"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information." - Edward Murrow
The day is quiet. The distant rustle of a flag can be heard above, birds chirping. The warm light beams down, causing the dew covered tombstones to sparkle in the sun. Their white-marbled outlines cast a gray darkness over the swaying blades of green grass. The Angel of Peace watches over the cross-shaped shadows, holding a laurel of victory. Even though the men who lay below this hallowed ground never witnessed serenity, they presented the world with honorable deeds and undying sacrifices which should be remembered by all.
The Second World War was perhaps the most notable historic event of the 20th century from several perspectives. Almost 420,000 Americans lost their lives during the conflict. It affected places, people, and our world as it is today. Fathers, sons, and brothers were lost. Households shattered. Some families felt it fitting and appropriate that their deceased loved ones stay overseas to be buried with their fellow, fallen brothers. Today, there are 14 American cemeteries located in Europe and Asia, dedicated to the men and women who perished.
One such shrine is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium. This 57-acre resting place holds almost 8,000 soldiers, 600 of them unknown. Thousands of people visit Henri-Chapelle each year. Most seek comfort and closure on this emotional pilgrimage. Some are Americans, walking in the footsteps of a family member or friend. Others enter to pay tribute, honoring those who helped liberate Europe from its tyrannical dictatorship. Hans and Marloes Jaket, a couple from the Netherlands, had visited the cemetery several times. "We always laid flowers when we went. Sometimes we placed them near the flag or at the grave of an unknown soldier as a way to honor all of them," Marloes said.
When the Jakets heard of Henri-Chapelle's grave adoption program, they were eager to participate. Hans and Marloes eventually contacted the American Overseas Memorial Day Association and after some time on a waiting list, finally received a name. Not long after, they traveled to Henri-Chapelle to visit the infantryman who lay beneath their assigned tombstone.
The name King E. Bailey was etched into the smooth marble. According to the grave marker, this Pennsylvanian served with the 4th Infantry Division and was ultimately killed in action on November 18, 1944. Eerily enough, this was the same date Marloes' brother was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1996. As a result, Marloes feels an extra special connection to King. "I was so shocked. King was instantly close to our hearts," Marloes declared.
The Jakets are fascinated with World War II. Hans goes to Bastogne every December to observe the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. He joins history tours, visits museums and meets with veterans. The couple also participates in World War II reenacting. Even though it is less common in the Netherlands than in the U.S., Marloes believes that everyone can learn from history hands-on.
"Some people only read books, others collect things. We visited graves a long time before we got into reenacting," Marloes said. "But when you explain to people what reenacting is, they are excited and have respect for it. It is so important to tell everyone, old and young, that the war was terrible. It should never happen again."
In a quest to learn more about their adopted veteran, Marloes sought for reenacting groups who portrayed the same regiment and division as King. The Furious Fourth World War II Living History Group appeared in her search. Based in Altoona, the group interprets the lives and struggles of the average foot soldier of the 4th Infantry Division. The organization participates in living history encampments, school talks, formal lectures, and reenactments.
Marloes eventually contacted the Furious Fourth via Facebook to see if she could find out more information about King. Where exactly was he from? Where was he killed? And how did he meet his end? The group's event coordinator, Jared Frederick, also a Penn State Altoona History instructor, responded to her inquiry. What he discovered shocked everyone, including himself.
"One out of every twelve people who served in uniform during World War II was from Pennsylvania, but the fact that King Bailey was born in Altoona and raised in Claysburg, I found to be surreal. I almost fell out of my chair. It was like it was meant to be," Frederick exclaimed. King was from Jared's own hometown!
Frederick found a wide-variety of newspaper clippings and documents, ultimately finding the missing pieces to the puzzle. It gave his caretakers an insightful understanding of who the man really was. Frederick shared what he discovered.
King E. Bailey was born August 31, 1916 in Altoona. Along with his parents, Fred and Elise, he and his siblings lived in Claysburg. King graduated from Claysburg High School in 1935. He later worked as a brick and stone mason at the General Refractories Plant in Claysburg.
In December 1941, the Japanese military struck a surprising blow against the United States' airbase at Pearl Harbor. King, along with almost 9,000 other Blair Countians, felt the patriotic urge to join. He enlisted in the Army on March 3, 1942. After completing some rigorous training at several military bases, King eventually was shipped overseas in December 1943.
On the early morning of June 6, 1944, Allied ships floated in the English Channel, waiting for the rainy weather to clear before beginning their crusade of liberation. The great task soon began as soldiers stormed the soggy beaches of Normandy.
King landed on Utah Beach with the 8th Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division. As they pushed through the hedgerow country behind the beachhead, the unit found themselves in close-quarter combat. It was while in this rough terrain that King was wounded on June 22nd. He was evacuated back to England to recover and would return to the battlefield in early September.
Frederick found all of this and more while researching King. However, this gold mine of historical detail did not end here; it offered an additional surprise. He soon discovered that King Bailey had a nephew of the same name who still lives in the Claysburg area. The namesake, who was born in 1947, was eager to learn more about the uncle whom he had never met. "My father always said that he and I were alike in many ways. I was told that he was a gentleman, athletic, a real-sportsman, and very well-liked at school," Mr. Bailey reflected.
Frederick explained to Mr. Bailey how his uncle probably died. "King died in combat while the 4th Infantry Division was in the thickly wooded Hürtgen Forest in November 1944. Known as 'the death factory' by those who fought in it, there was a high probability you wouldn't come out unscathed if you went in," Frederick revealed. Such was the case with King Bailey, who was possibly killed by mortar or small arms fire as his men attempted to push through German barbed wire.
Mr. Bailey was astonished that someone adopted his uncle's grave. "I'm very appreciative and amazed that the people over there care. It is great that they [the Jakets] can honor and, in a way, repay the wonderful deeds of those G.I.s who gave so much. I'm happy that I'm lucky enough to have such kind people doing that for us," Mr. Bailey expressed appreciatively.
Now, the Bailey family has become motivated to dig deeper into their family history. "This discovery has started a whole new interest in him and has revived the past for some of my relatives. I have learned a great deal myself," Mr. Bailey acknowledged. Just recently, one of his cousins, who was quite young at the time, told him that she corresponded with King while he was overseas and is planning on sharing those letters with him.
Frederick believes that anyone can learn from individual stories like this. "It allows us to relate to the past easier," he commented. "We can place ourselves in the shoes of the men and women who attended the same schools, worked the same fields, and lived in the same houses as us."
However, even though the individual story is meaningful, Mr. Bailey, too, believes the broader scope is as equally significant. "It is important for people to realize that he was just one soldier that had his life interrupted by this horrible war. Some came back, but sadly he didn't," he noted. "Hitler and Mussolini looked down on people and believed themselves better. I'm proud that my uncle was one person who tried to stop them from stepping on others."
The Jakets will always be eternally appreciative of the sacrifices made for them and even though the fallen liberators of Henri-Chapelle are far from home, family is never too far away. "We have to respect and honor those from a distant country who gave their lives for freedom in Europe. They are buried far away from family and friends, but side by side with their buddies," Marloes observed. "Their families can't take care of them, so we will do it for them. We mustn't forget."