Flemish Children Honor Fallen U.S. Soldiers In Song

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The smallest of the official American war cemeteries, just 368 graves, is Flanders Field in Belgium, made famous by the poem written in 1915. The tiny city closest to the cemetery is Waregem, and every year since 1919 (except for four years during the WWII occupation) Flemish schoolchildren have learned and performed the Star-Spangled Banner in English on Memorial Day weekend. The mayor of the town was himself one of the "singing children of Waregem" as they are called and is said to be very proud of the tradition.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to a resting place for American soldiers far from home. 368 Americans are buried at Flanders Field in northern Belgium. That part of Belgium was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in both World Wars. Reporter Teri Schultz sent us this story about a ceremony that locals have performed since the end of World War I.

(Soundbite of music)

TERI SCHULTZ: Three hundred sixty eight white marble crosses and Stars of David provide illustration for student Shawshank Costarehongin's(ph) recounting of the lines from the 1915 poem by John McCrae that gave this graveyard its name.

Mr. SHAWSHANK COSTAREHONGIN: In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row. That mark our place, and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly. Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Unidentified Man: Shoot.

(Soundbite of gunshot firing)

SCHULTZ: The guns heard in Flanders Fields now are part of a tribute by the tiny city of Waregem that's taken place every peacetime year since the end of World War I. As acting U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Wayne Bush describes this area saw some of the most brutal fighting in wretched conditions faced by the soldiers.

Mr. WAYNE BUSH (U.S. Ambassador to Belgium): Slaughtered in the trenches, drowned in the mud, sliced by barbed wire or suffocated by gas.

SCHULTZ: The starkest possible contrast to what happens here today when under sunny skies on a peaceful green meadow, the children of Waregem show their appreciation for the Americans who fought to free Belgium.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) O say can you see, by the dawn's early light…

SCHULTZ: Every year a chorus of Dutch speaking Waregem schoolchildren has learned "The Star Spangled Banner" in honor of those who never made it out of the Flanders Field. Each carrying a Belgian and an American flag they will place later at grave sites, the singing children of Waregem and other dignitaries are escorted into the ceremony by marching bands and a coterie of Belgian veterans carrying the banners of their former units. The mayor of Waregem, Kurt Vanryckeghem, says this tradition is too important to ever die out in Waregem. He was one of the singing children himself some 30 years ago.

Mayor KURT VANRYCKEGHEM (Waregem, Belgium): Since that time, every year I am here and its always very emotional for me.

Ms. SCHULTZ: It was for American expatriate Ramona Shelby(ph) too.

Ms. RAMONA SHELBY: It was really touching. The Europeans still have great esteem for America and they show it through manifestations like this.

SCHULTZ: Belgians turn out by the thousands for Memorial Day ceremonies at all three U.S. cemeteries here. In a sign of remarkable reconciliation, even German veteran groups have recently been laying wreaths to honor their former enemies. What bothers Jim Begg, president of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association, is how few Americans show up at the ceremonies. He'd like to see Americans show the kind of dedication he finds in the Belgians.

Mr. JIM BEGG (President, American Overseas Memorial Day Association): The villagers come out, these are generations and generations who have come out year after year rain and sun whatever it is, they are there to pay their respects.

SCHULTZ: And Jim Begg says, schoolchildren near the other two American cemeteries in Belgium now are following Waregem's 90-year-lead starting their own traditions of singing "The Star Spangled Banner" to their American heroes.

Unidentified Group: O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(Soundbite of applause)

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Flanders Field Cemetery, Belgium.

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