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Memorial Day: visiting a father's grave

For the first time, two sisters travel to the Belgium gravesite of their father, a WWII pilot.

ARDENNES AMERICAN CEMETERY, Belgium — Stacy Roberts spent her 67th birthday in an airport, on her way to Belgium for the trip of a lifetime. But she had no plans to visit the charming chateaus, beer breweries or chocolate shops that make up the usual Belgian tour. Stacy and her younger sister Nancy Boothe, 65, were coming to Belgium with one priority: to visit their father’s grave for the first time.

Stacy was just 17 months old, and Nancy, three months, when Lt. Col. Morris “Mo” Crossen was killed at age 28. An Army Air Forces pilot who was deputy commander of the 367th Fighter Group, he was shot down on Oct. 20, 1944.

Roberts clings to the few pictures of him holding her, but her sister never felt their father’s embrace. Boothe’s voice trembled as she looked out the window of the bus passing through the large iron gates of Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial, just outside Liege.

“It’s hard to imagine we’re finally going to be there,” Boothe said.

“It’s so beautiful,” Roberts murmured. “It’s so good to know he’s been taken care of, when I couldn’t be here.”

Jim Begg, president of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association said he felt gratified every time he heard the organization had helped someone remember in such a way.

“When the next of kin come to the cemetery and they see how we take care of these guys …” he said, his voice breaking. “I’ve been president for 16 years,” he said. “You’d think I’d get over it, but I don’t.”

Roberts and Boothe are relative newcomers to the group they credit with making their journey possible, the American World War Two Orphans Network (AWON). On this 65th anniversary of the end of the war, they are part of the largest group of “war orphans” — children to have lost one or both parents in war — ever to assemble outside the U.S., according to AWON Vice President Gerry Conway Morenski. All have a parent in one of Belgium’s WWII cemeteries, Ardennes or Henri-Chapelle, or at the Dutch cemetery in Margraten.

An added birthday bonus for Roberts is that her air miles to travel here were donated by an anonymous benefactor through AWON. She says she probably would not have had the financial means to make the trip otherwise, which is the main reason she hasn’t come earlier. But it’s not the only reason.

Roberts says she shut out for decades her deep sadness at growing up without a father. Only when her son became curious within the last few years did she start to really delve into why the memories of Mo and the knowledge that he died a decorated war hero, had never been part of her life growing up. Despite her parents’ “real love affair” — the dashing young pilot used to buzz Ohio University in his plane to tell their mother he was in town — after he died, her mother never spoke of him, or told the girls exactly what had happened to him. Roberts says she was traumatized every year on Father’s Day, when she would be forced at school to make a card "for her father." A retired teacher herself, Roberts says she made sure to be sensitive to each child’s family situation.

Gail Eisenhauer, one of the organizers of the AWON trip, says Roberts’ story is not unusual. After the war, people swallowed their losses and “got on with their lives,” she said. Her own father, Lt. John Eisenhauer, was officially “missing in action” for three and a half years before the family learned of his death. Her mother couldn’t bear to speak of him, Eisenhauer said, and she learned not to ask questions.