U.S. Army Soldiers sign a wall in the quarry after attending a 1944 Christmas Eve Mass, Dec. 24, 1944. As many as 280 Soldiers attended the religious service in the midst of air raid siren warnings and heavy firing of U.S. anti-aircraft guns during World War II. (Courtesy photo)

Bits of the Benelux: Christmas Eve service commemorates WWII Soldiers

By Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the sixth in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany]

USAG BENELUX - BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – Amid the World War II air raid warning sirens and the heavy firing of U.S. anti-aircraft guns, the 1944 Christmas holiday arrived in a Maastricht marlstone quarry.

An estimated 280 U.S. Soldiers attended a midnight Catholic Mass in the cave, put on by the Dutch Brothers (Brothers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or as the locals called them, Brothers of De Beyart) as a small respite from the war.

Now, 78 years later, an annual Christmas Eve service is still held to commemorate the historical event.

“We will never forget what happened in the Second World War and what these boys did for us,” said Jons van Dooren, Chairman of the Foundation of the Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944.

The organization, in Dutch “Stichting Herdenking Amerikaanse Kerstviering 1944,” or SHAK, is responsible for coordinating the service each year. It has also welcomed some of the 1944 Soldiers and Family members back to the cave more than half a century later.

Robert Wisler, a Soldier from the 1944 Mass, returned to the Netherlands in 2014 to attend the 70th commemorative Mass in the cave with 26 Family members in tow.

Robert Wisler (front) gives a speech as Rita Hoefnagels listens during the Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944 in Maastricht, the Netherlands, Dec. 24, 2014. Wisler attended the original Mass in 1944 when he turned 20, and returned to the Netherlands 70 years later to attend the commemorative service on his 90th birthday. (Courtesy photo).

Robert, whose birthday falls on Christmas day, turned 20 at the 1944 Mass. In 2014 he celebrated his 90th birthday in the same cave.

His son, Don Wisler, explained that it took two years to convince his father to make the trip, but the effort was well worth it.

“The trip in 2014 was one of our most memorable Christmases ever. [The Mass] was one of the only events of the war that my dad would talk about,” said Don. “Some of the Soldiers never returned home [from the war]. Some, like my dad, went on and lived full lives and raised families.”

Robert spoke at the 70th anniversary midnight Mass, recalling his assignment in 1944 as a supply sergeant with the 154th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Operation, a detachment of the Third Army’s 55th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade. During December 1944, the unit’s operations were set up next to the quarry where the service was held.

“We were all very grateful that the Brothers had organized this Mass,” said Robert. “All of us, especially those on the front lines, were tired, cold, scared and missing our homes and families.”

The Brothers had originally planned a special breakfast after the Mass, but the continuous air raid warning sirens limited access to resources. The Soldiers had to depart quickly once the service concluded but not before they enjoyed a mug of hot coffee with a spoon full of powdered sugar and a doughnut.

Other memories of the original Mass have been kept alive through Soldiers’ letters home to their relatives.

Joseph Gorman’s letters home during the war were saved by his sister. She gave them to Gorman’s daughter, Marilou Gorman McLaughlin, after he passed away from cancer in 1981.

In his letter, Gorman wrote about the Mass and recalled how all the Soldiers signed the cave wall before heading back out to war. The wall had been smoothed and polished ahead of time by the Brothers, with the intention of leaving memories of the Mass with charcoal.

Sgt. Jeremiah Hutchins, JFC Chapel religious affairs noncommissioned officer in charge (left) and Jons van Dooren, chairman of the Foundation of the Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944, discuss a wall signed by U.S. Soldiers 78 years ago in a quarry in Maastricht, the Netherlands, Dec. 20, 2022. Approximately 280 Soldiers signed the wall following a Christmas Eve Mass at the location during World War II. (Photo by Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs)

Even though they never met, McLaughlin’s nephew visited Maastricht in 2017 to learn about his grandfather’s experiences in World War II.

“[My nephew] was able to find my father’s signature,” said McLaughlin. “And he himself was able to sign the wall which was an amazing experience for him.”

McLaughlin, too, hopes to visit the special site someday in memory of her father’s service, and to experience the event that he spoke about first-hand.

The commemoration of the 1944 midnight Mass was first established in 1980 by a former member of the Dutch Resistance, Charles Smitshuysen, when he became interested in the quarry as a historic site.

In 1994, Smitshuysen and several other former resistance fighters created the SHAK foundation in order to formalize the yearly services.

Danny Janssen, the driver’s testing station manager for USAG Benelux-Brunssum, has attended the service at least 15 times over the years.

He serves as an advisor to the SHAK committee, and has helped set up the service, shuttle attendees to the cave and maintain the connection between the organization and the U.S. Army throughout the years.

He recalled how the commemorations when original veterans returned to attend the service hold special significance to him.

“I feel so humbled when I see these old veterans,” said Janssen. “[The service] brings me back to the memory of the Soldiers of 1944 and how they felt. I feel gratitude to them.”

The commemorative service continued annually until 2007, when the quarry was closed due to health and safety reasons. The first year it reopened a snowy winter again canceled the service, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass could resume.

This year’s Christmas Eve Mass will be the first one after another two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the setback, Van Dooren is excited to restart the annual tradition.

“We hope to be able to do this for a number of years [to come],” said Van Dooren.

During his speech at the 2014 service, Robert voiced his gratefulness to the SHAK committee for continuing the remembrance service.

“Thank you for all your efforts through the years to commemorate this Christmas Mass of 1944 that was so important to us back then, and to keep alive the memory of those who served during the war,” said Robert. “May it remind future generations of the sacrifices made by generations past and inspire them to work even harder for peace.”

To attend this year’s Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944 Mass service, contact the USAG Benelux-Brunssum Public Affairs Office by phone at +31(0)45-534-0320 or by email. Ticketing for seats is free but limited. The service begins at 3 p.m. at the historical site.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.