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Remembering a forgotten World War II story

For decades, Jenny Abeels was the only person visiting an American grave in Belgium.

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.