Dutchman’s 14-Year Journey Brings WWII Soldier Back to Life

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Eight-thousand three-hundred and one – that’s the number of U.S. World War II soldiers buried at the American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands. It’s also the number of graves that have been adopted there.

Maarten Vossen places flowers at the grave of his adopted soldier, U.S. Army Pfc. James Wickline, at Margraten American Cemetery in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Veterans Memorial

Maarten Vossen places flowers at the grave of his adopted soldier, U.S. Army Pfc. James Wickline, at Margraten American Cemetery in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Veterans Memorial

If you didn’t know you could adopt a soldier’s grave, you can. More than 400,000 U.S. service members died during World War II – too many to bring home, unfortunately – so several American cemeteries were built around the world to mark the final resting places of more than 172,000 of them. Just as at Margraten, most, if not all of the graves and names of those still missing in action, have been adopted.

One of those graves belongs to U.S. Army Pfc. James Wickline. His life and time in war were short, but thanks to one young Dutchman’s interest in preserving history, he’s been brought back to life.

“If I didn’t start this in 2002, James Wickline would have been forgotten,” Maarten Vossen said when I interviewed him at the Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C. We were there for a screening of the new documentary, “Ageless Friends,” which is about his epic 14-year journey of discovery.

“Ageless Friends” trailer. Click “CC” for English subtitles during Dutch portions.

Vossen was only 13 in 2002, but his interest in World War II was strong.

“My grandma told me stories about the resistance [to the Nazis], about the Americans that she met, about the chocolates that they got – things like that,’” Vossen said. “Then I heard you could adopt a grave at the U.S. military cemetery in Margraten, so I did.”

He was randomly assigned Wickline, so he started digging into U.S. and Dutch records to find out what happened to him. Sadly, Vossen discovered that Wickline’s time in battle ended before it had even begun; the 21-year-old paratrooper died Sept. 17, 1944, when his parachute failed to open in Operation Market Garden. He had only been deployed in Europe for about a month.

Video still courtesy of Marijn Poels Films

Video still courtesy of Marijn Poels Films

Vossen felt the need to explore more, though. What was this young American like before war? What were his interests? So he reached out to Wickline’s remaining family, friends and acquaintances in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. Vossen got very few pings at first – only one response for 100 emails sent – so he went to the town in 2012 to expand his search.

“I just went to separate households, ringing bells, explaining to them my story,” Vossen said – a tactic that brought him great success. “I was able to recreate James’ whole life – when he was born, when he was little, just before he entered the war, what happened then, during the war … and even after the war – how his parents lived through losing their only child.”

Photo courtesy of West Virginia Veterans Memorial

Army Pfc. James Wickline. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Veterans Memorial

It only took him 14 years.

“I never thought I’d ever be able to get this far, and I’m relieved,” he said. “It feels really good that the questions I had in 2002, I don’t have them anymore.”

Taking On a Life of Its Own

Articles written about Vossen’s journey led him to Dutch filmmaker Marijn Poels, who – despite not being a fan of war – decided to take on the quest with Vossen.

“Maarten was talking about his grave, his soldier, as if he lost his brother or family. That was a very beautiful thing for me as a filmmaker to understand – that someone can have affection for a person from a completely different time,” Poels said.

Their adventure also got the attention of West Virginia’s Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom, who helped Vossen in his ultimate goal of giving back – renaming a bridge in Wickline’s honor, right near where the soldier grew up. Vossen said the bridge and the documentary are new and creative ways to narrow the gap between younger and older generations.

“I do see a lot of people my age and younger who are really enthusiastic about [World War II history] and want to learn even more about it. I think that’s a really good thing,” Vossen said. “I hope that ‘Ageless Friends’ is just one road … when it comes to honoring the fallen and remembering our freedom. We shouldn’t forget their sacrifices.”

Video still courtesy of Marijn Poels Films

Video still courtesy of Marijn Poels Films

Wickline’s story isn’t one that would make a movie’s plot line. It was just a tragic consequence of war, like so many others who died during that time. But for many Europeans who lived through Nazi occupation, it’s extremely important to show gratitude to all of them.

”All Americans over there – they were all heroes. They all had courage to go to battle, even though they were very young,” Vossen said.

You can see “Ageless Friends” at film festivals and, if you happen to live in Morgantown, West Virginia, it’ll be released at the MET Theater on June 18. The official trailer for the film is posted above.

And I have to admit, I’ve written this story before. My great uncle died in World War II, and his grave at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery was adopted by a fantastic young Belgian man, Lander Allaert. So I know firsthand the sense of gratitude that comes from knowing that a stranger can care so much about someone they never knew.

We need more of these young people. But judging by the fact that there’s a waiting list to adopt a grave at Margraten, I think the younger generation is doing a good job of remembering.

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