Kees's story

The Crosses in the Cemetery

Photograph of young Kees One beautiful September day in 1944, the overhead rumble of planes was so deafening that the daily flights of the Allied bombers seemed a simple buzzing noise in comparison. That afternoon, plane after plane flew by very low to the ground.

These weren't the usual bombers, but big planes towing motorless square gliders, brushing the tops of the trees as they flew past. We could even see the pilots and wave to the crew. It was absolutely incredible and terribly exciting.

The German anti-aircraft defence guns rattled endlessly, but the procession stayed on its course towards an unknown destination. We became convinced that they were coming to liberate us that very day. After several hours of racket and cheering as hundreds of planes flew by, all was quiet again. But we were worried. Mostly, we were disappointed. Not a single American or Canadian was in sight.

The Germans were nervous, but they were still lords and masters. Neighbours reported that one of the gliders had been shot down and crashed near the village, killing American soldiers in the accident. We were aghast.

Early the next day, I went to Sint-Peters-Banden church, where I sang in the choir. There was blood on the church steps, and the wrought-iron gates to the cemetery were open. German soldiers were busy with wheelbarrows on which they had placed long, blood-stained, brown paper bags. I understood that bodies had been placed in these bags for burial.

The soldiers were tossing the bags into a row of graves they had dug near the cemetery gates. What had happened? Who were the dead? Were they Germans, or were they the Allies who had died in yesterday's plane crash? I had no answers for the moment. First, I had to serve mass. But as soon as mass was over, I dashed to the cemetery.

The Germans were gone, but the gates were still open and a crowd of curious onlookers was examining the freshly-dug graves. I drew closer. Much to my surprise, there were five wooden crosses with khaki-coloured military helmets perched atop them. Most of these helmets were damaged or crushed. And they weren't German helmets either. What a distressing sight!

Maybe the dead were the people we waved to yesterday. Now they were buried in our cemetery, next to a row of German graves marked with similar crosses without helmets. I grew heavy hearted as I took it all in. I hadn't yet really seen death, but I'd found its sad monument.

Kees Vanderheyden
Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Canada
12th March, 1997

Kees has written other stories about his childhood:

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