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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 14, 2008

A farmer who fought in World War II remembers his brother who never came home

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — As Robert Klapp pounds out notches at his workbench, he has time to think about the past. He’s 85 years old and has spent his life — except the war years — on his family’s farm in New Salem.

As he fashions dovetail joints for a chest he’s building, his mind goes back to those years. He and his brother and sister all volunteered for service in World War II. Their lives had once fit together, dovetailed, as neatly as the joinery he’s making. The war tore that asunder.

The Klapps had walked to school along New Salem’s South Road, to the small, white clapboard schoolhouse in New Salem. Today, the building serves as a community center and now houses an exhibit on the world wars, put together by the historical society.

Robert Klapp attended class there through the eighth grade and later worked at the school as a janitor for $5 a month. He went on to Bethlehem High School for two more years of classes. “Then my father said I was smart enough and to stay home and work on the farm,” recalled Klapp.

The farm then was 33-and-a-third acres. “We done everything,” said Klapp. “Mostly truck gardening; we got in a little hay and grain, and raised pigs. They called me the pig chaser.”

The name stuck from when the farm boys used to play baseball in an empty New Salem lot.

Klapp’s horizons were wider than most of the children in the rural hamlet. When he was 8, he was a sickly child. His mother, Marietta — “strictly French,” said Klapp — had died when he was 5. It was decided his health would benefit by a change in climate so he traveled to France with his aunt in 1932.

“I remember it just like it was yesterday,” said Klapp. His French family had a fascinating heritage. He met his uncle, Gustaf Kegreisz, who had just returned from an expedition across the Gobi Desert. “His father, my grandfather, invented the track vehicle for the czar of Russia. He wanted to go hunting in the deep snow,” said Klapp.

His Uncle Gustaf married in 1932. “I can remember the main dish at the wedding feast,” said Klapp with a grin.

He came back home a healthy boy. He didn’t return to Europe until he was stationed there as a soldier in the United States Army.

Rough seas

Klapp joined the infantry in 1942.  After training, he boarded the Queen Mary in New York on Dec. 6, bound for Europe with 15,000 other soldiers. “We sailed alone. We didn’t have no escort,” he said. He noted the writer Studs Terkel was aboard.

The ship hit a storm in the North Atlantic. “The old-timers on the crew said it was the worst they had seen,” said Klapp, noting it was featured recently in a Smithsonian article. The waves were 60 feet high, he said. “We came within a few degrees of capsizing.”

The ship landed in Scotland. After training in England, Klapp’s company was sent to Africa, then Italy, and then southern France. He went to his grandmother’s house, which he hadn’t seen since his childhood visit in 1932. As he walked down the lane, a neighbor, in her garden, looked up and called his name. His grandmother was dead; there was a hole in the roof of her house where it had been hit.

Klapp was reunited with his Uncle Gustaf whose wife had just given birth to a son, Bruno. They chose Klapp to be his godfather.

Klapp was in the 505th Anti-Aircraft Artillery. He was a truck driver who worked a 90-millimeter canon in the early days of radar. “They had an instrument we used to determine what altitude a plane was to know how to set the shells we fired,” said Klapp. “When it got at that height, it exploded.”

His worst day came when he was serving in Italy and received a letter from his father. “My father wrote me a letter,” said Klapp. “It was the only letter he ever wrote me...He said, ‘Your brother has gone to join his mother.’ I was devastated.”

Klapp’s older brother, George, had joined the Air Force. He was a navigator in a B-17. His plane and crew left the United States on Aug. 4, 1943 and went down that same day off the coast of England. There were no survivors. “No trace of the plane was ever found,” said Klapp.

On hearing the news, Klapp said, “I wanted to desert my company. If I had it to do over, I would have done it....I wanted to take my rifle and go to the front.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said, shaking his head, “revenge, or I was angry, or what.”

At about the same time, Klapp learned that his sister Edith had joined the Women’s Army Corps; she was stationed in the South Pacific.

Not all of Klapp’s overseas letters were devastating. He looked forward to those from the woman who would become his wife, Marion Klapp.

He met Marion in Albany when he was home on furlough.

“It must have been love at first sight,” said Klapp. “When we had our 65th wedding anniversary last year, everyone wrote on a piece of paper why they’re pleased. She said that was the day she met the man of her dreams.”

Rebuilding lives

After the war, the couple settled on New Salem’s South Road, across the street from the old homestead where they live now. They raised four children — George, Barbara, Marion, and Robin — and now have nine grandchildren.

The dovetailed chest in Klapp’s workshop — made of pine, walnut, and butternut — is emblazoned with his wife’s initials.

After the war was over, Klapp planned to re-enlist. He thought he’d make a career of the Army, he said. “But my father said he needed me home. He wasn’t well,” said Klapp. “So I came home instead of re-enlisting...He and I worked the farm for 25 years. Then, when he couldn’t work, I took it over. I baled four- to five-thousand bales of hay all by myself.”

The farm is smaller now, and Klapp’s son, George, does most of the work. “George has done more and more every year,” said Klapp.

Klapp has refurbished the old homestead, where he and his wife live.  As he walks to the door along a Helderberg bluestone path he laid, he points to the old maple that towers over the house. He remembers when it was just a sapling and he let it grow.

Inside, his handiwork is everywhere. In the kitchen a massive plank bench with artfully constructed legs has “not a piece of metal in it” says Klapp — no screws, no nails, it is held together by joinery. Nearby, a sturdy step stool with dovetailed joints has a tall handle, almost like the back of a chair to steady the standee.

A chest under the parlor window is made of cherry “out of our wood lot,” says Klapp. A desk he made stands on another wall, facing a gallery of family pictures. Klapp’s sister, Edith, now diseased, proudly wears her World War II uniform.

“She was a girl who never wanted to sit still,” says Klapp. “She was a smart girl...She was in a wheelchair for 17 years but raised a family of six and died happy,” says Klapp.

He has a picture of his brother, in his Air Force uniform. When George died, says Klapp, “There was nothing to bury.” A few years ago, he had a marker placed at Saratoga National Cemetery in honor of his brother. “It’s a beautiful place,” says Klapp.

“I’m not doing this for me,” says Klapp of telling the story of the three siblings from New Salem who volunteered to serve in World War II. “I’m doing this to honor them.  I’m the only one left to tell the tale.”

Back in his barn, at his workbench, Klapp says, “I don’t have any bad dreams. I just think about it a lot.”

He continues his work, notching wood to join separate pieces together into a functional whole.

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