Dutch Foreign Minister Honors U.S. World War II Soldiers
By Shannon Collins
Defense Media Activity
ARLINGTON, Va., May 1, 2014 In honor of the upcoming 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord in Normandy, the Dutch foreign affairs minister visited Arlington National Cemetery here yesterday to pay tribute to American World War II soldiers laid to rest in the Netherlands.
Netherlands Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans, right, walks through a cemetery row after paying respects at the graves of four Dutch service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., April 30, 2014. DOD photo by EJ Hersom
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Frans Timmermans met with American World War II veterans and spoke at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, placed flowers at the graves of four Dutch military personnel who are buried at Arlington and visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I’m here to thank and to pay tribute to all these servicemen who made sure I’m free, my children are free and that we could live our lives the way we want to,” Timmermans said before he began his speech.
In his remarks, Timmermans said the people of the Netherlands continue to honor the American fallen of World War II by personally adopting each of the more than 8,000 graves of American servicemen who are buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, located in Limburg, the most southerly Dutch province.
Margraten is one of the 24 American burial grounds on foreign soil that are administered, operated and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. More than 8,000 American servicemen are buried there -- 8,000 of the 93,000 American soldiers who found their final resting place in Europe during World War II.
“They sacrificed their lives so that people in Europe could live in freedom,” the minister said. “Anyone who wants to feel the strength of the transatlantic partnership – to feel what lies at its heart – should visit Margraten or other military cemeteries that dot the landscape of Western Europe. All the graves at Margraten have been adopted by private citizens, most of them Dutch, as an expression of our everlasting gratitude and our determination to keep these memories alive.”
Retired Army Technician 3 Marvin Lykins, a World War II veteran on hand for the event, said he was honored to meet the Dutch minister.
“It was a little overwhelming, but great to see that World War II veterans aren’t forgotten,” said the former medical technician who served in France and Germany. “I’ve had so many people come up and say, ‘Thank you’ -- both children and adults. it’s very emotional.”
As part of his mission to have these soldiers remembered for their service in liberating the Netherlands, Timmermans has personally adopted the grave of Army Pfc. Leo Lichten, who was killed in action almost 70 years ago, and has taken time to learn about him.
Lichten was one of the 169 American soldiers who died during Operation Clipper, a joint U.S.-British assault on the Geilenkirchen salient of the Siegfried Line.
“When I got his grave, I didn’t know anything about him. … I started looking on the Internet, into records, finding other servicemen who could help me,” the minister said. “I found his childhood friend. I learned more about the sacrifice the American servicemen made for our liberty. And I learned more about our common history. We can use these concrete examples, these young guys who came over to Europe and fought for our liberty as a testimony to the lasting bond between the Netherlands and the United States.”
For Leo Slater, the minister’s visit was a reunion and a special honor. Slater was named after Lichten. His father, Paul Slater, a retired Navy World War II veteran, grew up with Lichten in Brooklyn, N.Y. Paul Slater met with the minister and showed him letters Lichten had written him during Lichten’s time at training and in Europe. He also gave the minister a better appreciation of who Lichten was, Timmermans said.
Leo Slater said he grew up on the stories about Lichten, and was honored to carry on the name and to attend the minister’s event.
“I was really touched and really enjoyed the speech. It really is a bond of blood and culture,” he said. “It’s important to have events like this, because we are losing more World War II veterans every day, and we need to make that transition from just memory into history and have people understand why it is and where we are today.
“We’re coming up to the 100th anniversary of World War I, and the living memory of that is virtually gone,” he continued. “It’s important to remember why these people died.”
Four years ago, Timmermans arranged for Leo Slater and his father to visit Lichten’s grave in the Netherlands together for the first time. Leo said it gave his father closure.
“It was the three of us standing in the rain at a grave. My father stood there and said, ‘I told you I would find you,’ and he did,” Slater said, getting choked up. “My dad and his friends all signed up; Leo was the one who was supposed to have stayed, but was the one in the group who didn’t come back. My dad didn’t get over it for a long time, if he ever did. There was no question about him naming his son after Leo.”
While Lichten has been identified, 1,722 names of American service members are still listed on the Walls of the Missing in the Netherlands.
“The story of our liberators will never cease to fill me with awe,” Timmermans said. “And the personal stories of these men deserve to be retold. I am proud that I could unearth more details about the story of Leo Lichten.
“The stories of many others remain untold,” he said. “I very much support the efforts of the foundation behind the initiative to adopt individual graves, to collect more information about the soldiers buried and honored at Margraten. I very much support their desire to collect photos of these men, to give these heroes a face. Incredibly, there are still soldiers buried there of whom there is no photo, no recollection whatsoever. It is something we owe to those who died. It is something we owe to those who live.”