Following in the Footsteps of Our Fallen Fathers in Belgium
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Crossing over to Belgium from Germany is seamless. And finding our way to our next and last stop on the journey to find the footsteps and final resting place of my Uncle Eddie is made easy by the navigation system in the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited I took on the trip.
To see the video of David Kiley's Journey to find a lost uncle, click here.
It feels right driving a Jeep for this trip. The brand, owned by Chrysler, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this month. It all started with the Willys GPW (Jeep) in 1941, a military vehicle ordered up by the War Dept. in 1940 to essentially replace wagons and mules in the battlefield theaters of war.
My destination was Henri Chapelle American Cemetery in Hombourg, Belgium, one of several overseas cemeteries run by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). About 10 miles over the German border, south of Liege, it is much smaller than, say, Arlington National cemetery in Virginia. And because it is more intimate, the ground seems all the more hallowed by the sacrifice of those who are buried there.
My father, Charles Kiley, who was writing in Paris for The Stars and Stripes newspaper when he got word of his brother's death, drove a Willys Jeep to the area when Cpl. Eddie Kiley was laid in a grave with just a wooden cross. Two of my six siblings have been to this place, but it was a first for me.
Hallowed Ground and Dedication to Honor
Not only does the ABMC do a phenomenal job of maintaining Henri Chapelle, but there are citizens of Belgium, Holland and even Germany who have adopted graves there. They come to visit, and lay flowers, especially on the days that mark a soldier's birth and death. I discovered the names of a local couple who look after my Uncle's grave, and I will send them some pictures I know they don't have. I met a young couple from Holland in the visitor's center who run a website for adopters like himself.
If you are next of kin, like I am, the superintendent gives you special attention. After a talk about the cemetery and battle--the Battle of the Huertgen Forest-- in which my uncle fought, he walked my friends and I to my uncle's grave. There, he rubbed wet sand from Omaha Beach into the letters of his grave so his name will be easier to see in the photos we took. The sand washes away, of course, in the next rainfall. Taps and The Star Spangled Banner is played over the cemetery's speakers. The atmosphere is like being in a cathedral, but outside. And there isn't a sign of unnecessary adornments. Just a tragic sea of white Italian marble crosses and Stars of David, perfect manicured green grass, and a great deal of solemnity.
I have been to World War One cemeteries in the Somme Valley, and was involuntarily brought to my knees reading headstones of young men identified on their markers as "school master," "carpenter," "painter." When you see your own family's name on a stone, connect a grave with the stories you have heard about a young man, close kin, deprived of life, the depth of feeling, of course, is much closer to one's heart.
Staying in Brussels
Upon leaving, we had choices of where to spend the night. Aachen was a possibility, or Liege. But we were leaving to head back to the U.S. from the Brussels Airport the next day, so we drove the 70 miles to the nation's capital and the seat of NATO. Lodging is abundant and reasonable in summer, and we opted for the Brussels Marriott on Auguste Ortsstraat, in the heart of the city.
I hit the Internet looking for a really good restaurant, as we had not had what I would call a first-class meal the whole week. I found La Clef des Champs on Rue Rollebeek. Not only does it come highly recommended, but the sweetbreads casserole and Guinea fowl on the menu seemed right up my street. Alas, when we arrived in a downpour, it was full, owing in part to the outdoor seating being out of commission. No problem. We went down the street to La Tortue where we had mussels in a champagne and garlic broth that was to die for, and a half-lobster. A plate of French and Belgian cheeses and a local Reisling from Mosel was just the capper we needed after an emotional day. We could see that there were a dozen restaurants in this neighborhood, and that none would disappoint.
Brussels, like Berlin, is a fabulous city to see on foot, or better yet, by bike. Bike lanes abound and vehicular traffic are generally very respectful. It is not uncommon to find men and women in their 60s and 70s cycling from here to to there. No wonder they all look more fit than people in a typical American city.
With little time on a Sunday morning before departure, I rode to The Eglise Saint-Nicolas (St. Nicholas Church) for Sunday service, and to light s candle for my uncle. The choir was spectacular.
If you find yourself in Belgium, make sure you get over to the Grand Place in the morning for coffee and croissants. Sit in the square that author Victor Hugo described as the most beautiful in the world. He wasn't kidding.
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