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The Hero She Never Knew

October 7, 2018

The certificate proclaiming that Pvt. James J. Callery had earned the Purple Heart for his sacrifice.

LOWELL -- Growing up in Dracut, Laurie McAnespie didn’t know a lot about her late paternal grandfather, James J. Callery. She knew he died in 1944 while serving with the U.S. Army during World War II, and that he was laid to rest at the World War II Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.

Her lifelong friend, Erin Andrews, had been preparing a birthday trip to Europe with her siblings and McAnespie and suggested they take a detour to the Netherlands to visit her grandfather’s grave. A few days after their conversation, McAnespie received a letter dated Aug. 20 in the mail. A research volunteer for the WWII Netherlands American Cemetery was trying to reach one of Callery’s relatives, in hopes that she may receive a photograph of him and perhaps even an obituary. Every two years, a tribute is conducted at the cemetery where photos of the fallen soldiers are placed next to their graves.

McAnespie, 48, was struck by the timing of it all.

“After I spoke with Erin, I thought it was just really kind of weird -- that she had mentioned it and then all of a sudden this letter comes in the mail,” McAnespie said recently from her Lowell home. “Maybe it was a meant-to-be kind of a thing, that we should take this side trip over there and see him.”

In fact, she soon found out, her grandfather’s grave has been adopted since 1945 by local people. According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, since 1945 members of the local community have adopted the grave sites of the fallen soldiers buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial, the only American military cemetery in the Netherlands. The locals call the soldiers their liberators and bring flowers to their graves.

On Saturday, McAnespie will be visiting the cemetery with her friends to see her grandfather’s grave for the first time, and to meet the man who is currently looking after it. Pierre Erens, 57, adopted Callery’s grave a few months ago. This is the second grave that Erens, who lives in a small town called Schinveld, has looked after.

“It’s so special for me to adopt a grave,” Erens wrote in an email to a Sun reporter. “Meeting family is very very special. The contact with family is so enormous.”

Erens said he looks forward to meeting McAnespie.

“I’m pretty excited,” McAnespie said of her meeting with Erens. “Pretty cool thing, huh dad?”

McAnespie’s father, James T. Callery, looked up from his seat at her kitchen table. The Dracut resident was at a loss for words.

“I don’t know what to say,” Callery, 78, said. His eyes teared up.

Old photos and other mementos from his father’s time in the military covered the small table. There were Callery’s dog tags, rosaries, and postcards of landmarks in Paris that he never got to mail out before his death -- items that surfaced in recent years. After Callery passed away, his wife, Dorothy Byrne, later remarried and out of respect for Byrne’s husband, Edward, Callery wasn’t talked about much, McAnespie explained.

McAnespie’s father said he was surprised to learn there have been people taking care of his father’s grave this whole time. McAnespie said visiting her grandfather’s grave and meeting its adopter will be the highlight of the trip. She added that she’s amazed by how the American soldiers are treated there.

“I’m very much looking forward to it,” Andrews said of the plan to go with McAnespie to the cemetery to meet Erens and visit Callery’s grave.

“How could we be so close and not take the opportunity to accompany Laurie to do this?” said Melissa Sullivan, Andrews’ sister, who is also part of the trip. “I think this is going to be an incredible moment in her life.”

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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