Robert Van Klinken died in the Netherlands
By Marcy Stamper
Chuck Borg was just 6 years old in 1944, but he still retains the searing memory of his parents’ grief when they learned about a friend killed in World War II.
Borg’s mother took the news hard. He remembers going to Twisp a few days later to visit Robert Van Klinken’s family.
Equally vivid is Borg’s chance discovery of Van Klinken’s grave at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial 18 years later.
“There probably has not been a day, especially since the discovery of Robert’s grave at Margraten, Netherlands, in 1962, that I have not given thought to this war hero,” Borg said recently.
While Borg was stationed in Europe in 1962 during his service in the U.S. Army, someone suggested he visit the cemetery. Borg walked up and down the somber aisles and, as he was about to leave, happened to see a cross inscribed with Van Klinken’s name and date of death: Sept. 20, 1944.
“I’m not sure why I turned to look at that cross – I was randomly turning around, looking at every third or fourth cross,” Borg said. He marvels that he was drawn to Van Klinken’s site among the 8,301 graves of American servicemembers. Until that moment, he had no idea where in Europe Van Klinken was buried.
Years of research
Borg has devoted much of his adult life to researching the fallen servicemember, from Van Klinken’s early days in Twisp working at the Harvey Staples ranch on Poorman Creek Road (owned by Borg’s grandparents), to his World War II service as a D-Day paratrooper in the elite 101st Airborne Division, commonly known as the “Screaming Eagles.” Van Klinken no doubt volunteered for the paratroopers because of the extra hazardous-duty pay they received, Borg said.
Van Klinken parachuted into Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was wounded several days later in heavy fighting. By June 30, his company had suffered 50% casualties. He recovered from his wounds, rejoined his unit and, on Sept. 17, 1944, the Screaming Eagles parachuted into the Netherlands. Van Klinken was killed three days later.
Borg unearthed a letter Van Klinken wrote to his sister in 1944, when he was recovering from his injury in Normandy, which was downplayed as “a flesh wound.” Van Klinken described his service in stark terms: “The definition of a paratrooper is a soldier who lands in hell with a parachute, and runs the devil out [of hell] with his own pitchfork.”
Borg’s tributes to Van Klinken have taken many forms. He assembled his war medals and sought out survivors of his regiment to collect their stories. He created a fund in Van Klinken’s honor that provided scholarships to Liberty Bell High School graduates from 2003 until last year. As a result of Borg’s research, the Army revised Van Klinken’s tombstone to accurately reflect his rank, private first-class.
Now, Borg has brought Van Klinken’s story home, with a comprehensive and moving display of photos, letters and memorabilia at the Methow Valley Community Center, where Van Klinken went to high school (he graduated in 1939).
Borg, who grew up in Pateros and now lives in Wenatchee, installed the display at a ceremony at the community center early this year.
For the community center display, Borg assembled mementos from Van Klinken’s life and from his own pursuit of his history. The display includes photos of Van Klinken as a paratrooper, his many medals, and pictures of his family and dog among Methow snowdrifts. Some of the photos were retrieved from Van Klinken’s wallet after his belongings were sent home in 1944. The 1912 Staples barn, where Van Klinken worked before his service, still stands on Poorman Creek Road.
Van Klinken’s story is also preserved by a family in the Netherlands who’ve adopted his grave. Borg has gotten to know the family, and they even came to Twisp to see where Van Klinken went to school. They took home some Methow sand to place under his cross at the cemetery.
The heroism of the Screaming Eagles was also memorialized in “Band of Brothers,” the miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks based on the Stephen E. Ambrose bestseller.
In addition to the display at the top of the stairs at the Community Center (near the gym), people can appreciate Van Klinken’s contributions in a moving scrapbook about his life and military service assembled by his great-niece. There’s a copy in the Twisp library. Borg has also donated a copy of the Staples family album to the library, chronicling his own family’s history in the valley.
Borg sees the community center as a resting place for Van Klinken’s story and memory. “It always felt like things were left hanging. Now he’s come full circle,” he said.