Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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Pvt. Robert L. Thomas
1926 ~ 1945

Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
June 09, 2012, By Deb Nicklay

Remembering Pvt. Robert Thomas

On Memorial Day, Kenny Heuts, a Dutch police officer, walked the rows of white crosses in the Margraten Cemetery in the Netherlands.

With him was his 3-year-old daughter, Chayenne.

Together they placed a large bouquet of flowers on the grave of a soldier they never met — Pvt. Robert Thomas, an 18-year-old U.S. Army infantryman from Mason City, Iowa.

Thomas was a member of the Eighth Armored Division, that helped liberate the Netherlands after four years of Nazi occupation.

The country’s gratitude to the American soldiers has never waned. Every grave in Margraten Cemetery has been adopted for care.

“Of course she doesn’t understand it, but she loved to carry the flowers, give them some water and put them on the gravesite,” Kenny Heuts said of his young daughter.

It is just one of many trips he has made since he “adopted” Thomas’ grave several years ago.

“It is an honor for me to take care of this; in this way I can say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to these fallen servicemen,” said Heuts, 32.

A half a world away, Thomas’ relatives found out just this past week about Heuts’ allegiance to Thomas’ grave.

And they were astounded.

“It means so much to know someone was taking care, visiting,” said Thomas’ niece, Barb Colvin of Hawkeye, her voice breaking.

Heuts had contacted the Globe Gazette in what he thought would be a slim chance that Thomas still had family in the area.

He wanted to connect to Thomas’ family, as many do who adopt graves at Margraten. He wanted to see a photo of Thomas and learn more about him.

He finally found the names of Thomas’ immediate family and hometown through the Freedom of Information Act.

What he did not know was that the Thomas’ were well known in Mason City. Robert’s father, Leon, founded a machine shop in Mason City that operated for many years. Robert’s brother, Ralph, assumed ownership of the shop after Leon died. Ralph’s son, Leon — named for his grandfather — recently retired.

The Globe Gazette contacted Leon Thomas of Mason City, Robert’s nephew, to alert him to Heuts’ search. By the end of the week the families were exchanging emails and photographs.

“I am so touched by this,” Leon said. “To have someone taking care of the grave ... ,” his voice faltered. “It’s very emotional.”

• • •

Margraten — formally, the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial — is the only such American military cemetery in the Netherlands and is located in the village of Margraten, about six miles from Heuts’ home in Simpelveld.

Heuts joins a tradition begun in 1945, the year the war ended and the year in which Thomas died.

Generations of Dutch people have adopted graves to decorate, to visit and to offer thanks.

“In our region, everyone knows about the cemetery,” said Heuts.

There is not one grave that has not been adopted. Many are tended by second and third generations of families.

“As a young kid I was very interested in stories about World War II that my grandfather, Leo Heuts told me,” said Kenny Heuts.

“Around 2004 I read an article about the adoption program in a local newspaper. I didn’t hesitate and applied. Some months later, I received a certificate of Robert’s grave.”

Today, he visits the grave about twice a month, he said. He brings flowers on special events — Memorial Day and Christmas — but on other days, too.

• • •

Robert Thomas died in what has since been called the Battle of “Bloody Rheinberg” on March 5, 1945.

He had enlisted as soon as he could — on his birthday, on Aug. 12, 1944 — following his older brother, Ralph, into the conflict. Ralph served with the Army Air Corps in Africa.

Robert’s Army photograph, taken just before he was deployed overseas, shows a red-haired boy with an easy smile.

Robert was also the youngest in the family. Besides Ralph, there were sisters Leona and Hazel.

Robert was sent overseas after 14 weeks of training.

“It wasn’t fair,” wrote Robert’s dad, Leon Thomas, in a letter to Ralph after Robert’s death. With only a few months of training, Robert’s dad felt his son was too young and too inexperienced to fight. Less than three months after he was deployed, Robert was killed.

Robert served with the Eighth Armored Division that worked to push into Germany after liberating the Netherlands from Nazi Germany after the Battle of the Bulge, in late 1944 and early 1945.

Robert Thomas was one of 131 to die in the battle with Nazi forces that exploded on March 5, just east of the Netherlands/German border. He was killed when a tank rolled over him, his family was later told.

“My grandfather came home for lunch (from his machine shop) and found the telegram telling him Robert had died stuck in the door,” said Barb Colvin of Hawkeye, Leon’s sister. “No one came, they just left it, struck in the door.

“They say that my grandmother Pearl’s hair turned white overnight.”

“It changed Grandpa forever after that,” said Leon. “He’d say to my dad, ‘Ralph, I am so tired.’ ”

Pearl Thomas gathered all of Robert’s belongings and put them in a trunk, which she then sealed.

She never opened it again.

• • •

Although Pearl Thomas rarely talked of Robert, she visited Holland and his grave in 1952, and offered her thanks to the family that was then caring for the grave, according to a Globe Gazette article at the time.

The younger Leon and his sister, Barb, never realized the scope of caring given the graves in Margraten. While they knew one family had helped place flowers on Robert’s grave, they believed the practice had ended in later years.

Barb, in intervening years, had contacted the American Battle Monument Commission to help place flowers on Robert’s grave on Memorial Day. The commission is not connected to the grave adoption program at Margraten.

Neither Barb nor Leon knew Robert, but learned about their lost uncle through their father, Ralph. Ralph carried a pocketknife, a gift from Robert, for years.

“He sharpened that blade over and over, over the years — until it was nothing,” said Leon, choking back tears. “I said to him once, ‘Dad, when are you going to throw that old thing away?’ Dad just said, ‘Robert gave that to me.’ And that’s all he needed to say.”

• • •

Just a few years ago, Barb and Leon opened Pearl’s trunk.

At first, “it was just too hard; really emotional,” Barb said. “Then we settled down and got through it.”

The contents included the stuff of Robert’s life: his high school yearbooks, his first driver’s license. One scrapbook was filled with pictures of dogs — animals that he loved. A baby book with locks of his copper-colored hair. Communication from the War Department with an official seal, saying Robert had died.

The Purple Heart.

“Our grandfather wrote once that Robert ‘was just a little fellow, not grown up yet,’ ” Leon said.

Today, his tender memory is being cared for on two continents.

A local site with a marker is located at Memorial Park Cemetery in Mason City. Services were held there for Robert in April 1945.

“We’ve always honored him,” said Barb. Today, she and Leon are considering a trip to Margraten.

Heuts said he will continue to bring his children to Robert’s final resting place.

Besides Chayenne, there is Ayana, 3 months.

“The same stories my grandfather told me, I will tell her (Chayenne). In that way, I think she and Ayana will love to tend Robert’s grave, too,” Heuts said.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, December of 2013

 

 

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