Have you ever stood on ground that you knew was quite valuable? Like standing on a piece of land that you knew had oil in the ground. How about a piece of land with buried treasure? Treasure you knew you could not retrieve but it was there. Something of priceless value. You have probably actually done just that. Stood on very valuable real estate. Call it hallowed ground.
In the early 1960’s my family lived a few years in Europe when my dad was with the Air Force. I was about ten years old. I had not seen much snow growing up in Texas so I really enjoyed that. I also enjoyed the traveling. One of my memorable trips was a family visit to Normandy beach. We had just seen the movie the Longest Day. My brothers and I were determined to find Pointe du Hoc were the Army Rangers had to scale a cliff in order to knock out some big German guns. The day we visited Normandy the weather was cool with a mild rain. I was uncomfortably cold and I actually don’t remember enjoying it as much as I thought I would. But there is one thing I do remember. The white crosses. Lots of them. For many years I thought most people were buried with white crosses. As I grew older and visited other cemeteries I realized most burial sites have tombstones.
I returned to Europe in the early 1980’s with a wife and a three year tour of duty with the Air Force. We had no children at the time. After years of school we finally had a little bit of time and money so we took advantage of traveling. One of our more memorable weekend excursions was to Belgium. We spent an enjoyable Friday and Saturday visiting some small towns. On Sunday morning I told the wife I wanted to visit Flanders Fields. She said she had heard of the poem but did not know it was in Belgium. I told her that Americans had fought and died in Belgium in World War I. Many Americans know that the Battle of the Bulge of the second World War was in Belgium but are not aware that U.S. soldiers fought not only in France in the first World War, but also in Belgium. I informed her it looked to be only about a forty minute drive from where we had spent the night, “so let’s give it a visit.”
We arrived at the Flanders Fields American Cemetery early in the morning. We were very warmly greeted. It is not as well known as other American cemeteries in Europe such as Normandy or the one in Luxemburg where General Patton rests with his troops. The Flanders Fields cemetery was beautiful, almost immaculate. The grass was like a putting green on a golf course. I was not aware of how just how well the Belgium people maintain American cemeteries. I don’t recall many other people being there. My wife and I had a short meditative devotional and then we leisurely strolled. The graves were marked with white crosses just like Normandy. That was something I took note of the moment I entered the cemetery. Towards a corner of the cemetery I paused when I saw the date on one of the crosses. The same date was on another, and then another. “What is it?” she asked.
“Over a dozen of these men died on the same day,” I replied. “What is so unusual about that?” she responded. “Look at the date,” I said. “November 11, 1918. These men died on the last day of the war.” I mentioned to her that the armistice to end the war had been signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I will never forget that. Who of us wants to go to war, much less die on the last day. Some had to and some did. I have thought of their sacrifice many times.
My grandfather was in the trenches overseas. It messed up his hearing. My father has given me some papers regarding his father’s Army unit overseas. The papers were Army orders and official stuff like that. No personal letters because my grandfather grew up without ever going to school. He died in the 1980’s without ever learning to read or write. Inside that folder was some Army correspondence regarding the evening of November I0, 1918. Evidently my grandfather’s unit was to go over the top at dawn on Nov 11, 1918. One out of three were often killed in the World War I assaults. Fortunately, he also got orders late the night of the 10th to stand down. Unfortunately, not everyone on the Western front got the message.
That ground in Belgium holds some of our nation’s greatest treasure, American fallen combat soldiers. A heavy price was paid, one I hope all generations will remember. Any cemetery with American troops is a field of treasure to me. Freedom is not free. The Belgium people have honored us at Flanders Field.
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
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.