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Always keeping heroes in their hearts


MEMORIAL DAY for many seems to mean getting to the mall, queuing up at the Bay Bridge, stoking up the barbecue, bailing out boat bilges, getting ice for the coolers.

Several World War II veterans who live in the Annapolis area have a slightly different view.

"The day has big meaning to me because of all those white crosses over there, in Europe and Japan," said Lou Lewnes, who served as a mortarman in North Africa and Europe. "The day should have meaning for everyone."

"I don't think we should ever forget what they did," said Leon Wolfe, who served in the Pacific on a ship that carried pontoons for bridges and beachheads.

Gene Somers, a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1941, served on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the war. He has vivid recollections of earlier Memorial Days.

"Every plot in the graveyard was decorated with flowers and a flag was placed on each veteran's grave," he said. "Church members and others saw to it that not a single grave was without flowers, even though the occupant's relatives were no longer in the area."

Memorial Day is a time of introspection for Somers.

"At age 82 I visit Arlington National Cemetery several times each year to say farewell to friends with whom I was privileged to share the past 60 years," he said, replying to an e-mail inquiry.

"As one slowly follows the caisson to the new gravesite, the names can be read on row after row of headstones along the roadside. This always produces sobering and curious thoughts on the lives of those whom we never knew but with whom we hold a common bond of military service.

"Each has a story that belongs to that person's family and circle of friends - but a separate bond exists between us and I have a distinct feeling of camaraderie.

"The person who lies there has earned my respect as well as my gratitude, and that of his countrymen."

Wheatley Christensen jumped from a C-47 transport plane into Normandy on the night of June 6, 1944 - D-Day. He and other members of the 82nd Airborne Division captured Ste. Mere-Eglise, the first town to be liberated during the invasion.

"Memorial Day, per se, as observed here in the States, has hardly any meaning whatever," said Christensen. "To many it's just another holiday and the unofficial start of summer. To me, every day is a Memorial Day. I saw many men killed in action and my thoughts are with them continuously. I do not need a reminder."

He recalled a recent visit to a little town in Belgium called Trois Ponts. He found there what he called a "true memorial."

"There in the village square is a monument dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives defending this town and halting the German advance," he said.

"While reading the epitaph and noticing many names listed being from my company, I overheard this elderly Belgian gent pointing out to a fellow member in my group the names of four or five men that were 'his.' I interrupted their conversation and inquired what did he mean by 'his' men.

"He went on to explain that he and his family had accepted the task of caring for their graves. He said, with tears running down his cheeks, that he thought this was a small price to pay for the men who had sacrificed their lives, [so that] he could now enjoy the freedom [Belgians] now have.

"I later found out that every U.S. gravesite in Belgium has been adopted by some family. Also, when the assigned caretaker or family are no longer able to perform this duty, it is passed down to his heir. This is considered a great honor.

"These dedicated people understand the true meaning of honoring fallen heroes. This is not just a one-day affair, but will live on forever. When this is recognized here in the States, the true meaning of Memorial Day can be observed."

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