Belgians remember American soldiers for Memorial Dayby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Thousands of people gathered in Belgium and France over the weekend to mark Memorial Day. They met at battlefield monuments where tens of thousands of American servicemen and women are buried.
Minnesota native Jim Begg is president of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association in Belgium, and helps organize what remain some of the largest Memorial Day observances anywhere.
In a cemetery just outside Waregem, Belgium, 368 American soldiers are buried. Most of them were members of the 91st Infantry Division which fought beside French forces. Thirteen were Minnesotans.
While they were killed in 1918, they're remembered every May. Dozens of school children from town gather at the six-acre Flanders Field cemetery to sing the United States' national anthem.
The anthem is no foreign abstraction to the people of Waregem. Their city was on the front lines as the Americans pushed back the German army during the final days of World War I. Edina native Jim Begg, speaking from a suburb of Brussels, tells the story.
"The units from the Pennsylvania and Ohio battalions saved the city, and freed the city of Waregem. And it's for that reason that they have such tremendous feelings that go back for 90 years," Begg said.
Begg himself is another reason Belgians remember the 91st Division, nearly a century after the unit fought and after the surviving veterans have died.
For the past 16 years, Begg has headed the American Overseas Memorial Day Association in Belgium, one of the most active military commemorative organizations in Europe.
"We have three American cemeteries here, two in the south of Belgium. One with 5,329 graves -- Ardennes Cemetery. And one on the German-Belgian border with 7,992," Begg said. "In the north, we have the smallest, and one of the first World War I cemeteries that the American Battle Monuments Commission started, here in Waregem."
The association has helped organize wreath-laying ceremonies, visits by survivors of the dead, and gatherings among the American graves since 1923.
Lately, Minnesota connections have played a key role in keeping the tradition alive in Belgium, where the battles of the world wars were lesser known.
Before Begg, the Belgian memorial association was led by two Honeywell executives, including Michael Bonsignore, who went on to serve as the company's CEO.
Begg moved to Europe in 1965 to head the international operations of Culligan Water Conditioning. He later ran a large advertising firm.
In 1984, Begg was one of the organizers of the American Club, a social organization in Brussels. He represented local Americans at a memorial among the ranks of crosses at Henri-Chapelle, where nearly 8,000 Americans are buried, thousands of miles from home.
It's a moment that still chokes him up, decades later.
"There is just something that hits you. You realize that all these men are buried, and I just get very emotional about this," said Begg. "There's just something about this moment, when you see these men, these young guys. Like me. They never had a life. They gave their lives for the freedom we have today."
Now retired, Begg devotes his time to keeping that memory alive for others.
Although the Memorial Day observances in Europe have waxed and waned over the decades since World War I, Begg has been rekindling the flame with an essay and coloring contest for Belgian kids, as well as visits from active duty combat veterans to schools and ceremonies.
He's also worked to establish the tradition of singing the national anthem at all three of the American military cemeteries in Belgium.
While the anthem has been sung at Waregem on weekends like this past one for more than 80 years, Begg says it's more than just a grade-school ritual. He says it's an occasion for thousands of people, young and old, to reflect on the sacrifice made for their freedom.
"I've always said, if you have one kid singing the American national anthem, you have two parents, four grandparents and the whole neighborhood. They all come," he said. "If we have good weather, we can have 2,000 people or more at the small cemetery."
They were there again Sunday, to remember and to hear the Star Spangled Banner again.
- Morning Edition, 05/31/2010, 7:20 a.m.