The WWII grave of PFC Joe Pankan has been adopted by same Netherlands family members for nearly 70 years
A heart-warming story that spans the Atlantic connects families in Isanti County and the Netherlands. It captures the spirit of our Memorial Day while recalling the supreme sacrifice laid down to protect the world from tyranny.
Lisanne Coolen is a 24 year-old student working on her master’s degree in modern history in Haren, the Netherlands. But several times a year, she makes the cross-country trip to the American Military Cemetery in Margraten to bring flowers to the grave of PFC Joe Pankan. She took up the grave adoption task in honor of her grandmother, Annie (Counen) Coolen, who tended PFC Pankan’s grave since adopting it in 1946.
“The adoption of American soldiers’ graves has been a tradition at Margraten since shortly after the war. My grandmother and one of her older sisters (she was the fifth of seven children), being young women living in the vicinity, both adopted a liberator’s grave. My grandmother told me it was ‘the thing to do’ at the time; a lot of young people, especially young women, were doing this,” described Coolen. “I must confess I have never asked her further about her personal motivations for adopting the grave– it never came up. From what I have been able to gather, it seems she acted from a combination of thankfulness and opportunity, and perhaps Catholic duty, but I cannot be sure.
“The upkeep of the cemetery is done by the ABMC (American Battle Monuments Commission), and even after almost 70 years, it is in pristine condition. The adopters of the graves visit ‘their’ soldiers and bring flowers to lay by the headstones or the Wall of the Missing. This way of commemorating keeps the sacrifices of WWII close to us, teaching us not to take our freedom for granted: 8,301 white grave markers are a powerful reminder of just how precious peace is.”
PFC Pankan of the 69th Infantry
Joe Pankan was born in 1926 to Joseph and Maria Pankan, German immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1913. Maria died shortly after giving birth, and eventually Joe was raised by his uncle and aunt, Matt and Alice Kunza, in the Weber area of southeast Isanti County. Jim Kunza of Cambridge said his dad, Joe Kunza, also was around to help with Joe.
Waldo Schlipp of Cambridge was two years younger than Joe Pankan, and the two grew up together about a quarter-mile apart in Weber. “We did some grade school and stuff together. What I remember is we did a lot of bike riding, going around to creeks to do a little fishing. We would make the ride into North Branch sometimes, too. We had very little back in those days. We would make our own toys and sling shots and such.”
Lillian (Stamm) Freeman, now living in Oak Grove, first met Joe Pankan when she was around 16 years old, and the two began dating. “Joe was a very nice person, and we had a lot of good times together. We used to go to dances, and it seemed we were always on the go. Eventually, we both were working in the Cities, and we kept seeing each other there, too.
“After he enlisted, he wasn’t afraid to go into action. When he was in training and in the war, I would write letters to him every day. I still have his letters he sent me. He was just such a very, very good man.”
Lillian’s brother, Gordy Stamm of Isanti, also recalls Joe with warm memories. “Joe was a heckuva nice guy. He drove a Model A– must have been a ’31– and he would be at our place a lot. You see in those days, they had dances all over. Sometimes they would go to Rush City or the Lakeside Pavilion which was on the east side of Fish Lake. They used to roller skate at Lakeside, too, and dances every Saturday night. Joe then got the job at the (Armour) packing plant in St. Paul. When I was 17, me and my cousin went down there to work, too, because they had so many hogs and were short of labor because of the war. That was tough work.”
When Pankan joined the Army, he was assigned to the 271st Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division under the command of Major General Emil F. Reinhardt. The 69th shipped out on 15 November 1944, arriving in Southampton, England in early December.
The group got together with children who had been bombed out of their home cities, sharing Christmas parties. Elements of the division began shuttling to France as reinforcements after the Battle of the Bulge blood bath.
From the www.69th-infantry-division narrative: “The General began to speak to the men– his voice unsteady with emotion. He told them he was not afraid for them, because they had proved in training that they had learned their lessons well. The General’s words brought out the point that our loss of so many fine fighting men would be another’s gain… toward the ultimate goal – Victory over Germany.”
The 69th fully arrived in France on 23 January 1945, and in February it relieved the 99th Division at the infamous Siegfried Line– German positions fortified by concrete pillboxes. High ground between Honingen and Gescheid was seized and held by the Americans. The Division then moved east another 40 miles to the Rhine River.
“In the zone of the task force’s operation stood the famous fortress: Ehrenbreitstein. On 27 March 1945, this fortress fell once again into the hands of American soldiers. The capture of the fortress was an historic occasion because it was here that the last American flag was lowered following the occupation of Germany after World War I. The flag was lowered on 23 April 1923, and it was planned to have that same flag raised over the fortress on Army Day, 6 April 1945, as a symbol of the victorious return of American troops to Germany.” (from www.69th-infantry-division narrative).
Next up for the 69th were attacks on the heavily-defended Hann Munden. The 271st Regiment then ran into heavy resistance at Weissenfiels.
Soon after at a battle around Rotha, Germany is where PFC Joe Pankan was killed in action.
His Purple Heart medal was sent home to his father. Mr. Pankan gathered money to have his son’s body returned to Weber, but in a later letter, he recanted the request, preferring Joe to lay among his fallen comrades in Margraten.
Bob Pankan of Isanti is a nephew to PFC Pankan. “I found out back about Uncle Joe’s grave being cared for a few years ago. I have a cousin in Germany, whose last name is Pankau, the original spelling our last name. He is an engineer and started digging around on the computer for family history and found our Pankan ties to him. Then he went on a three-week bicycle vacation and visited the Margraten cemetery and saw Joe’s grave. That’s when he found out about the lady taking care of the grave all these years.
“You look at the date Joe died– April 15, 1945– and he was so close to seeing the end of the war in Europe (V-E Day is May 8). That war was a real life-changer for the entire world.”
Added Waldo Schlipp, “I was still in school when Joe left for Army training. We lost contact completely when he was in the service. But I still remember his funeral in the Catholic church. I remember seeing the table with the flag on it. Hearing the story, I think it is amazing how they took care of the graves over in the Netherlands.”
The adopters’ gratitude
Annie Counen adopted Joe Pankan’s grave at Margraten in 1946, and she married Jan Coolen in 1947, raising a daughter and two sons (Lisanne’s father is the youngest).
Described Lisanne, “My grandmother was an amazing woman. She was protective, loyal, and brave. She always looked out for others and never asked for anything in return. She was loyal to a fault, and loved her family more than anything in the world. When I asked my father to describe her, he said she was ‘too good for this world:’ too kind, too loving, too loyal. The first thing that came to my mother’s mind is that she was ‘a small brave woman.’
“Annie adopted PCF Joseph Pankan’s grave in 1946, when the ‘Burger Comité Margraten’ (Citizens Committee Margraten, now the ‘Stichting Adoptie Graven Amerikaanse Begraafplaats Margraten’) had just been founded.”
Lisanne also sent over descriptions of the Netherlands’ version of Memorial Day: “Our Remembrance of the Dead is on May 4th, which means it has definitely stopped snowing, but it’s still pretty cold and possibly rainy. We remember all Dutch people, military and civilian, who have died in violent conflicts and peace keeping missions since the beginning of WWII. It is a very solemn occasion, with dignitaries all across the country laying wreaths at war monuments.
“The next day, May 5th, is Liberation Day. We basically do a 180° from the solemnity of the day before, because Liberation Day (Liberation Festival, as it is also called) is a nation-wide party, and everyone is invited. The government organizes free festivals (of the music and beer type) in all the big cities. The main act gets flown from one stage to the next in an air force helicopter. On this day, we celebrate our freedom. We celebrate that we are no longer an occupied country, that the Allied forces freed us from German occupation and gave us back our freedom. We celebrate that we are lucky enough to live in a country without war.”
Said Isanti County Veteran’s Services Officer Jim Rostberg when he began setting up this story, “Here in the U.S., we kind of forget what Memorial Day is all about. We forget about the sacrifice, and yet here are citizens in another country remembering so deeply the price paid for freedom. Joe, Lisanne and Annie’s story is such a powerful message for this time of year.”
In her correspondence with Rostberg, Lisanne Coolen summed up her role as adopter of PFC Pankan’s grave: “I’ve always considered the opportunity to decorate Joseph’s grave an honor. The debt of gratitude that we owe him and the other Allied soldiers can never be repaid in full.”