FARGO — Ask retired elementary school music teacher Becky Melhus to talk about some of her World War II veteran friends, and she’s bound to tear up.
“I just can’t help it. I get a little emotional talking about them,” she said.
Melhus, who taught in both Mayville, N.D. and East Grand Forks, Minn., is channeling that love of veterans into an important project, morphing from teacher to amateur detective on the lookout for photos of gone — but not forgotten — soldiers.
“How could I not?” she said. “It’s just something I had to do.”
To understand what is driving this soft-spoken music teacher and others like her, you have to go back nearly 75 years to a country 4,000 miles away.
The faces of Margraten
Margraten is a small village in the southeastern part of the Netherlands and home to Europe’s third-largest American military cemetery. More than 10,000 American soldiers are either buried or memorialized there — 8,291 men and women are buried at the cemetery, while 1,722 names are on the Tablet of the Missing.
They died in the region while trying to liberate the Netherlands from four years of Nazi rule. The Americans were successful when the entire country was liberated on May 5, 1944. Nearly 75 years have passed, but the Dutch have never forgotten the American soldiers who sacrificed so much.
Following the war, Dutch families chose to “adopt” the soldiers buried at the cemetery, leaving flowers on their graves on holidays and birthdays. The adopted graves are passed down from generation to generation, and hundreds are on the waiting list to adopt a grave.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of liberation in May, volunteers at Margraten want to take their devotion to the American liberators to the next level by finding faces to go with the names of the fallen.
They’re seeking to put as many photographs as possible next to the thousands of grave markers dotting the cemetery. It’s the fourth time they’ve taken on the project since 2015, and about one-third of the graves are still in need of photos.
“For me at the cemetery in Margraten, all of the graves look the same from a distance,” said Wim Slangen, a Dutch historian working with the project. “If you come closer you can read the words on the cross, but it is all still abstract — their name, the outfit they belonged to and their date of death. But with a photo of a person, it gets more vivid, more real and more profound.”
Slangen got interested in the project because of his love of history and became intrigued about specifically finding North Dakota soldiers after a couple of unusual coincidences. Slangen learned David Hedland, a soldier from Ransom County, was killed trying to liberate Slangen’s hometown of Eygelshoven in September 1944. He also found out that one of the crew members who survived an Oct. 14, 1943, B-17 crash in Eygelshoven was from Velva, N.D. The die had been cast, and Slangen felt called to the Peace Garden State.
“My first email to all of my B-17 connections brought several photos from other states. Having all of these nice, helpful persons in North Dakota as ‘pieds a terre,’ I took the intention to go after the photos of servicemen from North Dakota — a small number, but in a vast and not densely populated state,” Slangen says.
The Linrud Sisters
Two of the people assisting Slangen with his search for veterans' photos are the daughters of that surviving B-17 crew member from Velva, Arthur E. Linrud. Slangen got in touch with Peggy Linrud, of Edina, Minn., and JoAnn Linrud, of Bottineau, N.D., through their relatives in Germany. They ended up going to Margraten in 2018 for the dedication of a memorial of their father’s plane crash. Five men were killed in the crash, and five more — including Linrud — survived but were captured and spent 18 months in a German POW camp.
Arthur Linrud went on to lead a long life back in Velva, dying of natural causes in 2012 at the age of 91. Peggy says her dad didn’t talk much about his time in the service, but when he did have to relive it, the nightmares would come. In 1979, he was at peace enough with the crash to pen a column for The Forum.
Peggy Linrud says while her father survived the crash, she wants to help remember some of the other soldiers who served with him who weren’t that lucky. She says working on the photo project is also a way to thank Slangen and the other people of Margraten for what they do.
“The Dutch people who participate in the grave adoption program should be supported and thanked for the respect and gratitude shown to Americans and other soldiers buried there,” Peggy Linrud says.
Her sister agrees.
“If you could have witnessed the great gratitude and respect of the Dutch people for their efforts of WWII American servicemen and women who helped liberate their country, you would not hesitate to help with this project,” JoAnn Linrud says.
But how do you begin to find the photos of young men who died 75 years ago — especially when some were so young they didn’t even graduate high school, marry or have children? Their lives had just begun, and the archives often reflect it. The Linruds don’t have much more to go on than the county where the soldier lived and his date of death.
The sisters took to calling counties, libraries, schools and churches — Peggy looking for photos of the 17 Minnesota soldiers, while JoAnn concentrated on the 14 North Dakota soldiers. JoAnn struck gold when she called the May-Port CG School District trying to get information about Leonard Langager, of Mayville, a private first class and Purple Heart recipient who died on April 13, 1945, and is buried at Margraten.
She was directed to talk to Melhus, who in addition to teaching music put together yearly school presentations honoring the area’s veterans. She embraced the project and agreed to help Linrud. They found Langager’s photo pretty quickly in the local VFW. One down, 13 more to go in North Dakota.
“I give credit to the VFW in Mayville for collecting these photos because Leonard doesn’t have family around,” Melhus says.
Online tools like Ancestry.com and Find a Grave have been helpful, but in a small state like North Dakota, sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing someone who knows someone. Maybe that Facebook friend has the same last name as a soldier... "reach out and ask," say those working on the project. Melhus reports some progress from school administrators who have found soldiers in old yearbooks or team photos.
The overall goal of the project is to get at least 7,500 photos by the 75th anniversary in May, so everyone involved is asking for help from every American. This interactive map shows the names and counties where soldiers lived.
Those working on the project urge people to talk to their grandparents about people they knew in school, look in church basements for confirmation photos or head to the attic and look through old photos — they never know the peace it might bring to others.
“When a beloved family member’s life is taken away on soil far away from the United States, it may be a comfort to the grieving families to know that kind and generous Dutch citizens are tending to their loved one’s grave with visits and tributes for the sacrifice made by each soldier,” Peggy Linrud says. “A photo of the soldier brings a deeper connection and greater assurance of capturing the humanity of the fallen soldier.”