Dutchman cares for overseas grave of Iowa WWII soldier

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Local genealogists connect European caretaker with soldier’s descendant

Just when a prolonged and extreme political season seemed to signal an end of civility, an unassuming man in the Netherlands has renewed my faith in humanity.

Pat Wilkinson, head of research for the Genealogical Society of Linn County, received an odd message from Western Europe about a year ago.

“At our research library, we are frequently called upon to track backward in time — from a person living today to their ancestors,” Wilkinson explained. “But it is not often we are called track someone forward in time, and find living descendants.”

Netherlands resident Robby Prinsen decorates the grave of Cedar Rapids native and World War II veteran Robert A. Hasley at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium. Prinsen, a volunteer caretaker, reached out to the Genealogical Society of Linn County for help in researching the Hasley family and was soon in contact with a 60-year-old niece living in Colorado. (Photo courtesy the Prinsen family)
Netherlands resident Robby Prinsen decorates the grave of Cedar Rapids native and World War II veteran Robert A. Hasley at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium. Prinsen, a volunteer caretaker, reached out to the Genealogical Society of Linn County for help in researching the Hasley family and was soon in contact with a 60-year-old niece living in Colorado. (Photo courtesy the Prinsen family)

The request came from Robby Prinsen, a Netherlands resident who volunteers to care for the grave of an American World War II soldier in Belgium’s Henri-Chapelle Cemetery. Prinsen said he was curious about the soldiers buried so far from home: Who were they? What did they look like? Did they have wives or children? They died so long ago and are buried so far away. Does the family still remember them?

Communicating via email, Prinsen told me he researched his soldier, PFC Robert A. Hasley, and learned Hasley had lived in Cedar Rapids before joining the Army. That led Prinsen to Linn County.

Genealogy library staff found Hasley’s 1945 obituary in The Gazette’s archive and began scaling the family tree.

“Though Hasley had two brothers and a sister, only one had children,” Wilkinson said.

The sister, Lavina, had a daughter named Joan — now in her sixties, married with children and grandchildren, and living in Colorado.

Prinsen, finally in possession of the information he wanted, was nervous to make the call.

“After collecting some courage, I called, but the first few days no luck, only voicemail,” he said. “I also had to consider the time difference, so I called in the middle of the night every time.

“One day the phone was not going to voice mail, but was picked up by Joan. After introducing and explaining, she was still a little skeptical.”

When Prinsen began to recite her family tree, “She understood I was serious.”

Prinsen believes Joan was taken aback by his care of her uncle’s grave.

“It also took her breath away seeing (photos of) his grave with the nice flowers and that some random unknown guy — me — does this for a guy that I don’t know. But I think that he died for the freedom of people he also didn’t know,” Prinsen said.

“By doing this I can help share his story and his sacrifice, give him a face and memory. Not just a stone with his name people look at.”

Robert A. Hasley 1923-1945
Robert A. Hasley 1923-1945

Hasley was 21 when he died overseas. A native of Cedar Rapids, he was the son of Fred and Lena Hasley, and graduated from St. Patrick’s High School. He worked at Quaker before he was one of 75 men brought into the Army by the west-side draft board in January 1943.

He was processed at Fort Dodge and trained at Camp Campbell and Fort Knox, Kent. First transferred to Fort Meade in Maryland in June 1944, Hasley shipped out the following month

As part of the First Army, Second Armored Division, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge — the bloodiest battle for U.S. troops during the war.

According to The Gazette’s archives, his mother received a telegram saying Hasley had been “slightly wounded in action” on Jan. 4, 1945. The next notice informed her he had succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 15.

Because of Prinsen’s tenacity and generosity, these details are included in the Belgium cemetery’s dossier on Hasley. With Joan’s blessing, Prinsen also shares his findings on social media “for the world to see who he was and his sacrifice.”

Did I mention that Prinsen, who is encouraged as a volunteer to visit the cemetery twice a year, makes multiple trips to the site with his wife? Their home in the Netherlands is about 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, from Henri-Chapelle.

And while Hasley was the first American soldier the couple “adopted,” the experience led them to take two more.

“Doing this made it clear how much it was appreciated by the family,” he said.

The work, and watching friendship blossom between the Hasley descendants and Prinsens, was likewise rewarding for local genealogists.

“Our research library is pleased to have had a small part,” Wilkinson said. “It is gratifying to know this Linn County soldier’s sacrifice still is remembered, and his memory honored.

“We wish Robby Prinsen every future success in his efforts to ‘bring to life’ and remember other fallen soldiers.”

I tried to contact Joan but, as with Prinsen, received the dreaded voicemail. Until she returns the call and I can file an update, we’ll just need to be content in basking in the quiet and powerful dignity of a family on that side of the ocean providing unconditional respect and love for one stateside. May they be an example to us all.

The Gazette front page on January 30, 1945 carried news of Robert Hasley’s death in Belgium. (Gazette Archives)
The Gazette front page on January 30, 1945 carried news of Robert Hasley’s death in Belgium. (Gazette Archives)

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 24, 2016. Photo credit: Robby Prinsen family