A Journey Completed Pilgrimage pays honor to a fallen brother

ESSAY

October 22, 1995|By Tom Potts

We parked our rental car and walked through a gate flanked by two white columns topped with gilded bronze eagles. We had entered the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. A pilgrimage that had been delayed for 45 years was about to end.

The ivy-covered, stone visitor's building just inside the wall looked more like a simple country cottage than a U.S. government office. I tried to display the impassiveness of an American on vacation that October day in 1990. But as my wife and I entered and were greeted by the man on duty, I was a bundle of nerves beneath the surface, not quite knowing what my emotional response was going to be.

After appropriate greetings, I explained that we were there to visit the grave of my brother, who had survived World War II's Battle of the Bulge, only to be killed by an exploding shell in Germany in February 1945.

Bill was buried here in Luxembourg at the choice of my parents. Although Mother and Dad had been offered the option of having his body returned to the United States after the war, they chose to have him interred in the American Cemetery, one of 14 permanent military burial grounds on foreign soil for American World War II dead.

I fully concurred with their decision. I believe that the final resting place for human remains is not the point of spiritual contact, and I was glad that my parents chose not to reopen the wounds of their grief, wounds that had begun to heal with time. Still, for many years I had harbored the desire to visit Bill's grave in Europe. Now, I was here to pay honor to my only brother.

My parents had been dead for years, but somehow this visit was also for them, as well as for my older sister, Lois, who still lived in our hometown of Baltimore.

The government representative, a retired U.S. serviceman, seemed sensitive to my nervousness and uncertainty. He led us from the office and out among the ocean of simple white grave markers -- 5,076 in all. They were mostly crosses, but there was an occasional Star of David. After a leisurely walk, we stopped. There before us was Bill's grave, the marble cross simply inscribed with his name, date of death, military unit and home state of Maryland.

The air was clear and the chill of the crisp October morning was giving way to the warmth of the sun. The quiet was interrupted only by two power lawn mowers, but when our guide motioned to the workers the engines were silenced and the men disappeared. Our host took a picture of the marker and then left us alone.

A stillness enveloped as if we -- Bill, my wife, and I -- were alone together. Tears I shed were not because of the nearness of his body, but because of my memories of Bill's short life of 21 years -- memories of our years of growing up together on Chilton Street in Northeast Baltimore, of his support of my going to Poly while he attended rival City, of his positive attitude on being drafted out of college.

I could speak no words, only silently pray, as we stood there. I was thankful for the comfort of Barbara's nearness as she too mourned, mourned for a brother-in-law she would never know.

As we returned to the present and to our surroundings, we took time to appreciate the beauty of the cemetery and the care given it. One hundred and one of the graves are those of unknown soldiers and are marked by only the following inscription: HERE LIES IN HONORED GLORY A COMRADE IN ARMS KNOWN ONLY BY GOD.

Included in the rows of graves that fan out in gentle arcs from the hilltop memorial building are the resting places of 21 pairs of brothers, buried side by side. Also in the sea of white crosses is one bearing the name of Gen. George Patton -- his troops neatly laid out before him.

The memorial building is a tall, square chapel of stone. It is flanked by two bronze stands with names of soldiers missing in action and with maps showing the campaigns of the Allied Armies as they marched through Central Europe in 1944 and 1945.

As we stood in front of the building, we gazed over the field of graves -- my brother's near the bottom of the hill. The cemetery is framed by a glade of spruce, beech and oak trees. At the time of our visit they were in their fall hues.

The beauty, the quiet, the magnitude of the site, and the simple identical markings of the graves, made us mindful of the tragedies of the great war, the tragedies of the families of those buried there. And what we saw represented only a small fraction of the total grief -- 125,000 United States war dead from both world wars are buried in American cemeteries overseas.

It was late in the morning when we returned to the office to pick up our picture and express our thanks to the representative. Now the quiet was being broken by tour buses entering the parking lot. The new visitors climbed out of the coaches and began walking through the hallowed grounds, some to see the grave of General Patton, some to show respect for the war dead, and some just to stretch themselves and wonder where the next stop on the tour would be.

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