- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) - Benedikte Gijsbregs, 48, who teaches Dutch language and history in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, has for years been caring for the graves of two American servicemen who died in the European Theater of World War II, and, on July 22, Gijsbregs met the families of those servicemen.

She’s fluent in English, but hugs and tears need no translation.

“How can I ever say what it means?” asked Jean Parker Mace, 79, of McMurray, as her eyes welled up. “I don’t know what I can say, except it means a great deal.”

Her husband, Bill, lovingly patted her shoulder and murmured, “Easy does it, honey.”

If one’s family member was buried far, far away, there are probably times one would like to visit his or her grave or show it to the next generation, showing someone deeply loved the departed. Two local families have found it reassuring that there is someone who is willing to do this in their stead.

Gijsbregs, through a Belgian program, “adopted” the grave of Donald Ward, and she sought information about him through Washington County, and the historical society came up with only a brief clipping. She dutifully places flowers and flags at the marker bearing the name Donald Ward, a man about whom she knew next to nothing.

A story about her quest to learn more about Ward appeared in the Observer-Reporter in November 2011, turned up no information, but Gijsbregs was relentless in her pursuit.

One of the many inquiries Gijsbregs made was with Cornerstone Genealogical Society in Waynesburg. Debra Smith Ruffing’s father, the late Bill Smith, was from Waynesburg. “They knew my father, my daughter Lauren (Jobes) and I because we’re historians,” explained Debra Ruffing, a South Strabane Township resident.

But she was flabbergasted when Cornerstone Genealogical Society informed her about Gijsbregs’ search for relatives of Ward. “I didn’t believe it,” she said Wednesday. “I thought it was a joke.”

The circumstances, however, were for real, and Gijsbregs was able to make her first trip to the United States this month.

“I never would have met Benedikte without cellphones and the Internet,” said Debra Smith Ruffing of South Strabane Township. Ruffing said Donald Ward was her first cousin, once removed.

And Ruffing could not have known Gijsbregs’ interest in World War II history would spawn the adoption of another grave.

Second Lit. James F. Parker, was also killed in World War II and is buried in the same American cemetery, Henri-Chapelle, as Donald Ward.

They are just two of 7,992 members of the American military laid to rest there. James F. Parker Jr., pilot of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft, was just 19 years old when his plane went down.

He and his little sister, Jean, grew up together in a community now known as Bethel Park, a post-war name for a place previously known simply as Bethel Township.

Parker was awarded the Purple Heart and Air Medal after his death Sept. 16, 1944. With the end of hostilities in Europe ended, Parker’s mother had the opportunity to have her son’s remains sent home.

Her reaction was, “He went down with his plane, What would we bury?” Jean Parker Mace recalled.

Jean and Bill Mace named their first son after her fallen brother, and when the son grew up and was stationed with the military in Germany, he visited the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery and gave his grandmother the only pictures she would ever see of her son’s final resting place.

When Jean Parker Mace learned of Gijsbregs and Henri-Chapelle Cemetery through the story nearly four years ago, she contacted the Belgium resident by email and the two have corresponded.

By the end of Wednesday afternoon, a whole group of people who had never met before were eating lunch together.

“We’re kind of related, because (Benedikte) takes care of ours, too,” Jobes said of her new acquaintances, the Maces.

Adopting a grave in Europe “is a great way to pay tribute to our liberators, to help ensure that the sacrifices they made will not be forgotten,” Gijsbregs said. “I also try in my classes to make this clear to my students. Knowing more about the fallen soldiers whose graves we honor means a lot to us.

“Because I was raised by my grandparents, as a child I often heard stories about war and resistance, and that interest has steadily continued to grow.”





Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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