Memorial Day Speech at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery

Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Memorial Day, May 25, 2019

Ambassador Ronald Gidwitz
Memorial Day
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery

May 25, 2019

Thank you for the introduction, Mr. Sheridan. I’m honored to be with you today for my first Memorial Day as the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium. I’ve been privileged to serve my country as Ambassador for close to a year now. Last week, I was on a hillside in Wereth to remember 11 selfless African-American soldiers massacred during the Battle of the Bulge. Their story would be lost to us if not for the efforts of the Langer family, brave Belgians who gave the men shelter before they surrendered to Nazi forces. These events matter to me. They matter to the U.S. government. They matter to everyday Americans and Belgians.

This year is especially poignant, as we mark 75 years since the June 1944 Normandy invasion, September’s Market Garden airborne offensive, and, in December, the courageous stand made by American soldiers to turn back Hitler’s last offensive. Our modern-day relationship with Belgium was built on the individual sacrifices of the soldiers who lie at Henri-Chapelle.

As we work with Belgium to defend Europe’s eastern borders, or counter cyber threats that jeopardize peaceful democratic norms, the sacrifices of the soldiers around us remain the beating heart of today’s transatlantic alliance.

There are countless tales of heroism among these graves. One of these heroes is from my home state of Illinois. Technical Sergeant “Sandy” Sanchez was a gunner of a B-17 bomber that crashed during a raid into Germany. The rest of the crew bailed out and became POWs, but Sandy didn’t survive; his remains were never recovered. You can find his name on the Tablets of the Missing. He is also remembered at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois. Sandy flew 44 missions before being sent home to become an instructor for other aerial gunners. But, he volunteered to return to the war. At the time of his death, he had flown an astounding 66 missions. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, the Soldier’s Medal, and an Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters for his dedication. His fellow airmen
named a B-17 “Smilin’ Sandy Sanchez” in his honor. This is the only known B-17 to be named after an enlisted man.

Sandy’s story is one of more than 8,000 that could be told about the war dead and missing in action memorialized at Henri-Chapelle. Together with ceremonies at the Ardennes and Flanders Fields American Cemeteries and Memorials, we share this weekend of remembrance with 151 U.S. national cemeteries around the world. On Memorial Day, friends, families, and volunteers visit these cemeteries to place flags and keep the memory of our fallen heroes alive. From America’s Revolutionary War through today’s battlefields, as the President stated in his May 25, 2018 Memorial Day proclamation: “We remain duty-bound to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf and to remember them with thankfulness and unwavering pride.”

Since the end of World War II, we’ve worked together to counter the greatest threats facing each successive generation of Americans and Belgians. The Marshall Plan infused the modern equivalent of $100 billion, with no strings attached, into Western European economies to ensure that the people of this region could rebound from the violence and destruction.

Belgium would later become an original founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Belgian troops would fight alongside American and other soldiers on the Korean Peninsula. Our shared investment in defense capabilities halted and ultimately reversed the spread of Soviet communism, protecting democracies in Europe and around the world and helped create the conditions necessary for the emergence of the European Union and other multilateral institutions that would preserve the peace and promote prosperity.

Today, in an era of great power competition, we face global threats that require our continued collaboration:

  • Renewed Russian aggression, seizing territory in a clear breach of international norms and conventions, and its use of disinformation to sow discord, meddle in elections, and attempt to fracture our democracies;
  • Violent extremists who resort to terrorism as a means to pursue corrosive ideologies and instill fear
  • Malign activities and dangerous nuclear ambitions on the part of those who would do us harm, including Iran and North Korea; and
  • An assertive China that seeks military and economic advantage by flouting established international norms and principles.

These threats call on us to demonstrate that same great resolve. In this regard, the United States is committed to using diplomacy, development, and defense to protect our national security interests. Belgium, as an equal partner and ally in our collective security, must share the burden by fulfilling its commitment to help us prevent and deter all threats to our community of democracies.

Peace is only at risk when individual citizens lose sight of the intrinsic link between freedom and duty. Our brave soldiers interred at Henri-Chapelle understood that connection, and paid the ultimate price for it. For them, we renew our commitment to remain duty-bound, and work towards a Europe and a United States that remains free and at peace for decades to come.

Thank you