A picture of her Uncle Ed hung on a wall of her childhood home, as did a photo of the Dutch cemetery where he was buried.
From an early age, Debbie Holloman was well-aware that her uncle — Army Pfc. Eddie Hart — had been killed in World War II, having marched into Germany in 1945 as the war was coming to an end. His unit expected little resistance but received a deadly surprise from a German assault. Hart, 22, was among those killed. The native of La Grange, N.C., quit school as a teen to run the family farm when his family became ill.
Hart was buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, with its neatly aligned rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David, tucked in the far southeastern corner of the Netherlands, not far from its borders with Belgium and Germany.
After the war, a Dutch woman “adopted” Hart’s grave, as so many Dutch did at the cemetery as a way to express their gratitude for their American liberators. She visited the grave several times a year, bringing fresh flowers, and wrote letters to Hart’s sister in North Carolina to let her know that her brother’s grave was being tended to and that his sacrifice had not been forgotten. That sister was Holloman’s mother, Hattie Holloman.
A lifelong correspondence and friendship developed and even after the Dutch woman immigrated to the United States, her family took up caring for Hart’s grave and still does to this day.
In 2002, Debbie Holloman and her family took her mother to Margraten to visit her brother’s grave and meet the family that attended to it and witness the devotion of the Dutch to the Americans buried there.
“It’s really amazing, and there’s a waiting list to adopt a grave,” said Holloman, a career law clerk for the U.S. District Court in Richmond. “I’ve been pretty involved since that point.”
She had researched her uncle’s military service and tracked down men who served with him for a documentary produced in 2004 about her uncle, which I wrote about. (“One of Their Own: Grateful Dutch Tends N.C. Soldier’s Grave,” April 18, 2004.)
After that, Dutch friends she met through the cemetery would ask her, from time to time, to help them find family members of soldiers buried at Margraten.
Her volunteer work has evolved, and she has spent recent years searching for photos of fallen soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina for an online database (fieldsofhonor- database.com) for Americans who are buried or listed on “walls of the missing” at overseas American war cemeteries.
A spinoff of the Fields of Honor database is the Faces of Margraten project a few years ago in which available photos are placed on the graves every other year. This year is a milestone with the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, and the Fields of Honor Foundation set a goal of collecting photos of 7,500 of the 10,023 Americans either buried at Margraten (8,301) or listed on its Wall of the Missing (1,722).
As of the end of last week, the count stood at 7,326, said Jac Engels, a longtime volunteer and foundation board member. When the first Faces of Margraten was held in 2015, the foundation had only 3,300 photos.
“It is important that we never forget that our freedom was not for free and that many young men and women gave their lives for our freedom and [did] not made it back home,” Engels said in an email.
The photos put faces to the names on the grave markers. As Sebastiaan Vonk, chairman of the foundation, has said, “After all, what is a more powerful way of not forgetting than being able to look at their young faces? To look them in the eyes?”
The photographs will be on display at Margraten between May 2 and 6, coinciding with Remembrance Day, the Dutch version of our Memorial Day that is held every May 4, and Liberation Day on May 5. For a photo to be included in this year’s display, the deadline for submission to the foundation is April 13.
Engels said local researchers stateside, such as Holloman, are doing much of the heavy lifting: searching online databases, public libraries, local newspapers and the like to find photos or to find families of the fallen who might have photos of their loved ones.
Holloman said time is critical because with each passing year, fewer relatives who knew those buried at Margraten are still alive. Many of them were not married, so there are no direct descendants, and nieces and nephews and generations beyond that might “have boxes of family photos and don’t even know who these people are.” They also might not even know the details of their relative’s service in World War II.
The photos are “super important,” Holloman said, as reminders of the sacrifices made and that everyone who was lost had a story of their own and left behind relatives whose lives were changed forever.
Beyond that, when she looks at the individual memorial pages in the Fields of Honor database, she said, “I feel bad when the soldier’s page is empty.”
In her amateur sleuthing trying to find photos, Holloman has come to learn many families are not familiar with the Faces project and some are not even aware of the adoption of graves at the European war cemeteries.
Holloman has compiled a list of 51 Virginians whose photos are still missing from the collection. In recent weeks, the list has shrunk as she found three photos she needed on the Virginia War Memorial site and responses have come in from her letters to families that she tracked down via online searches.
If she had more time or the help of other volunteers, she could delve into records at such places as the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Short of that, she said, “I’m going to keep plugging away.”
“It’s so interesting,” she said of the work, “and it’s so meaningful to people. It’s like, what else do you want to be doing with your spare time?”