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Celebrating Memorial Day in Belgium

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Flanders fields are more than a subject for the moving poem Canadian Lt. Col. John McRae wrote in 1915. They were the setting of the deadly battles — notorious for horrific battlefield conditions — that took place in northern Belgium, known as Flanders, in World War I. Flanders Field is also the name of the smallest of three U.S. cemeteries in Belgium, containing the graves of 368 of the 14,000 American soldiers who never made it home from this small country the U.S. fought for in both world wars.

Veterans in the U.S. fear they are being forgotten, especially as the living reminders of WWII become fewer and fewer with each day. I can assure them that Belgians are not only not forgetting, they are imbuing even their youngest citizens with a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices that took place long before they were born.

I had marveled before at the pristine condition in which other U.S. cemeteries I’d visited here and in Luxembourg were kept, but I was not prepared for the magnanimity of Waregem's Memorial Day. After all, it’s an American holiday, right?

The residents of Flanders don’t see it in such narrow terms. The Dutch-speaking school children of Waregem (population about 35,000) have been performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in English ever since the end of WWI — almost 90 years — except for a few dark years during WWII. The children also place flags and flowers at the graves, all done with the greatest of enthusiasm. It’s truly heartwarming.

In fact, every one of the thousands of U.S. military graves in Belgium is decorated with a U.S. and a Belgian flag for Memorial Day. In Waregem, the crowd that attends this touching ceremony, which is accompanied by speeches, wreath-laying and a reading of “In Flanders Fields,” regularly numbers some 2,000 by organizers’ estimates and includes many Belgian veterans, in uniform, marching and carrying the flags of their units. The two other U.S. cemeteries attract a similar number of people to their Memorial Day events.

As Waregem mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem told me, school children here learn from a very young age about the contributions foreign troops made to their country during the wars and that they might not be living in a free, prosperous land were it not for those men and women. Thirty years ago, Vanryckeghem himself was among the children singing the U.S. anthem at the ceremony and he says this is a tradition that will always be treasured and continued by Waregem.

Not only that — it’s spreading. Jim Begg, the president of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association of Belgium, said schoolchildren from towns near the other two U.S. cemeteries, Henri-Chappelle and Ardennes, were starting to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" too.

Begg said his organization’s challenge is actually to get more Americans to join the Belgians in paying homage to our fallen soldiers.

For those of you who can’t possibly do that, I wanted to share some highlights. Hearkening back to Lt. Col. McRae’s heart-wrenching lines, the Belgians, at least, are not breaking the faith of those who died in Flanders fields.