Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memorium: A Tribute to Flemish American Veterans

Monday, May 28, 2012 is Memorial Day here in the U.S. 

Today is a day when we pay tribute to those men and women who have given their lives in the service of the country. 

Historically, here in Chicago (as I have mentioned here: we would usually have a parade from our Belgian Hall to the “Belgian Church”: St. John Berchman’s.  A color guard of Flemish American veterans would lead the way.  Mass was said in Flemish. The picture at the top of this post is taken from the Flemish American Ardennes Post veterans' color guard at the Belgian Hall in Chicago in 1965. 

Afterwards, we would parade back the three or four blocks to the Belgian Hall where everyone would enjoy sandwiches, beer and conversation.[i]

Unfortunately that tradition no longer exists.

In lieu of that tradition, I offer you a brief tribute to Flemish American veterans.

Well before the United States existed, Flemings served in the defence of their hearth and home. In Nieuw Nederlandt Govert Loockermans of Turnhout (whose 400th birthday comes up in a few weeks) served as a non-commissioned officer in the militia well into his 50s. During the frequent frontier skirmishes, individuals like Pieter Foulgier (later Peter Folger - and yes, predecessor of the creator of the Folger's Coffee brand), Benjamin Franklin's maternal grandfather of Flemish ancestry (from Ieper) fought in the Indian wars. 

During the Revolutionary War many Americans who fought and served (including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton) had Flemish antecedents. Others, less well-known (such as Charles De Pauw of Ghent and whose grandson established De Pauw University) came from overseas to fight. Some Flemish families (like the De Peysters who were Protestants that fled Ghent) fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War.

In the War of 1812 new generations joined the struggle. And some prominent Flemish immigrants - such as the Stier family of Antwerp who were relatives of George Washington and personally acquainted with Francis Scott Key, who gave us the Star Spangled Banner - had their homes burned and looted by the British troops.

By the middle part of the 19th century full-blooded Flemings were serving proudly in all areas of America's military. Barney J. Litogot, Henry Ford's maternal uncle, served in the crack "Iron Brigade" during the American Civil War.  Another lent his brains to making the Union navy technologically advanced by creating the USS Monitor warship. Although listed as Swedish-American, John Ericsson's mother was of Flemish origin.  

Later in the 19th century Flemings moved higher in the service of their adopted country. Brooklyn-born but Bruges origin George Washington Goethals graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (possibly the very first Flemish American to do so). Since the requirements were not only physical and mental but also academic, USMA graduates represent the epitome of those in service to our country. With that as a background it is no wonder that he went on to complete one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century: the Panama Canal.

One of the shortest wars (and one of its most controversial), the Spanish American War (1898), saw the West Flemish emigrant Felix J. Streyckmans rise to the position of Colonel. Afterwards, he became prominent in not only in Chicago (as head of several Belgian organizations and civic groups as well as the 1933 World Exposition) but nationally (in Republican politics). 

In addition, Felix J. Streyckmans also played a prominent role on the Home Front in World War I (as Federal Reserve Director of the Liberty Loan Committee). So did Leo Hendrik Baekeland, of Ghent and the inventor of Bakelite, the first plastic. His discovery (of 1907) found a variety of uses in phones, planes, and tanks in WWI (1914-1918).

World War 1, coming as it did so closely on the heels of large-scale Flemish emigration to North America, saw a large number of Americans of Flemish ancestry serve. These men (and women) had a double reason to fight: to free their ancestral homeland as well as to serve their adopted country. Thousands of Flemish Americans served and fought in WWI. That terrifying experience melded these young men into a distinct group and helped to establish the identity we have today.

Among the young men who served in that war was an 18 year old who in the last six months of the war fought on the front lines to free his hometown of Klerken, West Flanders. His name is generally given as Cyriel Barbary, although officially he is known as Cyrillus-Camillus Barbary.

Barbary himself served on the front line between May 5, 1918 and the end of the war (November 11, 1918). While it is unclear what his actual combat missions he was involved in, Barbary was awarded both the Victory Medal and a Commemorative Medal. Barbary was mustered out of the service on January 31, 1919. After the war (in 1923) he and his wife emigrated to America (the Detroit area) and became an American citizen. What makes him truly unique is that when Barbary died on September 16, 2004, he was the last surviving Belgian veteran of WW I. A true link between our two countries.

In addition to WW I, Americans (including Flemish Americans) fought beside one another in other wars as well. During World War Two, tens of thousands of Flemish Americans joined the fight to free Belgium and Europe of the Nazis. On the home front too, Flemings dedicated themselves to helping both countries: the women in the picture to the right were in the Belgian Hall in Chicago knitting clothes for Belgian victims of WW 2

Returning veterans of WW 2 formed their own posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars ("VFW") or the "American Legion" as they are commonly called. Flemish Americans formed these associations based out of this shared experience. Today these veterans groups, such as the Roose-Vanker Post in Detroit or the Ardennes Post in Chicago, have channeled their collective energies to supporting non-profits in the community.

In Korea, Belgium sent troops to fight under the United Nations. The United States of course supplied the majority of the soldiers that fought in the Korean War. Thousands more Flemish Americans fought in this war as well as Vietnam.

Some Flemish American families contributed sons to more than just one war. The Chicago Tribune, in an article dated August 26, 1965, discovered one Flemish American family where the oldest son Robert served in WW 2, the second son Donald served in Korea, and the third son Jimmy served in Vietnam. This is service truly above and beyond the call of duty for any family. Yet this family, the De Wyze family of Mt. Prospect, had their roots in the same town in West Flanders that Cyriel Barbary's wife (Emma Marchand) was born in: Houthulst. 

More than fifty years after this Chicago Tribune article about the De Wyze family's service for their country, one of their descendants was again in the press. Lee De Wyze had captured the world's attention when he became the winner of the American Idol competition.

In the last several decades since the end of the Vietnam War, Flemish Americans have continued to serve - and, sadly, give their lives - for this country. All one need do to confirm this is read through the announcements in the Gazette van Detroit to confirm this sad truth. Yet, Flemish Americans continue to serve with duty and honor. Last year, Flanders House recognized one of the most recent Flemish Americans to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: Peter Kerkhof. Peter has served in Afghanistan and was personally and officially recognized by Minister President Kris Peeters.  

In my own family I have two veterans. My grandfather Julien Baeckelandt (pictured above in 1924) served in the Belgian Army after WW I and was stationed in Germany. My father Werner Baeckelandt served in the U.S. army during the Vietnam War. To my father and my grandfather - and indeed to all Flemish American veterans - I offer my deepest thanks and gratitude for their service to our countries. It seems only fitting then, to end with a quote delivered as part of eulogy to a soldier who fell - ironically on the same day as Cyriel Barbary's passing - on September 16, 1918:

“Al de besten onder ons gaan heen! Mocht hun werk hun naam bestendigen in en door de glorierijke hergeboorte waarvoor ze leefden.” [ii]

[ii] De Belgische Standaard commenting on Joe English’s death, September 3, 1918. Quoted in  Daniel Vanacker, De Frontbeweging: De Vlaamse strijd aan de Ijzer, (Koksijde: De Klaproos, 2000), p.393

[i] For a more careful treatment of the Memorial Day tradition in the “Belgian Colony” of Chicago, please see David Baeckelandt, Arnold Van Puymbroeck, (Chicago: Blurb, 2010), pp. 50-54

Copyright 2012 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form without my express, written permission.