Head east of Maastricht along the N278 toward Aachen in the spring, and you’ll quickly run into the flat farmland that’s typical of the Netherlands.
Fields appear as patches of green and brown; cows and horses graze just beyond the roadside; barns and farmhouses dot the landscape.
Small vineyards break up the monotony of the farmland, and flecks of green herald the end of winter.
The Only American Cemetery in the Netherlands
Like a scene from a movie
Cadier en Keer appears, but if you continue east for five more minutes, a long hawthorn hedgerow appears on the south side of the highway.
Turn right where the hedge splits to create an entrance, and follow the pretty winding road that’s surrounded on both sides by well-watered grass and stately trees.
Somehow, the road feels familiar, like a scene from a Hollywood movie.
A black Studebaker Champion drives slowly along a country road toward a large white house. An officer in dress uniform gets out of the car, an American flag folded neatly in his hands. He rings the bell and delivers the news: a loved one won’t be coming home from the war. The mother/father/wife collapses in grief behind a screen door as the soldier hands over the flag.
Just as in the movies, the stories of fallen American soldiers lie at the end of this road, too. At the only American cemetery in the Netherlands.
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Familiarity in a foreign land
It’s strange to be in a place so far away from America that, in fact, feels so American.
Just as the road is familiar, so is the rest of it: the monumental pillar and reflecting pool recall the Washington Monument; the rows upon rows of crosses, Arlington. Travertine, limestone and white marble; Japanese cherry trees in full blossom.
Here, in the Dutch province of Limburg, I get the same feeling I got walking around Arlington National Cemetery and Washington DC on the family trips of my childhood, and it all feels somehow familiar, like a trip across the ocean to the USA.
American patriotism and sacrifice, on the grandest of scales. A reminder that America is BIG and never does anything small.
Arriving at the cemetery
Beyond the Museum Room and Visitors Building that greet arrivals, the long, rectangular Court of Honor reveals itself to visitors: two walls of Portland limestone engraved with the names of 1,722 still missing; 6 Japanese Cherries in perfect squares of green grass on each side; a monumental pillar with a reflecting pool laid out in front of it.
All of this lies a level below the graves, standing sentry for those resting beyond and imparting a feeling of sombre reflection before you reach the headstones.
Three steps up to a platform, a turn, and then another eight. And you’re there.
Wandering through the gravestones
Among the dead, the spring wind is bitter, chilling the fingers and reddening the cheeks of those who are here to remember the 8,301.
And the size of it feels unimaginable, until you realize these headstones represent a mere 43% of the soldiers who were originally buried in this region, the rest returned home to America to lie near their families.
Look at the headstones, and then double them and add a bit. And then imagine another 12 of these cemeteries across Europe, just for this war, and just for America.
It’s a scale of destruction that’s hard to wrap your head around.
The headstones — mostly crosses, but also Stars of David — are arranged in gentle arcs, creating symmetry in every direction.
Each one is made of a beautiful, matte white marble with light striations. Drop your hand to one, and you’ll feel that it’s smooth and cold to the touch, like touching a kitchen counter or fireplace mantle on a winter morning.
Let your gaze fall further down, and you’ll find the service member’s serial number at the base of the headstone, at the back. A serial number starting with a zero means he was an officer; one is National Reserve; two means he volunteered for the war.
There are almost no twos here, at least that we saw.
The majority of the headstones have serial numbers starting with a three or a four, referring to the third draft law — when young, single men were the only ones drafted — and the fourth draft law, which broadened the definition of draftable to include married men and fathers.
Taking care of this American cemetery in the Netherlands
When it’s time to leave, don’t make the mistake of thinking the Americans who lie here are lonely, uncared for or unappreciated.
That would be a mistake in this southwestern corner of the Netherlands, a country that does an impressive job of remembering. The Netherlands suffered immensely under the Nazis, and locals have passed down a practical approach to remembrance to those born since the end of the last world war: grave adoption.
The practice started in 1945 when the local Dutch, appreciative of their freedom and the sacrifice it took, realized the fallen Americans didn’t have families to carry-out the simple, routine acts of remembrance that bring comfort to loved ones: visiting their graves, bringing fresh flowers of thanks.
By 1946, all of the graves in this cemetery were adopted, and local people took on the role of surrogate families, visiting “their” soldiers’ graves regularly to give thanks and remember.
Today, it’s common to see Dutch families visit the cemetery, and you’ll hear as much Dutch spoken on a visit to the cemetery as you will American English. Families have passed the act of remembrance from generation-to-generation.
On US Memorial Day this year (May 29), let’s remember to do the same.
Good to Know
The cemetery is open daily from 9am to 5pm, except for Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). You can reach the cemetery via car or bus from Maastricht, and directions are available on the cemetery website.
The cemetery is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (a US federal government agency), and staff are on-hand to answer questions and escort visitors to specific headstones, if requested. You may also want to check out out the Liberation Route Europe website and free apps during trip planning and while travelling. A not-for-profit organization, Liberation Route has listening points at relevant sites that tell the stories of Europe’s liberation by the Allies.
Your best bet for accommodation is either Maastricht, a very pretty university city with a lot of charm, or the Heuvelland region of South Limburg, which forms a convenient triangle for remembrance tourism that includes parts of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
About the author: In 2013, Katie Matthews followed a familiar story with her husband Geoff: they quit their jobs, sold most of their stuff, and set out to travel indefinitely, spending long stints living in Prague and Mexico on the way. Now based in Budapest, they spend their time tracking down the best ruin pubs, working on their travel blog, Wandertooth, and – of course – traveling wherever and whenever they can. They visited this cemetery as guests of Liberation Route Europe.