Three Girl Scouts tend to graves of forgotten soldiers
By TERRY BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 1, 2003
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — In death, all that’s left is three forgotten names — two on granite tombstones and one on a wood cross — in Baumholder’s cemetery.
Who were these men in life, these Americans buried on German soil?
Who were these soldiers?
To three Girl Scouts, the men started out as a project. To earn the Cadette Girl Scouts’ highest award, the Silver Award, as well as merit badges, Erica Hill, 14; Emily Hernandez Goldstein, 15; and Maria Arvelo, 15, decided to pick up on a grave-maintenance project started by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.
The project’s goal was “to show the American soldiers and civilians who died and were buried here with no family [that] they are not forgotten,” Emily said in a presentation last Tuesday night during the Baumholder Troop 77 Girl Scout banquet.
In the fastidious, lush cemetery a few hundred yards outside the gates of H.D. Smith Barracks, a giant 1st Armored Division base, the forgotten American graves stood out. Germans attending to family plots complained “the surrounding graves looked bad, no matter how hard they worked,” Emily said.
As the girls worked to restore the forgotten, derelict graves, they couldn’t help but ask themselves, “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they take care of their family?” Erica said.
That question pushed the project into more than 32 hours of work for each girl, working in the rain to finish the physical work — placing the flowers and American flags — before a self-imposed Memorial Day deadline.
“They got cold. They got wet. But they got it done,” said Ileana Arvelo, Troop 77 leader and Maria’s mother. Arvelo oversaw the project with Lisa Cramer von Clausbruch, Erica’s mother, troop co-leader and Troop 77 chairwoman.
The project began on Veterans Day in 2001, when Troop 77 first went to the Baumholder cemetery, located the American graves, “wiped them off and planted flags,” Arvelo said.
Later, they started questioning local officials and American retirees about the forgotten men. On Memorial Day 2002, the troop visited the U.S. military cemetery at Epinal, France, where American families still send money to help maintain 5,255 World War II graves.
“When the girls saw what they did at Epinal, they decided, ‘Let’s do something here,’” Arvelo said.
They kicked around titles for their project.
“We had, ‘Remembering Forgotten Soldiers on Foreign Soil,’ but we just kept adding words, so it was too long,” Maria said. Finally, it became simply, “Honoring Fallen Soldiers.”
A presentation the girls put together features photos of derelict graves, one with a sizable tree growing on the side. Now, each grave is perfect, with flowers and a U.S. flag.
Erica adopted Leon H. Stalker’s grave. All she knows is what Stalker’s headstone states: He was an Army master sergeant who fought in World War II and Vietnam. He was 63 when he died in 1984.
Maria worked on Karl Kohlgraf’s grave. His stone states that he was an Army master sergeant who fought in Vietnam. He was born Aug. 23, 1937, and died March 4, 1986, only 48 years old.
Then, there’s Emily’s soldier, Rip Van Meister, who died in 1989. Or was he really Rip Van Meister?
“He’s our biggest mystery,” Arvelo said. Was “Rip” his name, or did it mean “Rest in Peace,” they group asked themselves. It’s an answer that still eludes them. But after consulting with Baumholder’s town hall and veterans who have lived in Baumholder for years, they believe the man’s correct name was Buster Van Meester. That’s all they know.
So they enlisted the help of William Kalavsky, Base Support Battalion civilian adjutant and an Army veteran who has lived in Germany since he retired 1972.
He queried the U.S. Historical Archives in Indianapolis, “but nobody has anything on this guy,” Kalavsky said. Kalavsky believes someone knows the details, because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to bury someone in a Germany cemetery without proper paperwork. That person hasn’t surfaced, but he’ll keep trying to make the connection, Kalavsky added.
“We’ll continue until all sources are exhausted.”
Then there’s Kohlgraf. He wasn’t born an American at all, said Madeleine Dwoiakowski, 222nd public affairs officer. Kohlgraf was a German who joined the U.S. Army and married a German woman. After they retired to Baumholder, they both died without leaving any family, Dwoiakowski said.
There are at least five other Americans in the cemetery including:
• Leon C. Partridge, Nov. 7, 1929, to July 12, 1974. His headstone states that he was an Army staff sergeant.
• James Curry, April 24, 1943, to Feb. 10, 1981. The only other information on his stone is an inscription that reads, “I miss you so much. Your wife.”
“The irony is, I bet someone in the States is looking for these people,” Kalavsky said. “The IRS. Social Security. There’s somebody looking for these people or their families.”
The men were most likely soldiers who married German women, with the wives moving away after the men died, said Ingrid Schweodtuer, Baumholder deputy mayor. There were many more until the 1950s when the military moved American graves to military cemeteries. Those who are left, with no one to pay for the upkeep of their graves, can stay 25 years, Schweodtuer said.
The girls planned for that, too, Arvelo said. They raised $170 to pass on to the next group of Girl Scouts, who they hope will continue the project, she said.
“On behalf of all veterans, I want to thank you very much,” said Erica’s father, Sgt. Andreas Cramer von Clausbruch, at the banquet. As he mingled after the ceremony, Cramer von Clausbruch, of the 47th Forward Support Battalion, said he was deeply affected by the girls’ responses to the forgotten men.
“Who knows,” he said. “Maybe I’m forgotten in a graveyard some day, and a little girl is taking care of my grave.
“And that’s what touches me.”
Girl Scout Emily Hernandez Goldstein, 15, maintains Rip Van Meister’s grave while she and others try to figure out if he was a soldier, and how he wound up forgotten in Baumholder, Germany's cemetery.
TERRY BOYD / S&S