Seventy years ago, a soldier from West Virginia died trying to liberate the Netherlands from the Nazis. A Dutch man has been tending the soldier’s grave and trying to find out more about him for half his life. Now the story has caught the attention of a filmmaker.
Maarten Vossen remembers his grandmother telling him stories as a child about what it was like to live in the Netherlands under Nazi rule. He also learned from other relatives about the bars of chocolate and smiles the Americans brought with them when they liberated the country in 1944.
Vossen’s grandmother died when he was 8, but her stories grew into a fascination about the war.
“And then I heard that you could adopt a grave at the American military cemetery in Margraten,” Vossen said.
In 2002, when he was 13 years old, Vossen did adopt one of the 8,300 graves in the cemetery to look after. In fact, all the graves in the military cemetery have been adopted.
Margraten U.S. Military Cemetery, Netherlands
- The cemetery is in the town of Margraten, 6 miles east of Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands
- 8,301 burials
- 65 acres
“When I saw that name on that cross, on the white marble cross, James Wickline, I knew he was someone who sacrificed his life for my freedom, for the freedom of the Netherlands,” Vossen said.
He began researching the soldier buried under the cross. He got Wickline’s personnel file from the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command in 2003.
“It contained a lot of information, like personal letters from his mother expressing her anxiety to American authorities and asking for more information, any information that would be about her only son, which was, you know, kind of emotional,” Vossen said. “And that was also something that really kept me going on this search.”
Vossen found out that Pfc. James Wickline grew up as an only child in a small mining community outside Morgantown called Scott’s Run, near Osage. Wickline enlisted in the Army after high school, eventually joining the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Operation Market Garden
Wickline was one of the first casualties of an ambitious attempt to invade Nazi-occupied Holland called Operation Market Garden. Wickline’s parachute failed to open when he jumped out of a Douglas C-47 transport plane on September 17th, 1944. He was just 21 years old.
The goal was to drop in behind German lines to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine River so ground troops could invade Germany.
The operation was documented in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far.
The mission failed, but it did eventually lead to the liberation of the Netherlands and became a jumping off point for the Allied invasion of Germany.
But getting Wickline’s personnel file left Vossen wanting to know more. What did he look like? Where did he go to school? What was life like for him growing up? Did he have any surviving family members?
So Vossen visited West Virginia in 2012. He rented a car and drove around Morgantown and the Elkins area, where Wickline’s family moved after the war. He chase down a few leads, but … “Unfortunately, I left with as many questions as I came with,” Vossen said.
He didn’t give up. When he got home to the Netherlands, Vossen contacted the Intermountain newspaper in Elkins. A reporter there wrote an article about the search and eventually got Vossen his first picture of Wickline.
Back in West Virginia
Vossen made another trip to West Virginia in 2014. This time he was able to speak with one of the neighbors of Wickline’s parents and found out that Wickline went to University High School in Morgantown. The school has since moved across town, but with help from people he met in West Virginia, Vossen found a copy of Wickline’s yearbook and other documents.
Vossen said that as he found out more about Wickline, he felt a deepening connection to the young soldier. He wanted to give Wickline a life beyond a name on a cemetery cross.
“It’s kind of that you want to change the history. You want to change his life. You want to give him the life that he just got back after the second world war, got married, got children — you know, things like that,” Vossen said. “I wanted to create that. I wanted to make the impossible possible, because you know, it’s just so sad that he has never really experienced that.”
Vossen’s desire to record Wickline’s story and give him a life beyond the war is becoming a reality.
Documentary filmmaker Marijn Poels heard about Vossen’s story through a member of the Dutch parliament. Poels was skeptical at first because he had never been interested in stories about war, but he decided to give Vossen a call anyway.
“I think the first minute, it hit home. It’s a connection, a friendship between two people from a completely different time,” he said.
He said he was struck by the emotional bond Vossen has with Wickline.
“When I’m talking to Martin, he’s talking about, you know, like a father figure, about James,” Poels said. “You know, trying to extend the life what James never experienced. Well, I fell in love with this story.”
Poels decided to make a film about Vossen and his quest to find out more about Wickline called Ageless Friends, which will be released in early 2016. But beyond the bond between the two men, Poels says the story is a way to talk about war in a larger context.
“Finally, we’ve got a sort of ambassador to translate the story of the second world war — all these veterans. What is war about, what is freedom, what is democracy. We found a very good ambassador to bring that story on a younger generation, because I think the world needs an understanding of freedom and democracy.”
Retracing His Steps
Poels travelled to West Virginia with Vossen in early July to retrace Vossen’s steps in West Virginia. They stayed with Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom. Bloom has helped Vossen in his search since 2012.
He said Vossen’s desire to tell Wickline’s story struck a chord with the Morgantown community.
“What Maarten has done through his determination and his headstrong stubbornness, which I think is great, has gotten people to realize we can never forget,” Bloom said.
Bloom headed up a successful legislative effort to rename a bridge in Scott’s Run for James Wickline. The naming ceremony was held in July, 2015, so Vossen got to witness the creation of a permanent monument to Wickline.
It’s a reflection of the bridge Vossen has built between the past and present, and between one nation that feels indebted to another for its liberation.