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North Andover

Battles’ toll echos with young and old

Junior Tenny Oguntolu gives a presentation to North Andover High classmates on the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Junior Tenny Oguntolu gives a presentation to North Andover High classmates on the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.

W

hite crosses and stars of David sweep gently across the green fields of Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.

The headstones mark the graves of 7,992 American soldiers who died during World War II, many of them in the Battle of the Bulge, a ferocious encounter fought in the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg in the winter of 1944-45.

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Army Corporal Henry D. Ricker Jr. of Lynn is among the fallen who rest serenely in the cemetery, located about 70 miles southeast of Brussels.

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Ricker, a machine gun operator, was killed in action on Dec. 31, 1944, just over nine months after he was drafted. He was 31 when he died.

Nearly 70 years later, Ricker’s sacrifice was honored on April 24 when a group of 23 students from North Andover High School visited his grave during a tour of Henri-Chapelle while on a two-week exchange trip to Germany.

They watched quietly as cemetery staff brushed coarse sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, site of the D-day invasion by Allied troops, across his marble headstone. The sand highlighted Ricker’s name, rank and division, home state, and date of death.

“It was very somber,” said Ryan Sullivan, 17, a North Andover High junior. “You see these crosses with thousands of names. You realize these are soldiers that fought in the greatest war of all time, but you also realize these people have families. This man was from Lynn.”

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Graham Reich, 17, was struck by the vast rows of headstones, many of them decorated with small American and Belgian flags.

“You can see pictures of all the lines of headstones, but until you get there, and see just how many there are, and read their names and when they died, it’s hard to comprehend the scope of it,” Reich said.

Austin Sullivan and Tenny Oguntolu, both 17, spoke of the fallen soldiers’ courage and heroism during a presentation last week to their classmates in advanced placement US history.

“This is a statue of an angel that looks over the whole cemetery,” Oguntolu said during a slide-show presentation. “It’s almost like it’s protecting their graves.”

“The battle was the last major offensive [action] made by the Germans on the western front,” he continued. “It was a surprise attack. The reason it’s called the Battle of the Bulge is because of the way the Allied front line bulged inward as the Germans attacked.”

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Austin Sullivan, who is a twin to Ryan, recalled how he felt standing outside the City Hall in Munich, just steps from where Adolph Hitler held a pro-Nazi rally in the 1920s.

‘It was very somber. You see these crosses with thousands of names.’

“I realized that the worst man in history had stood just a foot or so away from me,” Sullivan told his classmates, who sat listening quietly. “It was a really, really odd feeling.”

North Andover has had an exchange program for 26 years with Helmholtz-Gymnasium , a high school in Bonn. Students from that school visited North Andover last fall; the North Andover students went there for two weeks last month. They stayed with German families, went to school, and took field trips to historic sites.

“It’s a true academic and cultural exchange,” said Karen Ruecker, a German-language teacher at North Andover High who organized this year’s trip.

The visit to Ricker’s grave was arranged by Ruecker, with help from her uncle, retired Army Colonel Robert Rhodes, 78, who grew up in Lynn with Ricker’s daughter, Shirley Ricker Theis of Candia, N.H.

Rhodes, a Vietnam War veteran, graduated from Lynn English High School in 1953 and from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1958. He retired from the Army in 1984, and later worked for the Defense and State departments. He now works in the geography department of the Library of Congress.

“The Battle of the Bulge was very significant in turning back the Nazi drive toward Antwerp,” Rhodes said by telephone from his home in Virginia.

“Had these soldiers not turned [the Nazis] around, Europe would have been different and I guess the world would have been different, too.”

He also is a trustee of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a national nonprofit based in Virginia. The group works to promote the interests of Bulge veterans. It is currently organizing the 70th anniversary commemoration of the battle, to be held in December.

At the request of other veterans’ families, the North Andover group also visited the graves of two other Army soldiers who fell in the Battle of the Bulge: Corporal Robert H. Hill of Ohio , who died on Jan. 7, 1945, and Lieutenant Eric F. Wood Jr. of Pennsylvania, who died on Dec. 17, 1944, according to cemetery records.

“We got to see a photo of Mr. Wood,” said Ryan Sullivan. “It was very sad.”

Ruecker first spotted Henri-Chapelle three years ago, while on a bus with North Andover students traveling to a coal mine in Belgium.

“I noticed the crosses in the distance and I asked the bus driver, ‘What’s that?’” said Ruecker, 47, who lives in Lynnfield. “He said, ‘That’s the American cemetery.’ ”

Ruecker asked if the bus could stop there on the way home. They arrived at sunset.

“It was closed, so we just walked around,” said Ruecker. “It was so beautiful and peaceful.”

She added a tour of Henri-Chapelle to this year’s itinerary, and persuaded her uncle to join the group just days before it left for Germany on April 18.

“I knew he had a lot of knowledge about this particular topic, and the kids could really learn from him,” Ruecker said. “So I called him up and said, ‘Uncle Bob, you really need to take this trip with us.’ ”

Rhodes, who taught earth science at West Point, prepared maps and a four-page handout for his new charges. During the 90-minute ride from Bonn to Henri-Chapelle, he stood at the head of the bus, speaking into a microphone as he talked about the epic battle.

“I felt strongly about them knowing what a major sacrifice this was for the United States to liberate Belgium and Luxembourg from Nazi occupation,” Rhodes said.

At the cemetery, superintendent Bobby Bell gave the students a tour of the 57-acre burial grounds and the memorial.

They also spent time in silent reflection at the graves.

“They had listened to a lot of information,” Ruecker said. “I thought it was important for them to spend some time just looking at the graves.”

Student Gabby Tober was moved by the graves of 94 unknown soldiers, whose headstones note their identities are “known only to God.”

“I think it’s a little eerie of how we just don’t know who they are,” said Tober, 17. “It just seemed so lonely.”

Rachel Wasserman thought of her Jewish great-grandparents, who fled Germany before the start of the war.

“The reason they moved to America was to avoid Jewish persecution,” said Wasserman, 18. “That was only three generations ago. It’s kind of scary to think that if they hadn’t moved here, what might have happened. I might not be here.”

Austin Sullivan looked for the graves of soldiers with his last name, and with that of some classmates.

“They’re not related to any of us, but they share our names,” he said. “They laid down their life 70 years ago and they should be honored.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.