SAN ANGELO, Texas — Sitting around the dinner table together, the Coxes laugh at stories of grandchildren and shooting rattlesnakes told by San Angelo resident Johnnie Gist.

The San Angelo Standard-Times reports it was their first dinner together after being introduced nearly nine years ago. The two families have been connected for 72 years by a U.S. soldier buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.

Herman and Barbara Cox are the caretakers of the grave of Pfc. John L. Hyatt, Gist’s father. They live in Maastricht, Netherlands — a 10-mile trip from the cemetery.

“I love them, I appreciate them,” Gist said. “I think they’ve done a wonderful thing and I really appreciate their whole country.”

On July 12, Gist and her husband David welcomed the Coxes and their 18-year old grandson Thomas Cox to their home. This is the Coxes’ first U.S. visit.

Gist is packing as much of West Texas into her guests’ three-week stay in San Angelo as she can.

From trying on cowboy boots and hats to visiting local attractions such as the Pearl of the Concho, the Coxes are being immersed in Texas culture.

“I want them to have an appreciation of our city and our culture, and our way of life,” she said. “I want them to know Texas. I’d like to show them as much of it as I can.”

Gist, one of two children, was 9 years-old when her father was killed. A painful experience that, even now, is hard to recall without tears.

Hyatt, 29, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Heimburg, Germany. His white marble cross — placed in plot 1, row 13, grave 12 — reads the date April 13, 1945.

He was part of the Army’s 331st Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division.

“He didn’t have to go to the military. He volunteered,” she said. “His younger brother was a Marine in the Pacific Ocean. In 1944 the war was going (so) badly that my dad said ‘I can’t let my little brother fight this war alone. I have to go to war, too.'”

“My uncle came back from the war and my dad didn’t,” she said.

Hyatt served less than a year.

The families have become close, sharing with one another memories of the soldier they both love. The Coxes brought with them books, a documentary and photos for the Gists.

Herman Cox proudly showed a picture of his father, Herman Cox Sr., kneeling next to the grave of Gist’s father with flowers laid in front of the cross headstone.

Herman Cox’s father worked for the government regulating the roads to the American cemetery in 1945, and when he was 5 years old his father took him to visit the grave he adopted.

“My father was the first generation, I am the second and Thomas is the fourth generation to take care of the grave,” he said. “My dad was interested in the war and what happened with the Germans, and Thomas also. He’s interested in the history and he said “I take the adoption over.'”

Herman Cox said it’s been a nice tradition to care for the grave of an American boy who lost his life, and is done with a sense of honor and respect.

“The boys are not alone there,” he said.

The Dutch people have a long and proud history of caring for the 8,301 graves of fallen U.S. soldiers — a gesture of thanks for their liberation against Germany during WWII.

Since 1945, the community honors the soldiers by visiting and bringing flowers as part of an adopt-a-grave program managed by the Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery Margraten.

According to the foundation’s website, the graves and 1,722 names on the Walls of the Missing are adopted.

The cemetery and memorial cover about 65 acres, and are among several American cemeteries established across Europe after both World Wars.

Bike rides or unplanned visits to the grave are common for the Coxes, who say they take flowers on special occasions or spend time talking to the soldier.

Thomas said it’s important for him to carry on the tradition and honor soldiers so far from home.

“No people want to be alone,” he said.


Information from: Standard-Times, http://www.sanangelostandardtimes.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the San Angelo Standard-Times

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MICHELLE GAITAN
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