A 41-year-old bricklayer from the Netherlands, Jurgen van de Coolwijk grew up reading books about World War II and watching Hollywood thrillers depicting battles between Allied forces and the Nazis. Recently, he and his family have adopted the gravesites of fallen soldiers interred at the only American cemetery in his country. By his own choice, he has been tasked with advocating for the memories of the heroes buried there.
A business owner, van de Coolwijk has taken on this very personal mission along with his wife Dionne, and their two children, Quinn, 9, and Xavi, 5. The family lives in Berghem, a tiny hamlet in the southern part of the Netherlands. As a young child, Jurgen was fascinated with World War II and absorbed as much information about the period as he could from books and films.
“Later, as I got older, I started going to some of the places that I read about,” said Jurgen.
He visited museums and toured WWII-era subterranean tunnels and coastline bunkers built by Nazis and the Allies. They were used as shelters during bomb raids and hideouts from enemy invaders. Standing inside the preserved fortresses, the father of young children was reminded of the horrors war inflicts on all families.
What was most heart wrenching for Jurgen was that the many of the soldiers who died in World War II may have been completely alone in their final moments. Most of them were only in their early 20s, and all were several thousand miles away from their loved ones.
“When you get older, you start to realize that the boys who fought in Europe had likely never even been overseas,” said Jurgen. “They were sent over here to fight against the German war machine. So they were basically dropped on the other side of the ocean to liberate us.”
Jurgen has wondered if the young liberators interred at the American cemetery in the Netherlands ever even met someone from Europe before they died so far away from home.
The local American cemetery isn’t the only one involved in Jurgen’s efforts. The van de Coolwijk family’s adoptions are actually centered on four different cemeteries, each about 90 minutes from their home. American gravesites are located at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial and at the Henri-Chappell Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.
The American gravesite adoption program started as a way to keep soldiers’ legacies alive. When people volunteer to adopt a grave, they agree to visit the site several times a year. Adopters are also encouraged to research fallen soldiers and, if it’s possible, connect with families and forge lasting friendships. According to Tom Hermes, president of the Foundation for Adopting Graves, “American families take great solace in knowing that someone from the local community cares about the sacrifice of their relative.”
In addition to the program for US soldiers, Jurgen and his family have adopted the sites of other Allied soldiers. The Belgian military history society, Herdenken om te Strijden allocated a special Allied section and created a memorial for British Commonwealth soldiers. And their Canadian soldier is interred at Adegem Canadian War Cemetery, also in Belgium.
The locations that the family stewards are at least an hour from each other.
“Sometimes we try to visit two cemeteries in a day and it can take our entire day. They are in opposite directions,” say Jurgen.
To help facilitate the program’s goal of adopting the memory of that person into their own family, Jurgen started the Remember our Soldiers Facebook page in December 2019. Since then, members have enthusiastically joined him in working to identify several of the men whose gravesites he adopted. Jurgen hopes that he can attract additional interest in his project so that he can work to fill in the blanks. It’s his way of giving others the chance to honor soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom.
To date, the family has adopted the graves of the following 11 soldiers who liberated Europe in World War II:
- Norman Bradford Bluck – New Zealand
- John F. Hatch – Great Britain
- Peter Raymond Harris – Great Britain
- Henry A. Tracy – United States
- Jack D. Bridges – United States
- James L. Carlton – United States
- Howard F. Carr, Jr. – United States
- Steve JR Parchuk – United States
- Robert Frederick Anstey – Great Britain
- Albert M. Amiro – Canada
- Jozwiak S. Plutonowy – Poland
Members of Jurgen’s Remember our Soldiers Facebook page have helped uncover details about several American soldiers. Jurgen has also met with or has plans to meet with family members of three American heroes.
Activities to date
2LT Henry A. Tracy was born August 12, 1918 and lived in Chapman, Nebraska. He was a navigator on the Flying Fortress, a bomber known for its ability to sustain heavy damage and was flown in many daytime raids. Tracy enlisted in the army one week after his 23rd birthday.
“His last action in the war was a raid over Amsterdam,” said Jurgen. Second Lieutenant Tracy was classified Killed in Action (KIA) after another B-17, the Holy Mackerel was shot down by the Germans and collided with Tracy’s aircraft. Both planes crashed into the North Sea.
On April 18, 1945, Pvt. William E. Glatt, Jr. was KIA near Leipzig, Germany at the age of 24. He was born on July 29, 1920 in Cook County, Illinois. After he connected with her, Glatt’s great niece posted a brief obituary and a photo to Jurgen’s Facebook page.
A nephew of PFC Howard F Carr, Jr. contacted Jurgen after his uncle’s grave was adopted. PFC Carr enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served with the 75th Infantry Division and 291st Infantry Regiment. Carr, from Montgomery County, OH, was KIA on January 15, 1945. Jurgen and Carr’s nephew have plans to meet in 2020.
Norman Bradford Bluck’s niece has contacted Jurgen. Updates will be posted on Facebook.
Jurgen was also able to locate a nephew of Albert M. Amiro, a sapper in the Canadian forces. The two met in 2019.
“I chose to adopt graves because I don’t want these guys to be forgotten,” said Jurgen. “To think that they died here all alone and without family was the reason I had to do something.”
The van de Coolwijks wanted to instill in their children that freedom is not guaranteed and sometimes comes at great sacrifice. The children, in fact, are very happy when their parents tell them it’s a day to “visit our soldiers.”
As his Facebook group grows, Jurgen hopes to continue to fill in life stories, because as he says, “these stories are never complete.”