VERDUN, FRANCE — On Veterans Day, Americans are asked to do something for the country besides voting and paying taxes: We are enjoined to think of those who fought in faraway places -- the Philippines, North Africa, Europe, Vietnam and Iraq.
Most of them came home, but some did not, even in death. The remains of more than 120,000 war dead rest in American military cemeteries abroad, beneath rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Many of the graveyards, including 20 in Western Europe, lie on or near the battlefields where U.S. military personnel fought and fell.
Meticulously maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, a small federal agency mandated by Congress in 1923, the cemeteries are profoundly beautiful and meaningful places. Mostly, they're visited by relatives and veterans, but occasionally an American tourist happens by a gate where the Stars and Stripes fly, turns in and sees the massed graves of American heroes who sleep on foreign soil.
That is how I found the American cemetery in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg earlier this year, where I sat on the freshly cut lawn near the graves of two brothers, wondering how they died and what they would have done if they had survived.
Last month, anticipating Veterans Day this Tuesday, I sought out military cemeteries in Belgium, France and Italy, where thousands of American World War I and II combatants were buried and many more of the missing are remembered.
At the Henri-Chapelle, Meuse-Argonne and Sicily-Rome cemeteries I found as many stories as there are tombstones.
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial
As I drove from Brussels to the hamlet of Henri-Chapelle early one fall morning, armies of commuters clogged the freeway, heading east toward the Belgian capital along the route taken by the German blitzkrieg of May 1940.
An hour later, I arrived in Liege, then turned onto a road that followed a ridge above the placid farmland around the Belgian-German border with its spotted cows, hydrangeas and housewives gossiping at the mailbox. Eastern Belgium, in general and quiet, and lace-curtained Henri-Chapelle, in particular, seem unlikely places for a war.
On the road into town I saw a monument to 1,223 men from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division -- widely known as the Big Red One -- who made it through D-Day but died nearby in late 1944. The Big Red One liberated villages in the area, and locals still remember it fondly.
The 57-acre Henri-Chapelle cemetery has an airy setting atop the ridge just outside the village, flanked by rhododendron bushes that bloom in the spring.
Safely behind the line of advance, Henri-Chapelle began functioning as a temporary graveyard as early as September 1944, and at first had as many enemy as Allied burials, though the Germans were later moved and about 60% of the American dead were returned to the States.
Now, 7,989 military personnel are buried at Henri-Chapelle. Most died when the Americans first breached the German border around the town of Aachen and, a few months later, in northern sectors of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.
In front of a large map in the memorial, Dwight Anderson, the assistant superintendent, briefed me on fighting in the region and showed me the nearby tablets of the missing. Rosettes marked some names, indicating that their remains were later found.
Six decades after the war, the job of finding and burying the dead continues. Anderson told me that a few weeks earlier the remains of two soldiers from the 28th had been found in eastern Germany.
Anderson's knowledge about the war is encyclopedic. "Just hit my pause button when you get bored," he said. But I never did.
From the bare facts on a tombstone he could guess where the soldier fought and possibly even how he died. He treated headstones like old friends: 15 men killed when the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River in Germany collapsed on March 17, 1945, and scores of the 28th and the three Tester brothers from Tennessee lying side-by-side.
Anderson isn't the only one in the area with a long memory. Near the village of Thimister-Clermont, Belgium, also in Liege province, Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz have created a war memorial of their own, the Remember Museum 39-45. It's open to the public the first Sunday of every month but it's always open to Americans if they phone ahead (32-87-44-61-81) for a tour conducted by the beguiling proprietors.
Marcel was 11 when 110 soldiers from the Big Red One were billeted at the family farm. They stayed for three weeks, plying him with chocolates that he says gave him a sweet tooth. They were called up suddenly to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving much of their gear behind.
That was the beginning of his collection, greatly expanded over the years. Now the brick building next to the farmhouse is a cache of memorabilia -- a German gas mask for a horse, a blouse made of parachute fabric and Belgian lace, a Sherman tank unearthed in a nearby bog.