Calvin L. Van Pelt ’49: The Angel of Stockem

Calvin Van Pelt '49 (Heart of Oak yearbook)

Serving in the United States Third Army, Pacific student Calvin Van Pelt would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.

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In 2008 he wrote to Rene but received no reply. It appeared that the last living link to his wartime past was gone. Now long retired, Cal wondered…was it all real? Did it happen as he remembered? A need in him surfaced to know, to have a last look at the place where his life almost ended, to confirm it was real. “It had been more than 60 years and I was beginning to doubt myself that it had happened.”

In November of that year Cal, accompanied by his wife Loris and son Paul, went to Belgium. The small town of Stockem appeared much as he remembered it. The Spies’ house with the gate was still there but its occupants did not know its former residents nor Renee Le Jeune. Neither did anyone else they spoke with.

The trio walked to the town cemetery to look for a headstone that might tell them that the last remaining person Cal had know was indeed gone, as he suspected. It was a crisp November day and they were the only ones in the cemetery. They strolled past many headstones looking for a familiar name but saw none. From out of nowhere an elderly woman appeared in front of Paul. Looking up at the tall young American, she spoke earnestly in French. Cal interpreted. She needed help moving a heavy urn off of a grave. Paul obliged and soon she and Cal fell into easy conversation.

He asked, did she happen to know Renee Aadt LeJeune and was she buried there? Yes, the madame replied, she did and would show them her grave. As they walked together, Loris looked the old woman over. A scarf tied tightly around her head, a grey coat and brown leather shoes, she could have been a country woman from any place in the world.

The woman stopped by a new grave; at its head was Renee’s headstone. Now they knew: she was gone. Cal continued to talk with the old lady. She had lived in Stockem all her life, it turned out. Did she remember the war? Yes she did. She had been a child then, about ten. Amazingly, she remembered the Spies family, that they had taken in a wounded American soldier and how he had shared his army rations with the townspeople. It was the first time she had tasted grapefruit and she still enjoyed it.

Excited, Cal told Loris and Paul what the lady had said. He was emotional; her words had confirmed his memories and feelings. Loris snapped a photo of Cal, Paul and “Madame Mystique” by a grave marker. The family talked amongst themselves for a few minutes and when the turned, the old lady was mysteriously gone as if she just disappeared. Once again, they were alone in the cemetery.

“Who was the ‘Angel of Stockem?’ Loris later mused. Was it Albert Spies, the former German prisoner who risked his life for a wounded American soldier? Was it the soldier himself who chose to fight to liberate an oppressed people and then shared his food with starving villagers? Or was it the mysterious lady who appeared and vanished in the cemetery that November day and gave comfort and peace to an old soldier?

Perhaps, in the end, it was all of them.