed I was the only American who had signed in. There were signatures of a Romanian, a German who added “in honor and respect” in German, and two French. One wrote “we will never forget the sacrifice of their lives.” I asked myself if the sacrifice will indeed be remembered or forgotten in time? Will this become, over the years, just another historical curiosity? A footnote? Ancient history forgotten by many if not most people?
Taps at St. Avold cemetery, France
It is easy to understand why there are no Americans to kneel and pray in the tall chapel, no relatives to decorate the graves or loved ones to shed tears. Many at St. Avold were too young to have children when they answered the call from Uncle Sam. They were barely more than children themselves.
Many had no remaining families. If they had siblings after the war, most have passed by now. Anyone who remains alive to honor them are likely at home, in America. Sad that the national holiday in France saw the honored dead receiving about as much attention as our honored dead will receive here at home on this Memorial Day. And how was your picnic this weekend?
Read about the origins of Memorial day on the Sunday night blog here.