Lest we forget

Eighty years ago, inspired by Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing and supported by The American Legion, the American Overseas Memorial Day Association was founded according to a mission expressed to this day on its Web site: "... to remember and honor the memory of those who gave their lives in World Wars I and II, and whose final resting places are in American Military Cemeteries or in isolated graves in local cemeteries in Europe."

The association has since worked closely with the American Battle Monuments Commission - established three years after the AOMDA - to coordinate Memorial Day ceremonies at foreign cemeteries and isolated graves where U.S. war dead are laid to rest. Throughout Memorial Day weekend every year, in locations ranging from The American Legion Mausoleum near Paris to Tunisia, association members are arranging wreath-laying ceremonies, speeches, meals, toasts and other observances to honor U.S. troops who fell fighting as many as nine decades ago. (Click here for a schedule of 2010 events.)

The American Legion provides financial support for the association's Memorial Day activities, most of which occur at American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries where nearly 125,000 are buried in 24 cemeteries and nearly 95,000 more are remembered as missing in action. The Legion's Overseas Graves Decoration Trust Fund pays for all U.S. flags placed at the individual gravesites. This year, approximately 20,000 new flags were provided by the Legion. Legionnaires in Europe, members of AOMDA, ABMC cemetery employees and, often, local townspeople make sure the flags are properly displayed in time for Memorial Day each year.

Ray Shearer of Indianapolis, a member of the AOMDA board of trustees, has spent several years traveling through Europe to identify, photograph and map hard-to-find isolated gravesites and monuments honoring U.S. military personnel killed in Europe. Shearer has tromped through cow pastures, explored caves and met with farmers and homeowners who have markers on their properties.

He has located dozens of isolated burial sites and other unique monuments to American heroism in the European theater. "Every once in a while, we find a site we didn't know about," he explained. As might be expected, some isolated burial sites and monuments have fallen into disrepair over the years. Shearer keeps a photo journal of those markers, including graffiti etched in stone by World War I soldiers hiding in a cave in France. His work is indexed according to three primary groups: established cemeteries, memorial sites and isolated graves. Among the isolated graves are the rare occurrences of U.S. soldiers buried in French or British cemeteries. More often, the grave of a lone soldier can be found in someone's farm field or near a home.

The AOMDA coordinates with local officials to decorate 183 different isolated graves in 123 locations in France alone. American graves in Denmark and Norway are decorated by U.S. embassies there. An American Legion post places flags on the 12 U.S. graves in Sweden. Local Legion posts also place flags at U.S. graves in Germany.

The AOMDA is a membership-based organization that relies on dues and donations to fulfill its mission. The American Legion National Headquarters, along with other veterans groups, businesses, individuals and civic organizations help, but, as the association Web site states: "With the passing of time, expenses increase while revenue decreases as people disappear or forget ... New sources of funding must be found if AOMDA is to continue its efforts on behalf of those who gave all that they had to give."
Annual dues are $50. Lifetime dues are $500. Membership applications can be found at the association Web site.

Also, for videos describing ABMC cemeteries, visit here.