- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2020

It’s a startling sight for any visitor to two U.S. cemeteries supposedly reserved for the remains of those who served their country in uniform: Swastikas emblazoned on the tombstones of three World War II-era German POWs who died in captivity, complete with messages honoring Adolf Hitler.

The campaign to remove the Nazi symbols from the Veterans Administration-run graveyards in Texas and Utah — where they sit alongside memorials to fallen American service members — is rapidly gaining momentum, picking up support from a pair of influential lawmakers and prominent anti-hate groups who say the symbols represent a national disgrace.

But days before the nation honors its war dead on Memorial Day, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday it has “no plans” to disturb the gravesites of Nazi soldiers, sticking by a policy that’s stood for nearly 80 years and signaling that the Nazi symbols will remain for the foreseeable future.

Two of the controversial inscriptions are in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas, while another stands at Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah. The headstones attracted relatively little attention until recently, when the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups launched a public campaign pressuring the federal government to remove them.

That effort gained steam this week when Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Florida Democrat who became the state’s first Jewish congresswoman, called on the Trump administration to take action.

“Allowing these gravestones to remain with the swastikas and messages in place — symbols of hatred, racism, intolerance and genocide — is offensive to veterans who risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life,” she said.

“It is also a stain on the hallowed ground where so many veterans and their families are laid to rest. Families who visit their loved ones who are buried in the same cemeteries with the Nazi soldiers whom they fought against, should never have to confront symbols of hatred that are antithetical to our American values,” she added.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, also decried the presence of the images in Nazism and fascism in the VA cemeteries.

“Sen. Cruz believes hate like these swastikas has no place in America,” a spokesman for Mr. Cruz told The Washington Times Tuesday. “The gravestones need to be replaced and frankly, they should never have been allowed to showcase Nazi symbols and messaging in the first place. Sen. Cruz is absolutely against glorifying the evil these men fought for.”

VA officials told The Washington Times that the tombstones have stood since the German soldiers were interred at the sites in the 1940s.

“The cemeteries were under the control of the Army when these interments occurred in the 1940s,” VA spokesperson Timothy Nosal said. “The Fort Sam Houston and Fort Douglas cemeteries were subsequently transferred to VA’s National Cemetery Administration, in 1973 and 2019, respectively. Headstones of enemy combatants stand only in cemeteries where enemy combatants are buried, and we have no plans to disturb those gravesites.”

Bound by law

A spokesperson for the cemetery administration, Les A. Melnyk, told Salon.com this week that the federal government will “preserve” the headstones for historical purposes in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The act, he said, calls on the VA and other federal agencies to protect historic sites even if they include “divisive historical figures or events.”

In addition to the small swastika on the gravestones, each includes a message in German that reportedly translates to “He died far from home for Fuhrer, people and fatherland.”

The VA operates 142 national cemeteries and 33 soldiers’ memorial sites across the country, according to the agency’s website. More than 4 million Americans are buried in the properties it oversees.

Other than the Texas and Utah locations, there’s been no record of swastikas appearing on gravesites at any other VA cemetery. In all, Fort Sam Houston Cemetery is home to the graves of 132 German POWs, along with four Italians, three Japanese and one Austrian POW, according to figures compiled by the San Antonio Express-News.

While there may be a historical argument to be made for burying Americans next to the enemy soldiers they battled in World War II, critics say the U.S. simply shouldn’t accept the infamous Nazi insignia anywhere on the grounds.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and other groups in recent weeks have said that the administration must act now and loudly condemn white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other examples of hate.

“Surely the Veterans Administration does not support Nazis,” SPLC Senior Fellow Eric K. Ward wrote in a blog post last week. “Have they forgotten the nearly half-million of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to defeat them in World War II? … Do they have no awareness of the continuing potency of the swastika, the symbol irrevocably connected to these atrocities?”

The SPLC, which has faced heat from conservative groups for what critics say is a readiness to brand its opponents as hate groups, has tried to connect the issue to President Trump, saying his administration has “energized” white nationalist groups across the country.

But Mr. Trump has explicitly condemned such ideologies.

“In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” the president said last summer on the heels of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

It’s possible Congress could pursue a resolution denouncing the swastikas or legislation requiring they be removed. For now, however, lawmakers are simply calling on the federal government to change course.

“While this may be a long-standing bureaucratic policy, that is no excuse for allowing it to continue. It is never too late to do the right thing,” Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said. “I call on the VA to eliminate this antiquated policy and immediately replace these inappropriate and insensitive headstones.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide