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A promise kept

  • U. S. Army Sgt. Charles W. "Dutch" Kleinhagen
    U. S. Army Sgt. Charles W. "Dutch" Kleinhagen
Published May 28. 2010 05:00PM

Maybe we shouldn't have made that promise.

But, since it was made, we were determined to do our best to keep it, despite the red tape and logistics. In the end, we had to depend on a friend, who fulfilled that promise way beyond our dreams.

Let me get to the beginning, if I can determine where that is exactly.

It all started with Dad, Charles W. "Dutch" Kleinhagen. According to his own reports, he was a bit of a scoundrel you could say, knee deep in Schuylkill County's gambling community in the late 1930s, and 1940s. Yes, gambling was illegal in those days too, but there were ways to make a comfortable living thanks to local pool halls, etc. But, those are exploits for another day. This one deals with World War II, the way it affected our Dad throughout his lifetime and the promise he asked of us, his five children.

Like most men of that era, Dad enlisted in the military following Pearl Harbor. He chose the U.S. Army and received training as a combat medic. He was shipped off to the South Pacific, to a place called New Caledonia. There, he was assigned to a newly created division, the Americal. The division was tasked with finding a way to return Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines, as well as helping U.S. Marines as they stormed island after island in the South Pacific. Their ultimate goal was Tokyo, goals they accomplished.

Dad didn't talk much about the war years while we were growing up. The tales he did tell were of the camaraderie rather than the fighting. Seems he was part of a championship baseball team (lulls between campaigns), knew how to barter/trade (officers' steaks for white socks seems ridiculous until you realize how many cases of infantrymen's foot rot were caused by wet, dark socks) and, best of all, the creation of Genocca's brew. Pvt. Genocca was an Austrian brew meister in private life. His expertise, combined with medicinal alcohol, sugar and glycerin put the best of America's southern moonshiners to shame, according to Dutch Kleinhagen. As we grew older, the memories began to include just a hint of the atrocities of war, until, later in his life, we heard some of the most horrific instances of man's inhumanity to man.

The best of his reminiscing dealt with an incident that profoundly changed his life and his faith.

As he told it, during a bloody battle in the Philippines, Sgt. Kleinhagen and his native guide were separated from their unit, finding themselves behind enemy lines. Stuck on the side of a volcano that was surrounded by water on three sides, their choices were limited. The guide convinced Dad they could walk up and around the volcano, making an almost full circuit that would put them safely behind Allied lines. Skeptical as he was, Charlie agreed to the mad plan, figuring he would prefer that than give the enemy a victory of any kind. So, off they went, climbing higher and higher until the ash from the lumbering volcano made it difficult to breathe. Their rations gone, the two men relied on finding nuts, berries and the occasional small game they could snare. They couldn't risk shooting or cooking it. Charlie prayed as he never had before. He prayed for himself, for his guide, but especially for his ailing mother. When the two men were finally able to reconnect with the Allies, there was also a prayer of thanks.

Reunited with his unit after almost three weeks had passed, Charlie discovered he had been declared Missing In Action and a telegram to that effect had been sent to his parents. Frantic that such news would prove to be more than his frail mother could withstand, he searched for a way to let her know he was safe. The unit chaplain, a Catholic priest, joined in the effort. Between the begging, pleading, bartering and praying, the two men were able to schedule a transatlantic radio call through sympathetic ship to shore and ham radio operators.

So, there he was nervous, excited, worried. Jennie (his mom) was going to be so surprised. Imagine his surprise when she tells him she wasn't worried at all after receiving the telegraph. After all, the nuns had come by to prepare her and tell her things were going to be all right. Her "Sonny" was just fine and would be coming home safe and sound. Nuns, what nuns? Jen and Ott Kleinhagen were Lutheran. There must be some mistake. A quick check with his mom's neighbor, who helped her during the day, didn't clear up the issue of the nuns. No one had been by to visit. Oh well, Jennie knew he was safe and that was all that really mattered anyway. It could wait until he went home.

Months passed. He wrote home faithfully every day. He assisted the chaplain at Mass when he could. The nuns went to the back of his mind, way back. That is, until he came home after the war ended.

Trying to get to the bottom of it, Charlie spoke with his Mom, his dad and the neighbor, Mrs. Rowlands. Jen insisted two nuns had come by to visit her before the MIA telegram arrived. Ott and Mrs. Rowlands insisted there had been no nuns visiting. A check with the two convents in Tamaqua, at St. Jerome's and at SS. Peter and Paul's Catholic Churches, seemed to confirm there had not been a visit. Strange, very strange and everyone agreed to let it go.

That is, until years later, when an article in the local Evening Courier carried news about the canonization efforts under way for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Catholic nun known for her charitable works. When Jen saw the article, and the accompanying photograph, she had to tell Sonny she had found the nun who visited with the good news. A nun who died in 1821 was the bearer of her good tidings.

Impossible you say? Not if you believe in miracles. And Dutch became a true believer, having his youngest daughter compile all the information, dates, times, etc. and had it sent to the Vatican. He never received anything back, but that didn't matter. He was convinced he had been meant to die on the side of that volcano and it was only through his prayers, and Mother Seton's miracle, that he lived to become a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.

After a lot of thought, and prayer, he decided he needed to find a way to come "full circle" as he described it. After being diagnosed with Black Lung disease in the late 1980s, he gathered his family around to talk about when the time would come for his final request. When it came time for him to meet his Maker, he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes taken back to the Philippines. Mom was not amused or sympathetic at first, telling him it wouldn't happen if he went before her. He even went so far as to put his wishes in writing. Trusting Mom would find a way to change his mind, his five adult children lightly agreed to honor his wishes.

As the years passed, a lot of things changed, but never Dad's last request. I think he actually grew even more convinced he needed to complete that circle. When Mom died unexpectedly in 2002, he again asked for our promise. We didn't know how, but we assured him we would make it happen. Little did we know.

When Dad died of lung cancer in 2006, the Philippines were on the U.S. State Department's unsafe list. Travel to the area was restricted and appeals to our elected federal officials must have somehow become lost. The Philippine Department of Veterans Affairs seemed ready to help, until they discovered the red tape involved. Our efforts went nowhere fast, the request passed off to government department after government department. While never told we couldn't scatter Dad's ashes there, no one could, or would, give us clearance to do so. Unfamiliar with the country, we weren't sure if we would end up in a foreign jail if we just went ahead, traveled to the Philippines, and fulfilled our promise.

We were left in a quandary continue to try and fulfill that request, or have his ashes placed in SS. Peter and Paul Parish Cemetery. Just when we began leaning toward burial here, along comes Andrew Leibenguth. Andy and his family were traveling to the Philippines, where his parents were going to renew their wedding vows and the family was going to help villagers affected by a volcanic eruption. What a strange coincidence, or was it?

When told of Dad's request and our efforts, Andy immediately volunteered to take Dad with him. A U.S. Marine veteran, Andy was determined to find a way to fill that old soldier's request. His extended Philippino family knew the lay of the land and ways to deal with governmental concerns. Not only did Andy take Dad's ashes along, he arranged for flowers and a minister. His family members went to the volcano too, paying their respects to a man they didn't know. The entire event was photographed and videotaped, with copies made for each of us.

Dad always admired the can-do attitude of the Marines he served alongside during the war, following their motto of "adapt and overcome." We think he'd admire at least one of today's Leathernecks just as much. Without Andy and his family, the Kleinhagen Family would have had to renege on the one promise that meant the most. Promises kept, with the help of a friend, are the best kind ever.

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