Grave of WWII soldier links Dutch couple to other vets
By DON WADE
The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS (AP) — The wind snapped the large United States flag and bit anyone who dared step from his car to view the simple white headstones that stand at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery.
On Tuesday, Stephan Geurts, 34, who traveled all the way from the Netherlands, dared. So did his girlfriend, Resi Pelen, 37, who is also from the Netherlands.
“Dutch weather,” Geurts said with a small smile.
They walked up to the marker bearing the name of William R. Howles, a first sergeant in the Marines who fought in Korea and Vietnam. And by all forms of modern logic, a man who should mean nothing to this young man and woman.
“The cemetery shows us that freedom isn’t free,” Geurts said.
Pelen and Geurts are far more familiar with the American Military Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.
For it is there that they adopted the grave of Norman Bryan “Buddy” Hooker, an Army staff sergeant killed near the end of World War II.
Buddy’s brother, Joe Hooker, married a girl named Jane — Howles’ sister. Which is how this Dutch couple came to visit Memphis and to be standing before the grave of an American stranger on New Year’s Day.
“It just gives me chill bumps that people from another land would do this,” Jane said of the Dutch adopting the graves of people they don’t know. “My thought is: Would we do this for someone else?”
There are 8,300 American graves in Margraten and 6,500 have been adopted, Geurts said.
The Dutch practice of adopting the graves of American soldiers goes back to 1946. Geurts recalls first visiting the American military cemeteries when he was about 5 years old.
“At the time, I had no idea what the white crosses and stars stood for,” he said.
But he understands now: He is part of something far bigger than himself, or even his generation.
“The place where we live, Valkenburg, was liberated by the Americans,” he said.
And if not for the Americans, Geurts and Pelen say in unison, “We’d be speaking German.”
On Tuesday, a small bouquet of purple, pink and white flowers rested in front of Howles’ marker. Five or six times a year — and always on Memorial Day, which for the Dutch is the last Sunday in May — Geurts and Pelen will visit Buddy’s grave.
Geurts said they adopted his grave shortly after President Bush visited their country in 2005; that’s when they learned of the Dutch custom of adopting graves. Then, via the Internet, they found and established contact with Buddy’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Jane.
One day, the Hookers asked if Geurts and Pelen would mind going by the grave of Buddy’s childhood friend, Wallace Clarence Coulter, a private in the Army who was buried in Belgium, and like Buddy had grown up in the community of Eads, Tenn. They agreed and adopted his grave too.
Now the stories of Buddy’s war heroics — “he’s remembered as one of the most outstanding scouts in Rogue’s Raiders,” Jane said — are this young Dutch couple’s stories too.
The Dutch couple also are learning a new dialect: Southern. They toured Graceland, and planned trips to The Peabody to see the ducks walk and to FedExForum to see the Tigers play.
There is talk of the Hookers going to the Netherlands for Memorial Day.
Meantime, there is every reason to believe the practice of adopting American military graves will continue. At least for one Dutch family.
“We’re expecting a baby — she will be a girl,” Pelen said. “And it’s important that she will know the story and pass it on.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
Published in The Messenger 1.16.08