It had been barely a year since Calvin Van Pelt finished his freshman year at Pacific University when he landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, the great invasion that was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. Serving in the United States Third Army, Cal would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he would return to Pacific, attend graduate school and go on to a long and successful career in international business and public service.
But had it not been for the rare courage and compassion of an escaped prisoner of war who risked his life for a young American soldier he did not know, Cal’s story would have ended in a tiny Belgian village on a bitterly cold winter day in 1944.
Belgium is a long way from Waldport, Oregon, the small coastal community where Cal grew up. Straddling picturesque Alsea Bay on the central coast, Waldport was an isolated logging and fishing town where neighbors helped each other ride out the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
Cal’s father, a logger, had seen combat in Europe in the First World War and he suffered lingering aftereffects. Of Native American descent, the elder Van Pelt was a proud man with little formal schooling who impressed upon his children the importance of education. His wife was of Irish extraction, a lover of literature who harbored a romanticist streak.
Waldport’s tiny high school had just eighty students but its teachers were first rate. Told by his parents to sit in the front row of class, ask questions, get to know his instructors, Cal did just that, excelling throughout high school while working odd jobs in his spare time.
It was in 1942, the first full year of America’s involvement in World War II, that Cal came to Pacific. His family moved to Forest Grove, where by special arrangement, he finished his senior year in high school while completing first year credits at the university. Older students helped him adjust and he quickly involved himself in campus life, rooting for the football team, playing in the jazz orchestra and serving on the student council.
Cal continued to earn top grades and as the military called up more men for the war effort, he was tested and selected for the ASTP, an elite Army training program conducted in major universities to train specialists in areas including engineering, foreign languages and medicine. Notable alumni include Senator Robert Dole, Journalist Andy Rooney and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In June, 1943 Cal and his chosen Pacific classmates clambered onto a bus headed for Portland and Fort Lewis. He remembers their uncertainty as it began to sink in: “This is real… We might not come back…”
At Stanford, Cal spent four months in an intensive French language study program, then shipped out for a training base in Scotland. There he went through specialized and rigorous weapons, combat tactics and armor training and formed a tank crew.
As the date for the D-day invasion of Europe approached, the weather turned sour. The greatest amphibious armada in history wallowed in the stormy English Channel for a day. Then, early on the morning of June 6, 1944, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the “go” order and 176,000 American, British and Canadian troops headed for their respective landing beaches.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m. the landing craft carrying Cal’s Sherman tank dropped its ramp on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast. The water was deep and rough. The tank took on water and sank, taking with it its entire crew except for Cal, who somehow survived and struggled to the beach.
Taking shoes from a dead GI and picking up a rifle, Cal advanced under fire.
Four or five men joined him. They went up and around to the rear of a pillbox whose gun crew were firing down on the Americans on the beach. Kicking in its rear door, the men poured fire into it, silencing the German guns. Later Cal managed to round up a few tanks and protected the landing spots on the beach while vital supplies were unloaded and brought inland.
Moving inland to the town of Lannion, Cal met up with FFI (French Resistance) forces to coordinate and garner intelligence. His tank unit moved out to capture Nazi submarine installation on the Brest peninsula but was stopped cold at a crossroads by murderous fire from an 88mm cannon in a German pillbox. For the next month and a half the American forces battled in the Normandy hedgerow country, unable to break out of the encircling German defenders. Finally, in late July at St. Lo, American forces, led by General George S. Patton’s Third Army, to which Cal was assigned, began to move rapidly across northern France.
Attached to a small company with several tanks under his command, Cal operated under the authority of General Patton on a special assignment in which his linguistic skills proved useful. Moving with the front lines, he and his men would enter a newly-liberated French town, locate the mayor or police chief and help secure the assets in the town bank and reestablish civilian control. In one town, acting on a tip, they stopped and captured a special armored train being operated by German SS Scheutzstaffel elite troops. It was full of contraband.
As the Third Army neared the German border, it established headquarters in the French city of Metz, where Cal was called in for a briefing by General Patton’s staff and received new orders. The legendary Patton, a brash, hotheaded commander and brilliant strategist, made it clear to the men that he wanted them to “kill Germans.”
Cal and a small detachment of tanks proceeded north into the rugged Alsace-Lorraine country along the border. While they were operating in the area, he received intelligence that a convoy of German trucks carrying weapons would be coming through a certain valley. They set up an ambush.
A road ran through the long, narrow valley bordered by trees. An American tank sat hidden at each end, another in the middle. The column approached – German army trucks, loaded with scores of armed troops. When the tanks showed themselves, the trucks stopped. Cal dismounted and approached the German commanding officer. Looking over the twenty-year-old American who bore no visible rank insignia, the officer, an SS Major, said in English, “You are so young. Do you have authority?”
“We have the guns,” Cal replied. “I need you to surrender. If I hear one shot we will shoot and we will take no prisoners. This is your chance to live.”
The major barked an order to his men. There was a pause. Then, slowly, the soldiers got out of the trucks and began stacking their weapons on the ground under the watchful eyes of the Americans. The German officer took his pistol out of its holster and handed it to Cal. “I hope to meet you after the war,” he said.
As fall turned to winter, snow fell in the Ardennes Mountains covering everything in white. Temperatures dropped well below zero. The torturous terrain and twisting mountain roads where France, Belgium and Germany came together was a treacherous no-man’s land where road signs were few and unreliable and battle lines shifted continuously.
On a bitterly cold night in mid-December, 1944, Cal and his men were out patrolling.
Unable to determine their location, they got out of their tank and paused, shivering in the darkness. The sound of diesel motors could be heard in the distance, possibly German Panzers. Were they surrounded? Then, another faint far-off rumble could be heard. “It sounds like a jeep,” said one of the men. It got closer. “I think there’s someone standing up in it,” said another as the vehicle approached with its lights off.
A solitary jeep pulled up. Astride it stood a dark figure wearing a white helmet, two pearl-handled revolvers on its waist. “Hi Boys!” exclaimed the figure in a gravelly stage whisper. “Are you lost?”
“Lost and scared,” replied Cal.
“I’ve got a thermos of hot Red Cross coffee and some donuts here. And some maps,” the officer said, a note of reassurance in his voice. It was General Patton.
“You’re just a half-mile from safety,” the general told the young soldiers as they sipped steaming coffee. He pointed to a map, lit by flashlight. “See that little creek? Go on past it, around the hill and stay put. Tomorrow there’ll be lots of Americans there.”
Recognizing Cal, Patton asked him what he had been doing since he had seen him at headquarters. On hearing his account of the ambush on the German convoy, the general said, gruffly, “You disobeyed my orders, Van Pelt.” (to kill Germans) Turning away, he paused and said, loud enough for all to hear, “But you were right.”
Then he mounted the jeep and was gone.
The early morning hours of December 16, 1944 found Cal and his crew sheltering in a bombed-out house in the tiny Belgian town of Stockem. Their tank was in a nearby repair depot being serviced. In the still, frigid air, they could clearly hear the diesel engine of a tank. It wasn’t American.
Outside the house sat their sole defensive weapon–a jeep with a light .30 machine gun. As they got into the jeep they heard the clanking of steel treads. Down the street a huge, 60-ton German Tiger tank emerged, its 88 mm cannon protruding from its turret. With no time to turn around, the jeep’s driver jammed the gearshift into reverse and floored it. There was a blinding flash and suddenly Cal was in the air, falling. He noticed an ornate gate and for a second felt peaceful. Then everything went black.
A soft female voice intruded in the dreamlike darkness. “He seems to be coming around,” it said, in English. “Call the doctor.”
Cal was in an American military field hospital in Longwy, France, some 20 miles from Stockem. He was badly injured, blind, immobilized, wrapped in bandages. The explosion that had maimed him had blown up the jeep and killed the other three men, his friends. It was one of the opening shots of the Battle of the Bulge–Hitler’s last, desperate gamble to turn the tide of war and stop the Allied advance into Germany. The greatest single battle in U.S. Army history, 78,000 Americans would be killed, wounded or captured before the German counteroffensive was halted.
As Cal slowly recovered, a doctor came in and told him gently, “There’s a man who wants to see you. He carried you to Longwy.”
Albert Spies, a Belgian bicycle repairman who had been until recently a slave laborer for the Nazis, had found the young American lying in the blood-soaked snow in front of his house in Stockem. He and his friends defied the advancing Germans, who were killing any civilians who helped Americans, by somehow concealing Cal from enemy soldiers and carrying him for several days in the worst winter in forty years to the hospital in Longwy. He was back now, checking on the wounded GI he had rescued, pleased to see he had survived.
A couple of weeks later Cal was transferred to the General Military Hospital in Luxembourg City. There, with better care, he began to recover. The shell concussion had temporarily blinded him but when the bandages came off the world appeared again in hazy colors. By March, 1945, he was well enough to continue his recovery outside the hospital.
He asked to be placed with a French speaking family. By chance, he was placed with the Spies family in Stockem, which by now had been liberated. It did not take long for Albert Spies and Cal to figure out that Cal was the wounded soldier that Albert and his friends had pulled unconscious from the snow drift. When Cal saw the gate in front of the Spies house he flashed back to the moment he had been hit.
Spies, an older man, had been a prisoner of war, held by the Germans for several years and forced to work in a factory before escaping and walking back to his home in Stockem about a month before he and his friends saved Cal’s life. There was little food in Stockem; the local economy had been devastated by the war and families were hungry. The Army supplied Cal with rations, more than enough, so he gladly shared fruit, chocolate and other items with his hosts and their neighbors.
Cal lived with Spies and his wife Helene for six months as he slowly recovered. He was on crutches and still suffering from burns and severe shrapnel wounds. Not surprisingly, he developed a very close relationship with the brave and compassionate couple, who had no children of their own. Albert even referred to Cal as his son.
Cal returned from the war later that year, anxious to pick up where he left off. He joined hundreds of other happy, returning war veterans who crowded Pacific for the 1945-46 academic year. In spite of what he had been through, he readjusted well, taking a leadership role as class president and an officer in the Alpha-Zeta fraternity.
After graduation in 1949 as a language major he earned an advanced degree from the prestigious American Graduate School of International Management in Phoenix, Arizona. A stellar professional career followed: head of the international division at Jantzen, Inc. followed by executive positions with White Stag, Columbia Exporters and other firms in which he traveled the world on many assignments. Later he worked to found the World Trade Center in Portland, serving as its charter president. He was also appointed Honorary Consul for the Republic of South Africa, serving 15 years in that post.
Cal maintained close ties with Pacific, offering advice and support to successive administrations and serving as President of the Alumni Board. In 2007 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the University.
Through the years he had tried to keep in touch with his friends and benefactors, Albert and Helene Spies in Belgium. After he heard the couple passed away in the 1990’s he corresponded occasionally with a younger relative of the Spies, Renee Aadt LeJeune.
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.
Editor’s Note: Calvin Van Pelt died in 2011, about a year after this story was originally published.
From the Archives
In Fall 2010, Pacific magazine published a series of stories by Sig Unander ’87, about the Pacific University alumni who served in World War II.