Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 26, 2019

This beautiful place

Before retiring this past February, friend Sherri began a “bucket list”:

... It’s quite long, but the most important item on my list was to visit my dad’s brother, Floyd’s, grave in the Ardennes American Cemetery near Neupré, Belgium. Uncle Floyd, a co-pilot, died during WWII, many years before I was born. I grew up hearing stories of how he would sing during bombing missions to keep his crew members calm and that he was a hero.

Husband Art and I had visited Floyd’s grave four years ago. This past June we returned with Sherri.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Michael Yasenchak, the cemetery superintendent. He asked if we needed help finding a particular grave, but seemed pleased when Sherri immediately told him she had it on her phone - Plot C, Row 24, Grave 6. He volunteered to accompany us to the site and we said we would appreciate his company. He donned his cap, picked up a small cannister and a sponge and we four headed out the door.

I didn’t realize until Sherri told me later how emotional it was for her.

... Upon entering the cemetery, it was surreal and I became emotional knowing the time was near. The cemetery is beautiful, manicured and tranquil. I was surrounded by over 5,000 graves; many of the soldiers, like my uncle, gave their lives to preserve and protect our country.

When we reached Floyd’s cross, Yasenchak carefully rubbed sand from the cannister into the letters engraved on the stone and then wiped off the residue, contrasting the inscription with its white surroundings:

2 LT 548 BOMB SQ 385 BOMB GP (H)
KANSAS JULY 28, 1943

I asked if he would repeat the procedure on the serial number on the back of the cross. He said it was the first time anyone had asked him to do so. O736520 - the letter “O” signifying that Floyd was an officer.

We asked Sherri if she would like some time alone and she answered she would. So we three left, chatting while slowly climbing the gentle slope that leads to the large white monument at the cemetery entrance containing information about the war as well as a small chapel area.

We learned that Yasenchak was from Pennsylvania, had been a career member of the Air Force and had been a superintendent at another location. While still in the service, a former commander had brought him to one of the American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries and suggested he consider it as a post-service career. Yasenchak is now just a few months from retiring.

I asked if the cemetery has records of all those buried there and he said that some have quite extensive files while others have nothing more than name, service information, where they were born and the date they died.

A few of the men “leave” the cemetery, and he shared a couple of stories. One involved Private John Sersha, whose remains were disinterred on Dec. 15, 2015. He was 20 and a member of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division when he was lost during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in September 1944. His body, along with that of another man, lay in an unmarked grave in the Kiekberg Forest in the Netherlands until someone found the grave. The two were buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery in 1948. One was identified, but the military wasn’t sure whether the other one was Sersha, and so he was listed as “X file,” No. 7429.

Sersha’s remains were identified using DNA in 2016. A May 26, 2016 article in the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune described the process and the relief the family felt after finding Sersha would come home.

... Nearly 72 years after he went missing while serving in World War II, John Paul Sersha's remains have returned. He will be buried in the family plot at the Eveleth Cemetery on Saturday, interred with full military honors during the Memorial Day weekend.

It took years of searching, paperwork and formal requests to the U.S. military before the family found an answer.

“I'm so glad he’ll be home, with the family,” said John’s older brother, Paul Sersha of Virginia. Paul Sersha is 97 years old and remembers well the last time he saw his younger brother, before John Sersha left the family home to fight.

Paul and his wife, Julia, stopped by to see John before he shipped out. They stood together at the gate in front of the family’s home in Leonidas, and Paul and Julia both recall how John said, “I won't see you any more,” Julia Sersha said. “He said, ‘This is goodbye.’ He said that so emphatically; he had a premonition.”

I have visited several of the ABMC cemeteries in Europe and Great Britain, and am surprised at the mixture of emotions the experience generates. The extreme precision of the positioning of the snow-white markers mixed with the perfectly manicured green grass, trees and shrubs generate a sense of pride in how our nation has chosen to honor those who have fallen in the defense of our country.

But a sense of sadness soon follows while looking at the row-upon-row of gravestones, knowing each represents a life cut short.

But life - and death - rarely play out perfectly, and in the end, the feeling comes that the country has done what it can to honor the men who gave all. I think Sherri expressed this well.

I am only the second person in my family to visit his grave and I was overwhelmed with emotion and grateful to be there. I thanked him for his sacrifice, told him how proud I am to be his niece, and that Grandma and Grandpa would be so happy with their decision to have him moved to this beautiful place ...

Top-left: Michael Yasenchak, cemetery superintendent at the Ardennes American Cemetery; top-middle: Yasenchak adding sand to the engraved letters so they could be more easily seen; right: Sherri with her uncle's grave marker; bottom-left: Hicks' service serial number on the back of the marker; bottom-middle: Gloria, Art and Sherri at the entrance of the cemetery burial area. The large memorial can be seen over Art's shoulder.

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