MEMPHIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Memphis, Tenn. (Aug. 8, 2018) -- There can be both positive and negative out comes of war, but it is not very often that citizens of other nations have the opportunity to hear how the sacrifice of another nation’s military changed their life for the better. Unlike most, Col. John Kelly, former vice wing commander of the 164th Airlift Wing in Memphis, Tenn., had the opportunity to hear how the U.S. military changed the lives of two Dutch citizens.
“No one else in my family, other than my grandfather, has ever served,” said Kelly.
Kelly was speaking of his grandfather, United States Army Sergeant Earl Jenkins, who was killed in action in Germany in Nov. 1944. “My mom was two when he was killed in action. When I joined the military, I was only 17, so I didn’t know his story.”
The sacrifice that Kelly’s grandfather made had a great influence on the quality of life many citizens of Holland share today.
“It was the end of 1944, early 1945, in World War 2. The south of Holland was already liberated, and then there was that action, the Battle of the Bulge,” said Bert Eggen, a Dutch citizen.
The U.S. suffered tens of thousands of casualties during 1944 and 1945. Because U.S. soldiers could not be buried on enemy soil and the U.S. was unable to ship all of the fallen back home, the U.S. had to find a final resting place for the fallen.
“It had to be Holland, the part that was liberated,” said Bert. “They found a small city in the south called Margraten; and in the beginning, they buried over 8,000 bodies.”
The final resting spot for those fallen heroes was the Netherlands American Cemetery, which is a 65.5 acre cemetery located in the small city of Margraten. In order to show gratitude and maintain those sacred grounds, the Dutch people began adopting sites of the fallen in 1945 and have continued maintain the graves since that day.
“They wanted the graves maintained,” said Bert. “The Dutch government asked people in the south ‘do you want to adopt a grave?’ It was huge, all these people wanted to adopt a grave, and there was my father, May of ‘46, he adopted a grave.”
That grave that Bert’s father adopted, was the grave of Sgt. Jenkins, Kelly’s grandfather.
“He went to the grave every week on his bike to put flowers on the grave and do some praying,” said Bert.
Bert’s father followed this routine for several years until the American government reached out to the families of the fallen to see if they wanted their loved one’s remains returned to the states to be re-buried. Kelly’s family decided that they wanted to have Jenkins’ body returned to Mississippi.
“That was the end of the story until about 16 years ago, we adopted a grave,” said Bert.
Bert and his wife Thea decided to search a see if their soldier had any family. During their search, it was discovered that their soldier was from Mississippi; however, he was an only child without any living relatives. But during their search to find information about their soldier, they came across the adoption paperwork of Jenkins’ grave that Bert’s father had adopted in 1946.
“We found the original adoption form that my father had in ‘46,” said Bert.
After finding that paperwork, Bert decided to write a letter to a newspaper in Mississippi to see if there were people still living that may have known Jenkins’.
“There was a response from a nephew,” said Bert. “He wrote to us saying that ‘we know him, and there was a daughter, brother and sister living of Earl Jenkins.”
Over the course of 12 years Bert and Thea remained in contact with the family of Jenkins.
“It must have been 12 years ago, they said ‘come over and meet us’,” said Bert.
When Bert and Thea came to Mississippi for the first time, they received a welcome that was not expected.
“I thought that one, two or three people would be there, but there were 30,” said Bert. “It was a little meeting.”
Ever since their first initial meeting, Bert and Thea have visited the Jenkins’ family every year.
“Their mother said that I was her lost brother,” said Bert.
The sacrifices made by service members are not only appreciated by their nation’s people but also by the nations they protect.
“We heard the stories of our parents,” said Bert. “You have to be respectful and you have to be thankful. The American’s came and liberated us.”
There is currently a waiting list for people who would like to adopt a grave. Some may wait as long as two or three years before they have the opportunity.
“I think that it’s really special that there’s a waiting list for families to take care of the graves,” said Kelly. “I think it is important to tell this story because the people here, at this base, don’t really get to see what we are doing here every day, affects things around the globe.”