The Brabant village Oisterwijk and Operation Market Garden
Five Crosses in the Graveyard
Memories of Kees vanderheyden
On a fine day in September 1944 we heard a booming thunder of airplane engines so
deafening that all the Allies’ previous daily raids paled to mild buzzing in comparison.
Also, on that afternoon, the planes were close together and very low in the sky.
This time, it was not the bombers we usually saw, but huge planes towing squarish
motorless gliders. These birds of war seemed to brush the tops of the trees as they
flew over, so close that we could see the pilots and wave at the crews. It was absolutely
incredible and terribly exciting.
The German anti-aircraft guns snarled ceaselessly, but the relentless procession
continued on its inevitable way to some unknown destination. We were sure that they
would come to liberate us on that very day. After the passage of hundreds of aircraft
and endless hours of unceasing racket, calm settled over us once more. But we were
worried, and disappointed too, because there was no sign of American or Canadian
soldiers in our streets.
The Germans were nervous, but still in complete control. Neighbours told us that
one of the gliders had been shot down not far from the village. Apparently some American
soldiers had been killed in this accident. We were overcome by despair.
Very early the next morning, I went to the Sint-Peters-Banden church, where I was
an altar boy. I saw traces of blood on the front steps of the church. The iron gates
to the graveyard were open. German soldiers in the cemetery were busy with wheelbarrows
containing long, bloodstained brown-paper bags. And I realized that the bags held
bodies that they were going to bury.
The soldiers dug a row of graves near the graveyard gate and threw the bodies into
them. What was going on? Who were these dead people? Were they Germans or the Allied
soldiers killed the day before when the glider was shot down? No way to know, at
the time. First, I had to serve mass, but as soon as the celebration was over, I
rushed back out to the cemetery.
The Germans were gone, the gates were still open, and a curious crowd was milling
around the newly dug graves. When I got close enough, I saw five wooden crosses with
khaki helmets hung on them. Most of the helmets were crushed or damaged. They were
not German helmets. It was a pitiful spectacle.
Maybe these dead men were the ones we waved at the day before. Now they were under
the ground in our graveyard beside a row of German graves with similar wooden crosses,
but no helmets. My heart was breaking as I surveyed this scene. I still had not
seen death itself, but I had surely seen the signs of its presence.