The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands. Submitted

Leon Merrill of Dixfield died in Germany in 1945 during the waning days of World War II and is buried at an American military cemetery in Netherlands. Nearly 80 years later, the residents of Margraten and the surrounding communities have not forgotten Merrill or the other 8,000-plus Americans who sacrificed their lives to defeat Nazi Germany.

Cpl. Leon H. Merrill enlisted in Portland on Dec. 15, 1942. Raf Dyckmans photo

As a way to honor their memory, the local residents of Margraten have adopted each one of the 8,288 Americans buried at Netherlands American Cemetery, plus another 1,722 names listed as missing in action. They bring flowers to the cemetery and try to learn as much as they can about each soldier.

Cpl. Leon H. Merrill’s grave in the American War Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands. Submitted photo

The adoption program began in 1945 and has remained a source of pride ever since. The program is so popular that there is even a waiting list to adopt a soldier.

Occupied by Germany for much of the war, the Dutch people are grateful to the Americans who liberated them.

According to a website about the cemetery, “the end of the war in the Netherlands came closer when U.S. soldiers crossed the border near the town of Mesch on September 12, 1944, which became the first town to be liberated. However, it would take until May 5, 1945, before the country was fully liberated. And that liberation came at a heavy price for those who fought for it. That is why we say thank you to our American liberators who have been buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery.”

A few years ago, the organization that oversees the program started a Faces of Margraten project with the goal of finding a photo of every soldier buried or listed as missing at the cemetery.

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Bart van der Sterren, a resident of Schinveld, Netherlands, approximately a 40-minute drive to the cemetery, volunteered to help track down photos for the foundation. Leon Merrill was on his list.

“The Second World War has always fascinated me.” van der Sterren wrote in an email. “When there was an article in a local newspaper about 20 years ago that it was again possible to adopt a grave at the cemetery in Margraten, I didn’t think twice and submitted a request.”

Cpl. Leon H. Merrill enlisted in Portland on Dec. 15, 1942. Submitted photo

Using online resources, van der Sterren, 58, tracked down family members and his request eventually reached Merrill’s brother, Elwin Merrill of Peru. He had his son, Joe Merrill, who lives in South Carolina and had a long career in the military, contact van der Sterren in Netherlands, who helped provide him with three photos of the Dixfield soldier.

Joe Merrill could not be reached for comment.

Leon Merrill was born on Aug. 21, 1921, in Dixfield to Claude and Gertrude Merrill, and was the oldest of their 15 children. He enlisted in the Army in Portland on Dec. 15, 1942, and was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Infantry Regiment. He achieved the rank of corporal.

Little is known about his time in Europe, but his regiment was involved in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. By 1944, the unit was in England training for the Normandy landings, and landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. They fought the enemy in France, Belgium and Germany, including a grueling fight at the Battle of the Bulge. During its march through Germany, the 16th Regiment captured the Germany city of Bonn.

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While in Europe, Merrill was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster.

Merrill was killed in action in the area of Selb, Germany, on April 30, 1945, a little more than a week before the war in Europe ended.

The same day Merrill died, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.

Cpl. Leon H. Merrill, right, enlisted in Portland on Dec. 15, 1942.  Submitted photo

His brother Elwin, who is now 86, said he was 7 years old when his brother died. He admits he cannot remember his brother, and his parents and older siblings rarely spoke of him, which is why there are no family stories about him.

It is the people of Netherlands who are trying to build stories of the dead and missing Americans. Using available military records and genealogical sites the Dutch have compiled a brief snapshot of the Americans buried in their community. With the mission of “nobody deserves to be forgotten,” the foundation has tracked down more than 9,000 photos, van der Sterren said.

In addition to helping to track down photos, van der Sterren has also adopted one of the buried soldiers and one of the names listed on wall of the missing.

The cemetery covers 65.5 acres. Among the buried are six Medal of Honor recipients, two members of the Band of Brothers, who were immortalized in a book and a miniseries, and Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, the highest-ranking officer to die by enemy fire in World War II.

The photos are displayed at the grave sites on Memorial Day and are compiled on a website.

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