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American World War II heroes adopted in ‘Faces of Margraten’ project by ‘grateful’ Dutch people

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The staggering sacrifices of U.S. troops in overseas conflicts are not forgotten by younger generations in Europe. 

Ask the people of the Netherlands. Look at the Faces of Margraten.

“My relatives and ancestors suffered a lot during World War II and they were so grateful for their liberation,” Sebastiaan Vonk, a 31-year-old Dutch chair of Fields of Honor, told Fox News Digital in an interview on Friday. 

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“The next generations are also very grateful that these men and women came over to fight here in a war that wasn’t necessarily a war they had to fight.” 

Vonk founded Faces of Margraten to connect the grateful people of the Netherlands today with the Americans who fought and died in the effort to liberate their nation — and all of Europe — from Adolf Hitler’s Germany during World War II.

Grave of American GI Thomas B. Youell Jr. at the Netherlands American Cemetery. The Dutch people have “adopted” all 10,000 Americans memorialized at the cemetery. Now, they’re seeking photos of each GI in the Faces of Margraten project. (Fields of Honor Foundation/Jean-Pierre Geusens)

It’s a remarkable international effort to adopt and honor 10,000 American GIs who are buried or memorialized today at the Netherlands American Cemetery in the small community of Margraten. 

Dutch families have already “adopted” all 10,000 soldiers. Vonk said there is even “a waiting list of people looking to adopt,” should another adoptive person or family pass along the opportunity. 

Photos wanted of American war heroes

Vonk is now leading an effort to pair each name at the cemetery with the face of that U.S. war hero, while expanding the effort to five other American battlefield cemeteries in Europe. 

He’s seeking adoptive families in Europe for about 42,000 American GIs and photos from their families in the United States.

It’s an effort, he said, to “humanize” the cost of war and the sacrifices made by the United States

WWII deceased Netherlands American Cemetery

Sgt. Paul McErlane of Lowell, Massachusetts, died in Europe while serving on a bomber crew in World War II. He is remembered today at the Netherlands American Cemetery in a memorial to those missing in action. He’s one of thousands of Americans honored today — and whose remains were never recovered — at MIA memorials and ABMC cemeteries in Europe.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

They have 8,651 photographs to date. 

Vonk and the adoptive families of the Netherlands are still seeking photos of the 1,400 other American heroes buried in their country. 

The photos — the Faces of Margraten — are placed next to their adopted GI’s grave or name for five days each year. But their memories are honored by the Dutch people all year long.

Europeans “are grateful and, speaking for myself, inspired by what these Americans did for us.”

The Netherlands was conquered in 1940 and occupied, often brutally, until the end of World War II in 1945. About 140,000 American soldiers were killed in Europe alone during the conflict.

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The Dutch adoption families research their American soldier’s history. They often connect with and even visit their families in the United States, and tend to their grave at Margraten.

Vonk himself adopted Lawrence F. Shea, who was born in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 12, 1923. 

World War II hero

Lawrence F. Shea was a sports lover from Brooklyn who was killed in Europe during World War II. He’s buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery.  (Courtesy Shea Family)

Shea is among the 250 GIs who appear in the coffee-table book “The Faces of Margraten,” written by Vonk, with Arie-Jan van Hees and Jori Videc, published in English for the first time in Nov. 2022, and available on Amazon and other online booksellers. 

“Because his mother died in the 1930s, he … partly grew up in an orphanage,” “Faces of Margraten” reports in its biography of Shea. It says he “was an ordinary boy and sports lover.”

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The “ordinary” boy from Brooklyn served with the 80th Infantry Division during World War II. He was fighting just over the German border, not far from Margraten, when he was killed by enemy tank artillery on April 2, 1945. 

The Faces of Margraten project has been so successful that Vonk and his Fields of Honor Foundation recently expanded the program to five other American military cemeteries in three other countries. 

The Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery are both in Belgium; the Epinal American Cemetery and Lorraine American Cemetery are both in France; and the Luxembourg American Cemetery is in Luxembourg. 

American cemetery in Netherlands

The people of the Netherlands have adopted all 10,000 American service members killed in World War II and buried or memorialized today at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten. They are seeking photos for all 10,000 in the Faces of Margraten project. (Fields of Honor Foundation/Jean-Pierre Geusens)

Many of the American heroes in those graves have already been adopted by local individuals or families. 

The goal is to make sure that all 42,000 American war heroes memorialized in those cemeteries, killed during the liberation of Europe, find an individual or family to adopt them. 

And, of course, he hopes to pair photos with every GI at each cemetery. 

The goal is to make sure all 42,000 American war heroes find an individual or family to adopt them. 

“Just the fact that there is a waiting list to adopt a grave at Margraten and the fact that thousands of other graves have already been adopted in other cemeteries is very telling about how people in Europe still feel about the American liberators today,” said Vonk. 

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“They are grateful and, speaking for myself, inspired by what these Americans did for us.”

3 ways Americans can help

Vonk shared suggestions for Americans looking to help Fields of Honor pair grateful adoptive European families with American war heroes.

1. Relatives of GIs are encouraged to see if they might have photos or documents somewhere at home. 

Luxembourg American Cemetery

The Luxembourg American Military Cemetery is the resting place of 5,070 Americans killed in Europe during World War II. Among them is the grave of Gen. George S. Patton.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News)

2. Members of the public — “our boots on the ground,” said Vonk — are encouraged to look up soldiers in their home state or town. 

3. Americans can make calls, write and reach out to libraries, high schools, historical societies, veterans associations and relatives.

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“You never know where you will find a photo,” said Vonk. “And thus, in a sense, anyone can help.”

Those interested in the project can learn more at the Fields of Honor Foundation website

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