Strangers across the sea remember sacrifices of American soldiers
Waterbury Republican-American ^ | May 25, 2008 | Michael Dooling
This morning Maurice Coenen quietly walked into an American cemetery, knelt down and placed an arrangement of red, white and blue flowers at the base of a white marble cross bearing the name of a man he never knew.
For a few moments he stood in silence before the cross that bears the chiseled name of American soldier Robert E. Doran, a native of Waterbury.
This was not the first time Coenen, 31, visited this grave.
In addition to Memorial Day, he places flowers and pays his respects on Christmas and on the date Doran died. He performs this ritual as a small token of thanks for events that happened long before he was born. His solemn observance today did not take place in Waterbury or in one of the thousands of cities around the United States. This gesture of remembrance took place in the small town of Margraten in the southern Netherlands.
To this day, the Dutch are thankful for the Allies who won back their freedom from Nazi occupation of their homeland. Grateful Dutch citizens founded the Association for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery in Margraten after World War II. The sole purpose of this organization is to remember the sacrifices of the fallen liberators and to decorate their graves at various times throughout the year.
Coenen is a Web site developer from Maastricht and is one of several thousand Dutch who have adopted the graves. Coenen has also adopted the grave of a soldier from Memphis; both graves were assigned to him by pure chance. Like others who have taken on the responsibility, he is trying to learn everything he can about the lives of his fallen soldiers and the battles in which they fought. In his quest, he recently contacted the Sunday Republican for information about Doran's life before entering the service. He also hopes to contact family members to learn more.
"I have peace with the knowledge that they will know that Robert, and what he did and gave, isn't forgotten overseas."
Robert Doran lived with his mother Mary V. Doran, his sister Jean, and his brother William at 92 Alma St. in the East End. During the war, William served with the U.S. Navy on the destroyer USS Rhind. Doran's father George died suddenly in 1934 and the family fought to survive the remaining depression years. According to his sister Jean Murphy, now 89, Bob had a special place in his mother's heart. "Bobby was born to make his mother happy, a terrific kid, and never did anything to worry her," she said.
After graduating from SS. Peter and Paul School, Robert attended Leavenworth High School, graduating in 1941. He played basketball with the East End team known as the Shamrocks and, after graduating, worked at the First National grocery store on East Main Street until he was drafted in 1943. Shortly before leaving for Europe, Doran took a train to Waterbury in a surprise visit home for just two hours. Though he saw his mother and aunts, his sister Jean wasn't home and she missed seeing him for the last time, something she regrets to this day.
Doran, as a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (101st Airborne Division) was part of the invasion force at Normandy. In fact, he was one of the "pathfinders" who were among the first to parachute into Normandy – before the formal invasion started – in order to mark landing zones for the troops to follow. A few months later he parachuted behind enemy lines in The Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden. Doran was the radio operator for Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, who later received the Medal of Honor. During a firefight on Oct. 18, Doran had to adjust his position to improve radio reception and was struck and killed by a sniper's bullet. Twenty minutes later, Lt. Col. Cole was killed in a similar manner.
Several weeks passed before a telegram from the War Department was delivered to the house on Alma Street reading, "The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regret that your son, Technician Grade Robert E. Doran, was killed in Holland." When given the choice of moving his remains home or leaving them overseas, Robert's mother made the tough decision. "Let him stay with his pals," she said. Robert's body was eventually interred in the American Cemetery at Margraten.
Jean only recently discovered her younger brother's grave had been adopted by Coenen and she is most grateful that he looks after it. "I cannot begin to express my appreciation, how kind people can be."
She is looking forward to sharing her stories about her brother.
Jean was not surprised, however, by the attitudes of the Dutch toward the United States. When she visited The Netherlands in 2000, the first member of her family to do so, she noticed considerable evidence of their appreciation of Americans noting banners reading, "You are our heroes," and a statute dedicated to the 101st Airborne troops. She was also moved by the cemetery's serene beauty. "Gorgeous but such a sad place," she remembers. The Dutch were very kind to her and the cemetery's caretaker escorted her to her brother's grave. The debt of freedom the Dutch feel toward the United States runs very deep and has been passed on to the next generation.
With her she brought a little bit of Waterbury to leave behind. Before she had left for Europe she visited their childhood home on Alma Street and dug up some dirt from their old backyard. When she at long last knelt before the marble cross marking her brother's grave she dug a small hole in front of it, gently placed their late mother's rosary beads inside and lovingly covered them with soil from Bob's homeland. Now, that soil and Robert Doran's remains are forever blended in that rich earth in the countryside of The Netherlands.