As Veterans Day arrives this year there is no doubt that many events will take place to honor all the men and women who have served our country. Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day which commemorated the end of the First World War but eventually
became a day to pay tribute to all Veterans. Many of those men that will be remembered never made it home who fought in WWI and WWII and are buried in a number of overseas American cemeteries. As time passes, the number of relatives and friends who visit these graves are fewer and farther between. Most people would think that the few that do visit our fallen Charlestown Heroes would be relatives.
Take, for example, Richie and Melissa Brennan from Charlestown who in the summer of 2009 went to Europe and visited the gravesite of Richie’s uncle, Joseph F. Brennan who is buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St Avoid, France. Joseph was a member of the 80th Infantry Division and lost his life at Pont Musson, France on September 16th 1944 during the fighting to cross the Moselle River. Richie and Melissa not only visited Joseph’s grave during that summer but also paid remembrance to several other Charlestown men who are buried at Lorraine. One of those men is William J. Ryan, the uncle of Danny Ryan from Charlestown, who served with the 5th Infantry Division and who lost his life on Sept 20th 1944, four days after Joseph Brennan lost his. There are seven men total from Charlestown buried at Lorraine. William J. Coyle, Michael J. Cullen, Aloysius L. Doherty, Earl A. Welcome and Roger W. Rice are the others who lost their life fighting during WWII. Melissa and Richie also visited the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer to pay respects to the two Charlestown men buried there, John J. Noonan and John T. Conley.
It may be surprising to most people and known to some that relatives are not the only ones to visit and pay honor to those buried at the American cemeteries. In many instances they are visited by the people of the countries where the cemeteries are located. A personal experience I had back in 2008 can attest to this. I was living with a French family in a small village just outside of Versailles, France and during my stay the family invited me to the local school their kids attended to watch a slide show of their recent field trip to Normandy. As I sat awaiting the start of the presentation, the only American in the audience and unknown to anybody but a few that an American was in the audience, they began the presentation. It started with a visit to the Normandy American cemetery just overlooking Omaha Beach, where almost 10,000 Americans are buried. The slide show began and showed the school kids laying flowers down at the American graves and pictures of the cemetery grounds which overlooked Omaha Beach. The kids were quiet and attentive to the slide show, but some kids, like typical kids everywhere, began to talk during the show. They were immediately silenced by the teachers. My French is not that good but certainly the message was be respectful of what was being presented and for the most part everybody in the auditorium was.
As it turned out part of my trip was to visit that same cemetery where I paid respects to John Noonan and John Conley’s gravesites, the same two Townies that Melissa and Richie paid respects to a year later. During my visit I met an American who lived in Normandy and worked at the cemetery. She told me that often she brings visitors over to John Noonan’s gravesite, because unlike most of the men buried there, he was actually killed on D-Day right there at Omaha Beach where the cemetery is located, just above the bluffs.
It was at their graves I brought a piece of Charlestown to them. I brought some soil from the Bunker Hill Monument and sprinkled it on their graves and in turn, I took some of the soil from their graves and brought it back and sprinkled it in front of the General Warren Prescott statue at the Monument. I have to admit the idea came from Arthur Hurley who had told me about a similar tribute being done for WWI veterans buried in Europe after that war.
Another example of people who appreciate the sacrifice of Americans is a Hollander named Ben Savelkoul from Voerendall, The Netherlands who has visited over 30 military cemeteries. Ben’s interest in the military gravesites began at the age of 10 years old when his father took him, for the first time, to Margraten American Cemetery in The Netherlands. As he walked with his father in awe and gazing at the thousands of crosses laid neatly in the ground, his father explained to him why so many men are buried there. The visit that day inspired Ben, the 10 year old kid, and was the beginning of his passion to honor and remember those fallen heroes of WWII.
Years later Ben adopted the grave of Sgt Michael DeFebio at Margraten. A year later he adopted the grave of Tech Sgt Gerard K. Duncan located at the American Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium. Adopting a grave at military cemeteries in Europe is a common occurrence by many of the local people who take care of the grave and provide pictures of the graves to families. In the case of the two men Ben adopted, they were members of the 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion who came from Providence, Rhode Island.
This started Ben’s interest in the 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, the same unit Sgt William T. Ropple, Jr of 88 Ferrin Street, Charlestown served with and who, like Duncan and DeFebio, was killed while serving with the 643rd. William was killed the same day as Michael DeFebio and is also buried in the same American cemetery at Margraten. Both men served with the 643rd Reconnaissance Company and were killed in an ambush along with three other men on April 12th 1945 in Barby, Germany. The men were part of a reconnaissance patrol traveling in Barby, which is located near the Elbe River, 100 miles west of Berlin. April12th was the same day FDR died and a couple of weeks before the war ended in Europe. As it turned out, my research discovered two other men from Charlestown who also served in the 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion Reconnaissance Company, Joseph Murphy from 11 Parker Street and John Nickerson from 1 Exeter Court who won the Silver Star. Both men would go on and survive the war.
As a tribute to the men from the 643rd killed at Barby, Ben this past October 31st visited the exact site where the attack occurred. He laid down flowers and placed a commemorative plaque with pictures of William Ropple and Michael DeFebio. Ben also created a website dedicated to the men of the 643rd which has been a great resource for those who have an interest in the 643rd. The website has connected veterans and families of veterans who served with the unit but more importantly, it pays tribute and honors those Veterans of the 643rd especially those who lost their lives.
So this Veterans Day I want to thank all Veterans for their service and also want to say a special thank you to the people of that small French Village outside Versailles, Richie and Melissa Brennan, the people of Europe who adopt American graves and Ben Savelkoul for paying remembrance to our fallen heroes who never made it home, who must not be forgotten!