Embracing remembrance
John Sterkendries during a visit to Gen. Smedley D. Butler Post 701 in White Oak, Pa. (Photos via John Sterkendries)

Embracing remembrance

Belgium was the site of fierce fighting during the two world wars. Remembrance of the conflicts and those who died in them remains a priority for today’s Belgians. One of these is John Sterkendries, a longtime motorcycle rider who has embarked on a multi-leg trip around the border of the United States with a goal of raising awareness of the sacrifices of the past while seeing American sites of remembrance.

Sterkendries’ father, Andre, and his own father engaged in a form of resistance during World War II – both worked at a railyard, and they and others would take advantage of “excessive” steam released by machinists to smuggle food off German wagons, distributing it among families in need. Says John, “If they were ever caught doing this, they would be executed by firing squad.” His father later spent time in Germany with Canadian occupying forces. 

When Andre Sterkendries returned to Belgium, he opened a body shop where John spent a lot of time growing up. All kinds of vehicles fascinated him, but especially motorcycles: “From the moment I could reach the pedals I was already riding old motorcycles behind our company,” John remembers. He has bought, restored and traversed Europe on the bikes for years.

In 2017 John’s daughter, Axelle, moved to Pittsburgh to attend college. He began visiting the United States frequently, and decided to see it in his favorite way: by motorcycle. He purchased a bike in Virginia in 2019 and took it back to Pittsburgh for a test run. The Doughboy Foundation’s website hosts Sterkendries’ “Journey Log”; he says there of riding through Glassport, Pa., “I was astounded by the fact that every lamppost had a picture of a U.S. soldier attached to it. This kind of veteran pride is something that is unheard of in Belgium.”

Of course, all nations have their own ways of remembering the past. A World War I anniversary exhibition called "Coming World Remember Me" in Ypres, Belgium, featured 600,000 small clay statues, each meant to represent a Belgian life lost during the war. After the exhibition closed, the public was invited to take the statues. John Sterkendries obtained a few, with explanatory leaflets, and the second part of a plan he had formulated fell into place.

Sterkendries decided to ride his motorcycle around the border of the continental United States – a trip he measures at 25,000 kilometers, or a little more than 15,500 miles – visiting U.S. war memorials (especially those of World War I) and seeking opportunities to donate his Ypres statues. Since then he has gone, in pieces, as far as Houston, with the occasional side trip. His daughter helped him develop a website for his travels, where he tells of his numerous encounters with the memorials – and the public, with whom he has swapped stories of history and service. Some of those meetings have taken place at American Legion posts, as far back as his Glassport stop. As he tells it on his website:

“After a short visit to [a Glassport veteran] memorial, I walked back to my motorcycle, passing a building with the name ‘American Legion’ on it. Not knowing much about this topic, I asked an older gentleman who was sitting outside what the phrase meant exactly. He explained to me what American Legion does for the veterans. I told him that my family had also quite a few stories about the two world wars. After we talked a bit more, I said goodbye to the man and proceeded to walk back to my motorcycle when he called me back. He told me that there were a few people that would like to talk to me and invited me to follow him. Walking behind him through a small party and past a disco bar, we stopped at a door which led to a room/bar with quite a few older gentlemen sitting around. The man that I met outside introduced me to all of them; many of them were veterans. I spent the entire afternoon talking and listening to their stories. At one moment, one of the men walked up to me and handed me a flag. I recognized it to be the flag that was attached to a large cross near the monument. He proceeded to tell me that each flag at the cross represents a victim one of the many wars. I was allowed to receive this flag, which represented one of his family members. Shortly after, a second man proceeded to do the same. I was deeply moved by this gesture. These flags now have a special place at my home in Belgium.”

The donations of statues were hampered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sterkendries has donated a few, and is determined to obtain and donate more. He is asking the public for information on places where he can do so; his email address is john@sterkendries.cc