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Sebastiaan Vonk is a 31-year-old Dutch citizen behind Faces of Margraten. It’s an initiative to track down pictures of the more than 10,000 American soldiers buried or memorialized at the Netherlands American Cemetery. 

Vonk has help from volunteers as he digs through newspaper archives and libraries. He researches genealogical sites and contacts families. He does this to put faces to the names of fallen American soldiers. 

The cemetery is in the village of Margraten, Netherlands. Thousands of headstones honor Americans who served in World War II. Vonk is a Dutch historian. He has undertaken this project to provide a deeper understanding of every veteran. He wanted to offer more than the names and ages of the soldiers. 

“My relatives and ancestors suffered a lot during World War II and they were so grateful for their liberation. The next generations are also very grateful that these men and women came over to fight here in a war that wasn’t necessarily a war they had to fight.”  He is the Dutch chair of Fields of Honor.

As of 2020, Vonk and the team had recovered photos of around 7,500 people, per the Associated Press. And with every picture comes so much more, as former U.S. Ambassador Peter Hoekstra said: “What Sebastian does by putting a face with every grave, it’s also that every face, every individual, will never be forgotten.”

He founded Faces of Margraten to connect the people in the Netherlands today with Americans who fought and died in the effort to liberate their country (and all of Europe) from Hitler in WWII. 

Margraten is a small community. This is an international effort. Dutch families have “adopted” all 10,000 American soldiers and there is a waiting list of people who want to adopt. 

Now Vonk is leading an effort to expand the project to five other American battlefield cemeteries in Europe. The goal is to pair each American war hero’s name and face with a photograph. 

The photographs – the Faces of Margraten – are placed next to their adopted soldier’s grave or name for five days each year. The Dutch honor their memories all year long. 

The Netherlands was conquered in 1940 and occupied until the end of World War II in 1945. 

The Dutch adoption families research their American soldier’s history. They often connect with and even visit their families in the United States, and tend to their grave at Margraten.

Vonk himself adopted Lawrence F. Shea, who was born in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 12, 1923. 

Shea is among the 250 GIs who appear in the coffee-table book “The Faces of Margraten,” written by Vonk, with Arie-Jan van Hees and Jori Videc, published in English for the first time in Nov. 2022, and available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

The other cemeteries that the project is expanding to include The Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, both in Belgium; the Epinal American Cemetery and Lorraine American Cemetery both in France; and the Luxembourg American Cemetery in Luxembourg.  

Many of the American heroes in those cemeteries have already been adopted by local individuals or families. 

This story warms my heart. It’s good to read a story about grateful Europeans and the respect they have for the American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their liberation. 

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