In the Netherlands, Vera Kastelic makes sure two Kokomo soldiers killed in 1944 during World War II and buried far from home aren’t forgotten. And thanks to the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library’s Genealogy and Local History Department, now she knows even more about one of them after years’ worth of failed ancestry searches.
Kastelic is the third generation of the Kastelic family to look after the graves at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands.
The American Battle Monuments Commission administers, operates, and maintains 26 permanent American burial grounds and 30 separate memorials, monuments, and markers on foreign soil, along with three memorials in the United States. There are 124,000 American war dead interred in those cemeteries. The American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten is one of them. Unique to the cemetery is what the Dutch do.
Since 1945, members of the local community have adopted the graves of the fallen.
Kastelic looks after the graves of U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Raymond E. Newton, who died Nov. 5, 1944, and U.S. Army Sgt. Henry S. Petoskey, who died Dec. 8, 1944, both Kokomoans.
Taking care of them keeps their memories alive so they’ll never be forgotten, Petoskey said. She visits the soldiers every two weeks, plus on holidays and special days.
“I talk to them,” Kastelic said. “I tell them things I’ve found out about them. Like Henry, I told him what I found out with the help of the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library. Standing at their graves is different when you know them, what they went through.”
She’s been able to find out a lot about Newton. He still has surviving family in Kokomo, a nephew and great-nephew, Brad and Wes Newton. Since Newton's brother, George, started Kokomo Glass and Paint, she was able to reach the Newtons through the store’s website.
Newton was with the 731st Bomber Squadron, 452nd Bomber Group. He was a ball turret gunner on the Windy Lou, a B-17. It was on its 16th mission, bombing industrial facilities in Ludwigshafen that manufactured supplies for Germany. Details about the fateful flight can be found in a 2014 video with a pilot, U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Col. Raymond O. Rowe, who was the last surviving member of the Windy Lou until he died on Jan. 27, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm-GM7YsF5o.
Rowe said that on Nov. 5, 1944, they were flying in formation under the lead plane when the Windy Lou came under anti-aircraft fire. It took out one of the engines on the right side. He was the copilot. When they increased the RPMs to compensate, the other engine on the right side blew up. They managed to stay in the air with the two left engines still working. They dropped out of formation to about 2,000 to 3,000 feet in the air and threw every non-essential item they could out of the plane. As they discussed where to go, set their course, and tried to land, they came under fire again, instantly killing the radio operator. Rowe and the other remaining eight crew members decided to parachute out.
“I walked to the bomb bay doors, and there was one of the young men standing there,” Rowe said. “And I said, ‘Raymond Newton, why in the world don’t you jump? [Newton said] “You’re an officer. You jump first.” ‘OK. I’m not going to wait on you.’ So I bailed out. He froze (and went down with the plane) … The airplane was on automatic pilot, but something happened to it. It made a circle and headed towards me, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to hit me,’ but then it kept swerving and I watched it crash.” Of the nine-member Windy Lou crew, two were killed in action, including Kokomo’s Newton, and seven parachuted. The pilot was killed by civilians when he landed. The other six, including Rowe, were taken prisoner of war.
Kastelic has been to the Windy Lou crash site. Every time the farmer plants seed, “things still come up” from the crash, she said. She uses a metal detector to find them. She’s sent some to the Newton family in Kokomo and has some herself.
“I go far to find everything out about what happened to them,” Kastelic said. “I collect things from the boys. I have a little museum in my living room.” She has three-ring binders full of information about each soldier.
“I had no idea this was happening for years,” Newton’s nephew, Brad Newton, said. “I was simply amazed.”
“My grandfather traveled to the Netherlands just to see Raymond’s grave,” said Wes Newton, Newton’s great-nephew. “When my grandfather saw how well maintained his brother’s grave was, it was one of the first times anyone ever saw him weep.”
Kastelic said, according to what she was told by her family, that years ago someone in the Newton family heard that the Kastelics were taking care of Petoskey's grave, so they asked if they’d tend to Newton's as well since they were both from Kokomo.
The current problem was finding Petoskey’s family. He wasn’t married before the war. He was one of seven siblings, but only one had children. So Kastelic has struggled over the years to find any of his surviving family. She likes sharing what she knows with them, to let them know she hasn’t forgotten their loved one and their family’s sacrifice.
Kastelic's grandfather, Guus, knew Petoskey because they drank coffee together when Petoskey's unit was stranded in Eygelshoven after giving all of their fuel to the British and Canadian forces so they could go to Aachen, Germany. Petoskey was with an M18 “Hellcat” tank crew in Company B, 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
Kastelic said Guus was happy to support any Allied soldier because “my grandfather’s house was near a railroad. Every night, there was a train filled with Jewish people, and the train stopped. He could hear them talking, crying, as he was lying in bed.” Thanks to the Americans and their allies, that eventually came to an end.
On Dec. 8, 1944, Petoskey was in the tank and returning to Apweiler to rejoin the company when the tank backed into a 5-foot row of anti-tank mines stacked 3 feet high. "A terrific explosion occurred, killing all six crew members and the destroyer,” according to Findagrave.com.
“He didn’t stand a chance,” Kastelic said.
Kastelic has a tattoo of the Windy Lou on one arm, along with parachuting soldiers, and Raymond’s name. She also has a tattoo of Petoskey's tank on her arm, as well his name.
Recently, Kastelic asked members of the Indiana Genealogy Facebook page for help in finding Petoskey's family. KHCPL Director Faith Brautigam saw it and connected Kastelic to Amy Russell, head of KHCPL’s Genealogy and Local History Department.
Using obituaries, Census records, Ancestry.com, and the A-Z database – all of which are available through KHCPL’s databases and Genealogy and Local History Department – Amy found Petoskey's first cousin once removed (his mom’s sister’s granddaughter) and contacted her about Kastelic and Petoskey's grave.
“I found the obituary for Henry’s mother, Mary Petkovsek (the name spelling changed over the years) and saw she was survived by a sister, Frances Stular, in Michigan. Then I went through the Census records and started tracing her descendants. Things start falling in place once you have a name and a location.”
Kastelic also tends to the graves of two soldiers from Oregon.
Her grandfather, Guus, had also befriended U.S. Army Maj. James V. Johnston Jr., an Oregonian who served with 84th Infantry Division, 334th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Guus’ house.
According to HonorStates.org, “No one knows how many enemy combatants (Johnston) had dispatched. In one attack alone, he killed 20 and captured 88. He was in the forefront of every fight the division had. … His men had begun to think of him as indestructible. … His habit of walking around nonchalantly under fire made him a choice sniper target, but it took an 88 (a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery) to kill him with a direct hit. He died (on March 5, 1945) in one of the division's last battles before reaching the Rhine.”
U.S. Army Pfc. Lawrence Kirsch served with 8th Infantry Division, 13th Infantry Regiment. He was shot. He’s buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Hombourg, Belgium. Petoskey wanted to do more, so she took on a fourth grave in Belgium. The cemetery in the Netherlands is a 30-minute drive from her home; the cemetery in Belgium is 40.
Kastelic has tattoos to remember Johnston and Kirsch, too.
“The boys,” as she refers to the four men, were all so young when they died: James 26, Petoskey 24, Lawrence 20, and Raymond 20.
“At the age of 20, I was driving my truck and nothing other on my mind because of them who gave their lives so I can do my own thing and live my life – something they couldn’t do, live their lives,” Kastelic said. “It is all we can do they gave everything for us people they didn’t know. It makes me happy. They all feel like family I never knew.”
Two other Kokomo residents are buried in Margraten. Others tend to their graves. U.S. Army Pfc. Henry Buckberg was born in Chicago, but by 1935, he was a Kokomo resident. He was in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, and killed in action in Germany on March 29, 1945. He had been overseas for only five or six weeks. U.S. Army Pfc. Robert P. Coughlin, who was a member of the 310th Infantry Regiment, 78th Infantry Division, was killed in action while fighting on April 7, 1945.