Memorial Day: visiting a father's grave

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.

That’s another reason so many soldiers are buried in Europe. Many families did not want to go through the trauma of a reburial in the U.S. and decided not to repatriate the remains. In addition, Roberts said, she learned that soldiers were counseled by the U.S. military to make that decision for themselves in advance, “to have their affairs in order,” and a good number of them decided their young wives and children would be better off not having to deal with a cadaver. Mo Crossen had left instructions to bury him wherever he might fall.

Eisenhauer brings up another point that may not sound patriotic, but is a widely held view among relatives: Their fathers may receive more appreciation here, in these immaculately manicured grounds, than they would in the U.S. Belgium was a battleground in both world wars, and both times U.S. troops came to liberate the country.

Almost 14,000 Americans now lie beneath Belgian soil and they remain fervently appreciated across generations of Belgians. In the Flanders Field World War I Cemetery in Waregem, Belgian schoolchildren have sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” in English since 1923, with a pause only during the German occupation in WWII. They’ve started doing the same more recently at Ardennes.

“I was a little scared,” admitted one of this year’s performers, 9-year-old Sophie Arnolis. “But when you learn it by heart, it’s not so difficult.” (Their first glimpse of their country’s royalty, Princess Astrid sitting in the front row, appeared to be a bigger distraction than nerves, though several students lamented that she was wearing a pantsuit and sitting on a regular folding chair instead of having the ballgown and throne they hoped for.)

The other VIP treatment for thousands of U.S. war dead in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands is the “adoption” of gravesites by local citizens. Ariane Villers, striding purposefully through rows of marble headstones with a bagful of red roses, is one of the leaders of this movement for at Ardennes. She personally cares for a dozen soldiers she calls her “godsons,” and her 9-year-old daughter, Lise, has adopted Crossen. They leave flowers occasionally throughout the year and in general, just remind the fallen men they care about them. Her sister does the same at Henri-Chapelle.

“I do talk to them,” she said with a smile. “We pray for them and for them to go on protecting us as they did, and we thank them for what we have.”

Denise and Richard Orban were also at the cemetery this Memorial Day weekend to visit their adoptee, Staff Sgt. Walter Chilcote, whose sister Carol was there with AWON. Denise Orban says her father was a German POW and it was natural for her to adopt a grave after all the sacrifices the Americans made for Belgium.

“It was for a country they’d never seen, that they didn’t know,” she said. “For liberty! That’s very important.”

Stacy Roberts and Nancy Boothe took in all these details as they walked toward the back of the cemetery to find Mo among the 5,329 names here. They trembled as they made their way to Plot D, Row 5, Grave 25, which they had seen only in pictures.

Roberts did not expect to be overcome by emotion, since she’d been researching her father for 18 months and had already been through what she thought would be the most difficult moments. But standing in front of the cross bearing his name — the inscription clearly visible thanks to being filled with sand from Normandy Beaches — she was again the orphaned child, standing with the baby sister he’d never met. But only briefly. She was also the fighter pilot’s daughter.

“Thank you for our for our freedom,” she said through her tears. “I salute you, Dad ... I salute you, Dad.”