In June 2004, I hopped on a plane bound for Eastern Europe as a member of a tiny little children’s chorus from good ole downeast Maine. We had been invited to the little country of Luxembourg to help celebrate their liberation from the Germans in World War II. The trip made quite the impression on my 15 year old self.

I came home feeling a great pull to share my story and to express my gratitude to local veterans. After writing a piece entitled “The Memory Lives on in a New Generation” for a local VFW writing contest….things took off from there. Instead of having phone conversations with boys my own age, I was getting frequent calls from World War II veteran Galen Cole. He is quite the charmer and a pretty big deal in Eastern Maine…if you haven’t heard of him you can find him on Wikipedeia (haha!!) and  you can check out the Cole Land Transportation Museum’s website.  He is a special guy who I share some pretty great memories with.

 The Memory Lives on in a New Generation

My whole life I have been taught the history of the wars that our country has fought. The seriousness and the reality of the topic never hit me until this past summer. I was able to experience the trip of a lifetime. I am a member of the Washington County Children’s Chorus. We were invited to perform in Luxembourg to celebrate the liberation of the country during World War I and II. A few weeks before the trip we performed at the Cole Land Transportation museum owned by World War II veteran, Galen Cole. Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the service of our veterans. Men and women who fought in World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War reunited to remember their fallen comrades and to celebrate the lives that they had been blessed with. My fellow chorus members and I pinned carnations on those who were being honored that day. It was a very emotional day for all of us but we now realize that it was preparation for the weeks to come.

While in Europe I was able to talk to many veterans who fought in World War II, including Galen Cole. He traveled with us on our tour bus through Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. Galen and his Luxembourgish friend, Gene Nichols, gave us a tour through the Ardennes forest. Gene had been a little boy when the Nazis invaded his home and took over his town and school. His stories were like something out of a book.

At the places we performed, Luxembourgish veterans and American veterans stood to  share their stories. I found it extremely hard to maintain my composure while these men spoke. Raw emotion was heard in their voices, tears flooded their eyes, and their bodies tensed up as they went on about horrific ordeals that took place while they were each serving for their country. I saw men reunite with their American friends whom they had fought with and hadn’t seen since the war. I remember one concert in a small stone church on a sunny day in the middle of the country, we sang “In Flanders Fields” and there wasn’t a dry eye left in the room.

We visited the American cemetery located in Luxembourg city, Luxembourg. As I walked down the rows of white crosses, I completely broke down. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought about these men and boys who had families, lovers, homes, and future hopes and dreams that they planned to return to after they finished fighting in the war. Each white cross marking a mother’s son, a brother, a friend, a cousin, a father. They didn’t want to die but they did for the sake of their country and for the world. There are 5,076 American men buried overseas at this cemetery alone. White crosses neatly spread over 50.5 acres of land. As I stood beside the graves I asked one of the Luxembourgish veterans, “Why couldn’t they have been sent home?” He replied, “You have to understand that most of the soldiers who are buried here stayed in our homes. They were like family, like our own brothers. They protected us and died for us. We fought together and formed a bond that can never be broken. I think this is where they would want to be.”

It’s hard to explain the things I saw in Europe and at home in those veterans’ eyes. Words will never do it justice. The citizens of Luxembourg treated us like we were famous because we were Americans. At one of our concerts, a veteran came up to me at the end and said, “thank you” and gave me an American flag. I will never forget the look in his eyes. I started to cry and he gave me a hug and made me laugh by saying, “Well, I didn’t mean to make you so upset, beautiful.”

I feel anger towards those who do not appreciate what the men and women of our country do every day and have done in the past. I was privileged enough to meet some of the bravest men this world has ever known. Most people don’t realize the extent of the pain and grief. I recall one man said to me, “Nowadays you see movies that show a man’s friend being shot down beside him and the man stopping and not leaving his friend. This hardly ever happened. You had to keep going to survive. You had to fight for the ones you loved and knew you had to return to them. Then for the rest of your life you think, why wasn’t it me who died that day? “

I will forever respect the men who fought for the United States and those who are still fighting today. While in Europe, I met General Patton’s granddaughter. It was she and Galen Cole who made me realize that it was going to be my generation that was going to have to carry on the memory and respect of these veterans. I will do my very best to carry on the memory of our brave boys.

Just over the tree line about 1.5 kilometers away, German soldiers are buried in the Sandweiler German war cemetery, with dark stone crosses instead of white.
Twenty two sets of brothers are buried side by side at this cemetery in Luxembourg. As a mother of two little boys, this is completely devastating to me…more now than it was then. Something I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.
Originally there were 8,412 buried here in 1945. Then in 1948, there were 5,050 of the deceased shipped to the United State for families who wanted them reburied there. The cemetery was rebuilt and after the remaining bodies were firmly identified, they were buried in 500 pound coffins that were finished with bronze. At that point there were 1,700 American dead shipped from temporary burial sites in France and Belgium. That then brought the total to 5,076.
Sixty eight years ago on Christmas Eve, General George S. Patton Jr. was laid to rest in the cemetery with his “brave boys”. Photos from Wikepedia

I can’t believe it’s been 9 years. It’s so strange to look back on it now and to read my feelings that poured out onto the pages of my journal. I still feel strongly about it today. The music was a powerful translator of all that happened during those 11 days. To witness audiences of little churches throughout the countryside silently crying during patriotic song after song was so moving. One of the most poignant moments was when we sang the Luxembourgish national anthem for the locals and their astonishment that school children knew their song!  As Americans we hear our national anthem frequently, to the point of it almost being repetitious, and we most definitely take it for granted.  These people seemed to hear it for the first time from the child relatives of those service men who gave their lives to protect and liberate them, and their future generations!

When you’re at a high school ball game or any event where a flag is shown and the “Star Spangled Banner” is played…do yourself a favor and take those precious 2 minutes (max?) to stop and show your respect. Put your hand over your heart…remove your hat…face the flag and be respectful. If you see someone that you know who has served…say, “Thank You!!”

If my little man can give his attention…so can you!
It is so easy to get lost in all the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Sugar cookies, shopping, concerts, and parties consume us and stress levels tend to get a little heightened. We like to focus on the happy, light and fluffy things this time of year. Try to take a minute to remember those who we have lost, those who are still fighting or have already served, and the many families who are sacrificing so much this holiday season.
Thank you veterans and your families for all you have sacrificed!! <3
Rianne Ackley

About Rianne Ackley

I grew up in Downeast Maine but have recently relocated to the North Woods. I live in Clayton Lake where I am a stay at home Mom to two beautifully wild little boys and wife to a Maine State Game Warden. I am a lover of the simple things in life...a good book, a song, a rainy day, a bowl of white popcorn, etc. I have a slight obsession with all things food. Love cooking it, eating it, looking at it, smelling it, reading about it, etc. I am a firm believer that life is what you make it.