Belgian "War Godmother"

by Regine Villers

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I am 32 years old, married, and my job is to teach English to adults for the Belgian public organism for the unemployed. I live near Liège, a city in Eastern Belgium.

What is a “war godmother” ? It is a person who decides to adopt the grave of an American soldier. It is very simple and you don’t have to do much. You don't have to pay for anything. All you are expected to do is to put fresh flowers on the grave once in a while, to come and visit your “godson” any time you want and to mediate at his grave. This is not limited to women, as there are many godfathers as well. My husband, for example, is also a “war godfather”, as I will explain later. There are different reasons that can make you become a war godparent. Let me explain mine.

First, you should know that pro-American parents raised me. My father was 10 years old in 1944 when American soldiers liberated his village of the Geer valley. He used to follow them everywhere and they always treated him with kindness, giving him chocolate and chewing gum, etc. So my father grew up full of admiration for these boys, and he gave to his daughters, my sister and I, an education full of love and respect for America and its people. I could sing phonetically in English (thank you Frank, Elvis, Dean, Nat ...!) before I could speak French properly. When I was 19, I got the opportunity to visit New York (3 days) and Denver, Colorado (3 weeks in a host family) and I liked very much what I saw there and the people I met.

I had already visited the American cemeteries of the Ardennes (in Neuville) and of Henri-Chapelle a number of times before I learned through my sister (also a war godmother, but in Neuville) about the possibility to "adopt a soldier". When I heard about it, I called the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle, which is, to me, the most beautiful in the area, with its superb archangel watching over the graves, and I asked to adopt a soldier. What they do there, is that they try to find a soldier whose name resembles yours : my husband's name sounding more Dutch than anything (Achten), we started from my maiden name "Villers" and we ended up with "Villani". I was given the location of the grave and, later on, I received a beautiful certificate of adoption with all the information in their possession on my godson (rank, serial number, organization, decoration, date of death and state).

Every year, I receive an invitation to the Memorial Day ceremony, which I never miss. I feel so proud of my godson (as if he were my family) when I go to his grave, along with the parents and relatives of the other soldiers, to put some flowers and pray.

But I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know more about Frederick Villani and I especially wanted to find whether he had any relatives who were still alive. I wanted them to know that there is someone here to take care of Frederick's grave and memory. I also wanted them to know that I would be happy and honoured to guide them here in Belgium, if they ever wanted to come and visit Frederick. For all these reasons, when I got the Internet last December, I started a search on line. I visited hundreds of sites on WW2, sent hundreds of emails and met many wonderful people. One of them is David Berry, an American historian who found one of my requests on the WW2 message board. He offered me his help and thanks to his knowledge of military history and to his connections, we eventually found out the names of Frederick’s family members who lived at the address he gave as his residence when he signed in. From then on, everything went very fast. Thanks to the Newark Public Library which searched the City Registers by address, we found the names of Fred's siblings and by the end of January, David located Frederick Villani’s great nephew. Unfortunately, I have not been able to talk to him or to anybody else of the family. The great nephew asked David not to communicate me any information pending his looking at our research, discussing it with his family and deciding to contact me. I have never had any response.

But lately, I received some news from a journalist of the Star Ledger of Newark, who I had contacted for a search of his newspaper archives in the hope of finding Fred's obituary. He never found it (I did) but thanks to the information I gave him, he managed to contact another branch of Fred's family (on his sisters' side) which is a lot more sensitive to the subject. I sent letters to Fred's little sister (only one still alive out of three brothers and five sisters !) and to his nephew. I also have the email address of the nephew's daughter. The journalist met the nephew and called the sister and I'm starting to get more information on Fred. I'm so excited !

Thanks to Fred's high school, the East Side high School, I received his yearbook picture so I finally know what he looked like.

During my search, I came in contact with many people of the AWON. One of them, Gloria from Montana, lost her father when she was 4 years old. Pvt William George Gray was KIA near Harspelt, Germany in September 1944 and is buried in Henri-Chapelle. She says : “I don’t remember him at all”. Yet, she practically begged me to adopt his grave. As she says, she may never have the opportunity to come to Belgium and she was anxious to find someone to take care of her dad. Since I’m already a godmother to Frederick, my husband proposed to adopt William and so, here we are, proud godparents !

The latest news is that the journalist of the Star Ledger is writing a story on Fred and I. To morrow, I have an appointment at the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle with a photographer of the Associated Press whom the Star Ledger contacted to have some pictures taken of me standing next to Fred's grave. I would never have thought this would go so far !

Anyway, my best reward is the happiness of Fred's family when they found out about my existence.


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