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Dutch Put Faces To America's War Dead

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The year 1945 brought Allied forces on a final push into Nazi Germany, but the closing days of World War II came at an incredible cost.

In the Netherlands town of Margraten are the graves of 10,023 American soldiers.

"If the Allies had not invaded Germany, my father would never have been liberated from the labor camps and I would not have been born," Arie Jan Vanhees said.

For 73 years, the Dutch people have been caring for these American graves -- a commitment to caretaking that gets handed down between generations. Grave adopters like Vanhees bring fresh flowers to lay on the graves as they make their frequent visits.

"Every grave and name on the wall of the missing has been adopted. In fact there is a waiting list for people waiting to become adopters," Vanhees said.

Among Margraten's war dead are the graves of 234 Minnesotans.

"You walk around here and see marble graves and wonder, 'Who's buried here?'" Joek Hulsmann said.

Hulsmann works for Medtronic in the Netherlands and has frequently traveled to the company's offices in Minnesota, so it would be no surprise that Hulsmann feels a unique bond with the families of those Minnesota veterans.

When the cemetery began placing photographs of the soldiers next to gravesites during the Netherland Memorial Day in early May, Medtronic and Hulsmann began to work on the project called "Minnesota Faces of Margraten."

Hulsmann now leads the effort that is attempting to locate photographs from family members of all 234 soldiers. For visitors to Margraten, the photographs placed on temporary plaques create a connection that is stronger than stone.

"This man has family. Was he married? What did he do in America? That's when the white marble cross comes to life," Hulsmann said.

The company's deep Minnesota roots are what make the "Faces" project work. Dutch adopters and volunteers working stateside will work to locate a soldier's family or relative. Once they do they explain the project and request the service member's photograph.

"In some cases it was nieces and nephews we were contacting," Tony Glavan, a retired Medtronic employee, said.

Glavan now runs the Minnesota side of the program and is emotionally invested. His uncle Lewis is among the soldiers buried in Margraten.

"When I do get a hold of someone it's exciting and I am thrilled that I've found a relative. But at the same time I know that there's a lot of sadness associated," Glavan said.

But it is a sadness tempered by the feeling of gratitude for total strangers who are caring for their loved ones, and the grateful Dutch citizens who walk about the white marble crosses, giving faces to human sacrifice.

"Generation after generation needs to be remembered of the price of freedom is costly," Hulsmann said. "Freedom is not free; it is paid for with the blood of these people here."

For more information on the "Minnesota Faces of Margraten" or to check the list of 27 Minnesota veterans whose family has not been located, click here.

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