Belgian cemeteries: A final resting place for Juniata Valley natives

HOMBOURG, Belgium – Retired mechanic Simon Schuurman, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, is among many people who adopt graves at the American War Cemetery Ardennes and the American War Cemetery Henri-Chapelle and some of those graves are the final resting place of soldiers from Mifflin County.

Schuurman said he and his son, Tjarco, adopted five graves with a name and three belonging to unknown individuals at the American War Cemetery Ardennes and thirteen graves at the American War Cemetery Henri-Chapelle. Both Cemeteries are in Belgium, a three hour drive from Hoofddorp.

“Three times a year we visit the graves and lay some flowers with a card near the graves and, if we have, a picture from the soldier,” he said. “We’ve adopted the graves to pay attention to the soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. We in Europe are still very thankful for what these heroes did for us.”

Schuurman said one of these fallen soldiers is Orion Penrose Gill from McVeytown.

According to Schuurman, the German occupation of the Netherlands during the war was really terrible.

“On May 4, 1940 was the beginning of the invasion of the Germans in the Netherlands. Many people were deported to concentration camps in Germany and were shot or gassed. Others died of hunger,” he said.

Schuurman was able to track down a sister of Gill’s, Clara Coombe, who lives in Idaho. She told Schuurman all about her brother and how he came to be a soldier.

“Orion Penrose Gill (was) born on July, 24, 1915. He was the son of William C. Gill and Margaret Jane Gearheart. Orion studied engineering and became a supervisor on building what is called the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first highway from east to west (in Pennsylvania). It was a highway without stop signs and speed limit. Then Orion went to Trinidad to (build) airfields and highways. There he met a daughter of a high official in Caracas, Venezuela government. They married on Nov. 23, 1943, and he came home to enlist in the Army on Jan, 24, 1944. He served by the 745th Tank Battalion “B” Co. (On) March, 01, 1945, came the message to the staff that one tank (had been) disabled. Corporal Orion P.Gill and Sgt. William J. Sam, also from Pennsylvania, (were) killed by an enemy bazooka attack,” Schuurman said.

According to Schuurman, some time before WWII, when school number 6 in McVeytown was no longer a school, a family moved into the building and made separate rooms. Later, the school sat empty, (Gill) talked to people at Spring Church of the Brethren to see if they would rent or buy the school to use for meetings and socials. So the church did.

“After his death, a plaque with (Gills) name was placed inside the old school. Clara didn’t know what happened to the plaque. It would be great to know if anyone knows where the plaque is,” Schuurman said.

Schuurman said he and his son like the stories of the soldiers.

“Many, many soldiers lost their lives but every one has his own story and the same numbers of families feel the pain of the loss,” he said.

Schuurman and his son are not the only dutchmen who have adopted the graves of Mifflin County natives, Simon Voogt has as well.

Voogt lives in Maasluis, Netherlands, and adopted the grave of Sergeant Calvin L. Ellis, who is buried at the Henri Chapelle Cemetery along with nearly 8,000 other allied soldiers.

Voogt visits the grave regularly and brings flowers. He too is grateful for the contribution of the soldiers who liberated the Netherlands from German occupation.

Ellis, from Lewistown, participated in the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach and was a highly decorated soldier.

Schuurman said the liberation of the south of the Netherlands started in Sept, 1944. On May, 5 1945, the whole country was liberated.

“On this day, we celebrate our liberation,” Schuurman said.

Even though the war is long since over, “in the Netherlands, the traces of the war are still visible,” he added.