CONCORD, N.H. >> Six years ago, Aimee Fogg traveled to Belgium to learn about her great-uncle's death in World War II. Today, she has a new appreciation for life — and a growing collection of adopted relatives.
The men and women she now considers family share one thing in common: a loved one buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Homburg, Belgium.
By the end of the war, it was the largest temporary American cemetery in Europe. Many of the 17,000 soldiers have been returned to the United States for burial, but nearly 8,000 remain.
Fogg, who lives in Gilford, has collected stories and photos about the 40 New Hampshire men and the 25 from Vermont buried at Henri-Chapelle and published them in a pair of books. She's now documenting the accounts of 54 soldiers from Maine. She started off thinking she'd be satisfied with five stories, but as she gained momentum, she was inspired to continue.
"It would be really easy for me to stop, but it's just as easy to keep going, now that I've got a rhythm and system," she said.
That system includes ordering "Individual Deceased Personnel Files" for each man, which can take two years to be delivered. In the meantime, she scours enlistment records in the National Archives and genealogy sites, and then contacts town libraries, historical societies and other organizations. Finally, she reaches out to friends and family members of the fallen soldiers.
"I like to know them. I like to know the person behind the name," she said. "My poor husband can't keep track of all these families. I've gained many, many grandmothers, aunts, and uncles."
Sometimes, her research turns up distressing information — in one case, a soldier's widow was later charged with killing their 2-year-old son. But she sticks to the positive.
"There are a lot of family secrets that come out when I'm working on these stories, but I tell family members I'm not interested in those kinds of details ... I'm not looking to open up old wounds — this project is a celebration of life."
Fogg does many interviews by phone, but one woman in Vermont was adamant that they meet in person, so she and her family made the several-hour-long drive. The woman, whose brother is buried at Henri-Chapelle, was waiting in the driveway.
"She opened the passenger side door and she gave me a hug," Fogg said. "As she was hugging me, she said, 'I've been waiting 70 years for you."'
Claudette Bayko, of Somersworth, New Hampshire, grew up knowing that her uncle, David Gilbert, was killed in World War II and buried in Belgium, but not much else. In 2009, she sent a wreath to be placed at the cross marking his grave. In 2011, she got a call from her city's historical society saying Fogg was trying to reach her.
With help from a cousin who remembered Gilbert, Bayko and Fogg pieced together his past, including that he had dropped out of high school 10 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor to follow two older brothers into the Army. Because he never graduated, Gilbert's name isn't listed on a war memorial at Somersworth High School, and that always bothered Bayko.
So she is grateful that he is included in Fogg's book.
"I have two grandsons that now know that their great-great-uncle was our family hero," she said. "And Aimee is my heroine for resurrecting David."