The ceremony will not look very different from most Memorial Day services planned throughout the country today--flowers will be put on soldiers' graves, speeches will be given, tears will be shed.
But the service planned at the U.S. military cemetery in the Netherlands is special because the men, women and children who will gather to commemorate America's war dead are not related to the fallen GIs by blood or even national ties.
They come out of gratitude. They are residents of the tiny village of Margraten, which was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Every year since the war ended, they have held a Memorial Day service at the 65-acre cemetery and placed flowers on the graves of the 8,301 American soldiers who helped liberate them.
Memorial Day services will be held today at most of the 24 permanent U.S. military cemeteries that are administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 10 foreign countries.
Among the giant federal bureaucracies, the ABMC is a tiny agency. It has a budget of $10.6 million and 387 employes, mostly cemetery caretakers. But the retired generals and military officers who run the agency consider its work among the most important in the government. They don't even like to refer to it as a job. To them, it's more of a sacred trust.
There is a simple reason for their devotion. Most of the 11 members on the commission, who are appointed to indefinite terms by the president and serve without pay, are veterans of World War II or the Korean war. Like the commission's chairman, Gen. Mark W. Clark, who commanded the 5th Army during World War II and signed the armistice that ended the Korean conflict, they knew some of the 130,570 Americans who are buried in the cemeteries.
That has been a tradition at the commission. Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded American troops in Europe during World War I, served as the first chairman when the commission was created in 1923 to preserve the graves of more than 30,000 American soldiers buried in makeshift cemeteries in Europe during the "War to End All Wars."
Pershing ordered the construction of eight permanent cemeteries in Europe and 11 separate monuments to commemorate American soldiers. The land for the cemeteries was provided free, in perpetuity, by Belgium, England and France, near the battlefields where Pershing's men had fallen--Flanders Field, Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne. Pershing ordered that chapels be built at each cemetery and that all grave markers--either a white marble cross or a Star of David-- be the same size, no matter what the soldier's rank.
When Pershing died in 1948, he was succeeded by Gen. George C. Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during World War II. Marshall supervised the construction of 14 more cemeteries in Europe and in the South Pacific and continued Pershing's traditions. When Gen. George Patton died in an automobile accident, he was buried in Luxembourg next to an unknown private.
Col. William E. Ryan Jr., who also served in World War II, has worked at the commission for 19 years and now serves as director of operations and finance and the ABMC's unofficial historian.
"You can't find more beautiful cemeteries anywhere," Ryan said. "We maintain 67 miles of paths, 908 acres of shrubs and flowering plants, 3 million square feet of grass-covered grounds, and 11,000 trees." Besides cemeteries in Europe and the South Pacific, the commission also operates a cemetery in Mexico City for 1,563 veterans, most killed in the War of 1847, and one in Panama.
Burial at all the commission's cemeteries, except the one in the Philippines, was limited to GIs who had died overseas. But after World War II, the government decided it would stop building permanent cemeteries on foreign soil. The remains of soldiers who died in the Korean and Vietnam wars were brought home.
The commission has a thick file of letters from wives, relatives and comrades of soldiers buried in ABMC cemeteries, commending the commission. But the ABMC also has been criticized.
Some Vietnam veterans groups contend the "old-guard" commission has slighted them. The commission only has one memorial that honors Vietnam soldiers: a monument in Honolulu that carries the names of 18,093 soldiers missing in action during World War II, 8,194 MIAs from Korea, and 2,489 MIAs from Vietnam. The ABMC has not played any part in the privately funded Vietnam Veterans Memorial that will be built in Washington. The commission's most recent project is a $40,000 monument, marking the landing at Utah Beach in France during World War II.
"We are a bit behind," said Ryan.
During the Carter administration, some members of Congress suggested that the commission be merged with the Veterans Administration, which oversees most military cemeteries in this country, or the Interior Department, which operates historic cemeteries like the one at Gettysburg, Pa. But those proposals went nowhere, in part because the commission has a history of being "extremely cost-efficient," according to congressional oversight committees, and because few elected officials have wanted to tangle with former soldiers over who will maintain the graves of the war dead.
The commission's patriotic fervor is reflected in a film, "The Price of Freedom," that it produced for the nation's Bicentennial celebration.
"Freedom is never free," the film says. It is paid for by blood shed by Americans who gave their lives for "an ideal." The commission's job, the film explains, is to make sure that those heroes are never forgotten. At the ABMC, every day is Memorial Day.