COLUMBIA — In the southern Netherlands village of Margraten, there is a sea of simple white headstones carved mainly with the names, ranks and dates of death for 10,000 American service members who were killed in Europe in World War II.
But the Dutch crave more to memorialize those soldiers — including hundreds of South Carolinians — they still revere as liberators.
That has led to a partnership between the S.C. State Library and Netherlands-based Fields of Honor Foundation, a European nonprofit that has worked for just under a decade to add photographs and memories to those headstones. Following a year of success, the South Carolina State Library now plans to duplicate those efforts at libraries across the country.
With the demise of aging soldiers and their families — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in 2020 fewer than 325,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive — the war is fading fast into more of a distant memory, something talked about in history books rather than lived.
Various national organizations scramble to record oral histories and preserve letters. But the Fields of Honor Foundation seeks to provide a more personal connection for the families in the Netherlands eager to care for the graves.
The partnership with the Palmetto State started with a call from Europe, an oddity for the State Library usually charged with conducting research for state lawmakers and agencies.
By fate, reference librarian Hannah Majewski picked up.
Stefan Warnier, whose family had volunteered to look after the grave of Pfc. James Wise, was seeking a photo of the soldier from Lake View in rural Dillon County. They had a copy of his personnel file and a picture from the newspaper obituary.
But the picture was shadowy, and as they considered the man a member of their own family they wanted a better one to keep in their home.
"It's woven so tightly into who they are — the people of Holland — even many generations later," said Leesa Aiken, the State Library's director.
Majewski wasn't able to locate any of Warnier's relatives. But she found purpose in the work that stirred memories of her own father.
Both Majewski’s father and uncles were veterans of World War II. A corporal, drafted at age 18, her dad was captured two times and shot twice.
“Listening to what these men endured, I’d sit there and think, ‘How in the world?’” she said.
As a girl, Majewski was always expected to finish her meal. She’d find out why later, listening to her father talk about eating soup filled with worms in a prisoner of war camp.
“They were kids, some barely out of grammar school,” she said. “Many came out of the cornfield and onto the battlefield.”
Majewski's father died 10 years ago, but she still has his memoirs. And she feels lucky. She has stories of her own father to share, which has motivated her to seek that for others.
After that first phone call, the State Library was contacted by organizers of a Netherlands-run photo memorial project.
Sebastiaan Vonk, chairman of the Fields of Honor Foundation, had been collecting soldiers' photos and records in an online database for a couple of years when he decided he should bring those photos to a place of honor, framing them beside the headstones, starting in 2014, in the Netherlands American Cemetery in the town of Margraten, nestled near the borders of Belgium and Germany.
The Faces of Margraten program was born.
The program started with photos for 1,989 soldiers buried in Margraten. To date, it has received 8,100 with some 1,900 left, Vonk said.
Vonk enlisted Majewski's help to find South Carolinians. In her initial search, she located photos of 14 out of 33 South Carolina soldiers buried without pictures at the Margraten cemetery, including Clarence Cox, whose family members she reached through the Abbeville genealogical society.
Ronnie and Mary Cox were shocked to get her call last June about his uncle Clarence.
“It has been a long time without anyone knowing there was a place of memory for Clarence,” they wrote in a thank-you card adorned with yellow daffodils that hangs on the wall of Majewski's cubicle. “We appreciate what you are doing.”
Clarence Cox's body was never found after the sergeant tail gunner died in an air bombing mission near Weimar, Germany, but he's memorialized in the cemetery on a wall for the missing. That wall now features a black-and-white headshot provided by the Cox family of the Calhoun Falls soldier, lips curled into a tight grin.
As the list of unpictured soldiers dwindles, Vonk said he and his coworkers know photos will be harder to find.
For some, there is simply no photo left or none was ever taken, such as for Willy James Jr., of Kansas City, Mo. He was one of the first Black men to be awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, by former President Bill Clinton. His widow had moved and photos had been lost. Only a drawing she commissioned based on her memories remains.
“But we’ve been able to get so much more than we ever thought,” Vonk said. "But we can only do so much here from Europe.”
They started sending letters to local newspapers in search of obituary photos, with some luck.
In a handful of states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, North Dakota — they’ve found volunteers, people like Majewski, who take it upon themselves to find the soldiers in their home states. In addition to Margraten’s cemetery, the foundation is repeating its efforts in five other cemeteries, accounting for a total of some 40,000 American soldiers buried overseas.
“Sometimes you just need one person,” Vonk said.
Aiken said the State Library won't stop until researchers find photos for all the soldiers from South Carolina.
"They’re someone's brother, son, husband, father, who gave the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "We have to treat them with the reverence they deserve."
"It's almost like work that’s been left undone," Aiken added.
Aiken is trying to organize heads of other state libraries, acting as a bridge for the project to other states in an effort to create a network for sharing information. And for those libraries without the resources, she's offering up those of her own agency.
If she succeeds, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, of which Aiken is a member, will be the first nationwide organization assisting the foundation in its search for faces, Vonk said.
Meanwhile, he's provided Majewski with names for another 111 South Carolina soldiers without pictures in the other cemeteries.
Like Francis Farrell, a University of Notre Dame student who, for some unknown reason, came to South Carolina to enlist. He had wanted to become a history professor like his father. Majewski had hoped the alumni association might supply a photo.
She's also excited when her letters open up conversations within families about their relatives, like the descendants of Allan Dozier, an Army private from Manning.
"This is amazing," Patrick Dozier, a former naval commander now living in Maryland, wrote when Majewski contacted him about Allan Dozier. "I will look to see if I can find a photo of Great Uncle Allan."
Dozier thinks his great uncle might be part of a photo of the seven brothers in the family and agreed to contact his late great aunt's children to see if a picture of Allan Dozier had been kept with her things.
And John Morrison told Majewski how excited his mother was to help find photos of Layton Garner, an Army private from Kelton in Union County.
In the picture they provided, Garner, dressed in a plaid dress shirt, peers at the camera through thick round glasses. There's a letter, too, from his wife Cathleen.
"Your sugar when you want it, kiss this spot," it reads next to a lipstick print of her lips, signed "to the one I will always love, all my love, all my life."
Majewski enjoys the stories the families share so much it makes it hard to leave at 5 p.m., like the day when the nephew of Lt. Thomas Yarborough, a Jenkinsville soldier, came in and they talked for nearly an hour.
Named after his uncle, Tom Yarborough told her his grandmother had died in 1963, but one of the things she left him was her Bible. Inside she had tucked the notice for his uncle’s memorial service.
He was killed April 23 by a sniper. Germany surrendered May 7.
"If he had made it 15 more days, I might have had the opportunity to speak with him," he said.
Even still, his uncle, who fought on D-Day and received both a Silver and Bronze Star medals for heroic achievements, had a large impact on his life.
An Army Reserve colonel himself, his unit was mobilized and sent to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. He shared a letter his own father wrote him while he was deployed.
"I can understand a lot better now how my parents felt when their three sons went off to war in World War II," Hall Yarborough wrote, telling his son how he learned of his brother's death upon landing his transport plane in San Francisco.
"A tombstone is a pretty inanimate object," Yarborough said. "It doesn't tell you a lot. A project like this gets more material out. It doesn't do much good in somebody's attic."
Do you have a photo or information about a South Carolina World War II soldier who died and was buried abroad you would like to share? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and include “Margraten” in the subject line.