Remembering a forgotten World War II story

Filled with drama, intrigue and selfless bravery, it’s not an easily forgotten story. But somehow, the U.S. government did forget it. Even the military — fastidious about taking care of its fallen members lost track of Staff Sgt. Jerry Sorensen, one of eight servicemen buried in Belgium in what are called “isolated graves” outside U.S. cemeteries. But while Sorensen may have been forgotten in Washington, D.C., he was never alone, thanks to the devotion of one Belgian woman.

GANSHOREN, Belgium — Sitting in their kitchen 66 years ago today, 14-year-old Jenny Abeels and her mother heard on the radio that Allied forces were disembarking at Normandy. This was news that Nazi-occupied Europe had been waiting to hear and Jenny raced upstairs to tell her older brother Roger and his two friends.

She remembers them bursting with joy, hitting each other with pillows, filled with optimism that the Nazis would soon be routed from the continent, and from this Brussels suburb.

While celebrations like this surely happened in countless households on D-Day, at 19 Avenue de la Constitution in Ganshoren the emotions were particularly acute. Twenty-year-old Roger Abeels was an active member of the Belgian underground resistance and his friends were downed American aviators who had been rescued after bailing out of their disabled planes. Jenny’s parents were hiding the airmen from the Nazis who had occupied Belgium for four years.

Yet Jenny Abeels says those were the best days of her life. “Yes, that was the best,” she said. “At that time I was really happy.”

Still living in the same house, Jenny Abeels is now 80. But #19 is frozen in time, stopped at a golden moment when the three young men were captured in the framed photographs displayed in the living room. A heavy, faded photo album provides more illustration of how grand life was for the gang of three and a beaming tag-along little sister.

Gazing at the pictures, Jenny acknowledges that she never moved on from that time. “It’s not the past for me,” she admitted. But those still-vivid memories have brought the story of her loved ones back to life.

A member of Belgium’s “Secret Army” since the age of 17, Roger had asked his parents if they would be willing to shelter Allied servicemen, usually caught behind enemy lines after bailing out of planes, in their home until they could be smuggled out of Nazi territory. Committed patriots, the original source of Roger’s ideals, the Abeels agreed.

But it wasn’t until the first day of June 1944 that Roger brought home a guest. That’s when Bernard “Mac” McManaman, a dashing aviator from Michigan, arrived. The next day, Roger walked in with Gerald “Jerry” Sorensen, a ball turret gunner from Pocatello, Idaho. He and his whole crew had had to bail out of his B17 the previous month when it was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. Sorensen had been found by a resistance leader who hid him in a number of different houses until he came to the Abeels’ home.

As Jenny tells it, when those two Americans walked through the door her world suddenly became complete and it was difficult to keep quiet the laughter and English that soon filled the family’s home.

“Oh, I loved those two guys, Mac and Jerry,” Jenny said. “My mother [Clementine Abeels] did too, especially Jerry,” who was a few years older than Mac and quite a bit more genteel. “Jerry used to call her Mama,” Jenny recounted, “and he would say ‘Mama, I am content here. I want to stay with you until the war is over.’”

That was the Secret Army’s plan. Though the Belgian resistance had succeeded in spiriting hundreds of Allied servicemen safely out of Nazi-held territory, by the time Mac and Jerry came, the organization concluded the Allies were on their way and it would be safer to hide the men and wait for liberation.

The group spent a good deal of time in the attic. The trapeze swing which the airmen used to “practice their gymnastics” still hangs there, a lonely relic in a room now used for storage.

Jerry also spent a lot of time staring at a photo of his new bride, Nora Lee. The couple had only spent five days as a married couple before Jerry left for war.

The boys quickly became restless in the confines of the Abeels’ home and yard, Jenny said, and wanted to walk in the city. Mac claimed they spoke French well enough to fly under the radar, which still makes Jenny laugh as she imitates their American-accented “Bonjour, Madame.” But they stayed in, except for one quick tour of the nearby Basilica, which infuriated her father when he found out.

Arthur Abeels didn’t want to push the family’s luck — there was a certain fate for those found hiding enemies of the Third Reich. “We knew it,” Jenny said. “We knew if we were caught, we would be killed.” Other families who were sheltering servicemen had been arrested, she said, including one that had earlier hidden Jerry.

The Germans never did come to number 19. What did arrive in early August, however, was the third summons for Roger to turn himself in for German work camp. After that, the Secret Army spirited Roger and the Americans to the organization’s headquarters in the village of St. Marcoult, about 30 miles southwest of Brussels.

Cesar Vanherreweghen, one of few living resistance fighters who served with Roger, Mac and Jerry, said 400 people were mobilized in St. Marcoult to train in guerrilla operations against the Nazis. Mac and Jerry helped with these activities, such as collecting airdropped weapons and trying to sabotage the German troops. The Americans also formally joined the Secret Army, cementing even further their devotion to the anti-Nazi efforts and to Roger Abeels.

Back in Ganshoren, the rest of the Abeels family held its breath waiting for the liberating forces to arrive. Roger, in contrast, was in his element during this month of intensified resistance work, as his family would later learn.

“Dear Father and Mother,” Roger wrote in a letter dated Aug. 24, 1944, “I’ve learned I’m going on a mission. I hope I will have the good luck I’ve had up until now. If something bad happens to me, I hope it doesn’t bring you too much pain and that you don’t think I am selfish.”

Jenny shows the back page, addressed to her: “Be always a good patriot, as you have always been. If one day you have children, raise them the same way ... . I will die for an ideal. You will understand that later … . I love you very much.” As Roger seemed to sense, it would be the last letter he wrote to his family.

Ten days later, on Sept. 3, Allied troops rolled into Brussels. Roger, Mac and Jerry set out on a Secret Army mission to sabotage the German retreat, according to details pieced together by Jerry Sheridan, an amateur historian who heads American University’s Brussels program and is writing a book on Sorensen.

Somewhere along the way, either Roger or Jerry had bike problems and while the rest of the group went on ahead, they stopped. When a German tank rolled into view, the two men opened fire, having no idea that there were more tanks behind it. While the rest of the resistance members managed to escape, Roger and Jerry sought cover in a rabbit hutch and continued fighting.

A German grenade ended their last stand.

Up ahead, Sheridan said, Mac had no idea what had happened to his friends. He went as quickly as possible to the Abeels home, telling them that Roger and Jerry would soon be arriving too. Jenny remembers the joy of that moment: “You cannot imagine what that was — liberation!”

The family waited two more days, with ever-increasing dread, before someone arrived at the house with a message. Jenny remembers being outside and hearing her mother scream. “I came in, I said ‘what’s happened?’” Jenny’s voice fails her and she continues in a whisper. “And she said, ‘Roger and Jerry are dead.’”

“I always say ‘this time I won’t cry,’” she said, as tears spilled from her eyes. “But I loved them so much.”

The men's bodies were interred next to each other in a small cemetery in Ganshoren. They were given a heroes’ funeral then, as well as when Jerry’s widow, Nora, came to visit in 1947. Nora stayed with the Abeels for three months, grieving, and, like her husband before her, becoming part of the family. Jenny said the extended visit gave her great comfort as well. Mac visited in 1948.

The U.S. government tried to move Jerry’s remains to an American cemetery, but Nora joined the Abeels in fighting the order, finally convincing U.S. authorities the two men should not be separated. A couple of blocks away from the cemetery, new streets were named after the men: The family assumed that the installation of “Rue Sergent Sorensen/Sergent Sorensen Straat” and “Rue Roger Abeels/Roger Abeels Straat” (streets in Belgium’s capital district are labeled in French and Flemish) would guarantee they were never forgotten.

But soon Jenny was virtually the only visitor to the graves. Decades passed. For Jenny, a career in the Air Force and then with Sabena Airlines kept her as close as possible to her brother’s dream of becoming a pilot, which she says she felt she owed him. But she did not marry and had no children, acquiring no confidantes closer than the two white wooden crosses that marked Roger’s and Jerry’s graves.

“When other girls were going to the dance, I was going to the cemetery,” Jenny remembered.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA) was updating its records. AOMDA member Sandrin Coorevits, archivist at Waregem’s Flanders Field American Cemetery, found a reference to three “isolated graves” from World War I, service members buried outside the official cemetery. Fellow AOMDA Board Member Sheridan joined Coorevits in investigating. They learned there were also five World War II American soldiers buried in Belgium, including Jerry Sorensen.

“This grave sat there unknown for at least 40 years because nobody at the U.S. embassy, nobody at military, nobody knew anything about these isolated graves and nobody knew anything about the Sorensen story,” Sheridan said.

Of course, one person did know about the Sorensen story. And Sheridan says it was remarkably easy to find her. While visiting Jerry Sorensen’s grave, Sheridan said, he and Jim Begg, AOMDA president, learned from a groundskeeper that Sorensen still had one regular visitor. They found Jenny Abeels in the phone book.

Sheridan started collecting official documents and spoke with Jenny and others who remembered the war years. He found himself completely immersed in putting together the pieces of Sorensen’s time in Belgium, information that will be released in a book later this summer and that was indispensable in the reporting of this story.

The story is an important one, Sheridan said, both in the context of shared transatlantic values and of basic human decency. Jerry and Roger “were quite different individuals,” he noted. “Sorensen was a farmer from Idaho; Abeels was a city kid speaking French in Belgium. But they shared the same values and they shared the same worldview about what is right and what is wrong. They shared the same hatred of Nazism and together they fought side-by-side against it.”

The new attention to isolated graves has been a boon to the isolated mourner. On Monday, Sheridan led the first formal Memorial Day ceremony in 63 years at the tiny Ganshoren cemetery, with a clearly delighted Jenny Abeels as the guest of honor.

U.S. airmen filed past her at the event, greeting her one by one. U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, whose own father was in the Polish resistance during the war, spoke of how important it is to remember “every single Jerry or Roger or Jenny.”

But perhaps the greatest legacy of this ceremony will come as a result of some of the smaller VIPs, a group of students from the nearby Sacre-Couer school. Asked about Roger and Jerry after the ceremony, the children piped up: “They were soldiers!” “They were heroes!” “They were great friends!”

American veterans are often promised that “we will never forget.” Jenny Abeels has lived that promise for 65 years. For the Americans who lay forgotten for decades in Belgium, Jerry Sheridan pledges “it will never happen again.”