American Kindergraves: More than a symbol of US-German Partnership

Attendees walk through the grave sites to pay their respects to the children and families who are honored today at the American Kindergraves Memorial in Kaiserslautern, Germany, May 14, 2022. Each grave site was memorialized with a flower and U.S. flag in honor of the infants who died shortly after birth. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jordan Lazaro)

Sgt. 1st Class Rocco Covelli, 1st Engineer Battalion, was a World War II veteran and Silver Star recipient when he retired from the U.S. Army in 1966. He had demonstrated gallantry in action during wartime. But it was the strength he modeled at home, along with his wife Angela, that left an indelible impression on their children.

The Covellis endured the loss of two infant sons while stationed in Germany in the 1950s. Due to logistic and budget constraints at the time, only one of those children, Robert, born in 1954, was buried in the United States. Their son Joseph, born in 1958, would never touch American soil. He was buried in the Kaiserslautern main cemetery in a section known as the American Kindergraves.

“It was traumatizing for both of us,” said Joanna (Covelli) Nevadomski, who was seven and whose brother Philip was nine, when Joseph succumbed to an E. coli infection. She said the heartbreak of not being able to bury him in the U.S. has been somewhat soothed knowing that others have been taking extraordinary care of his final resting place.

“We would have liked to have him buried with our family,” she said. “But is he in a special place? Absolutely.”

Baby Joseph is one of 457 American infants born between 1952 and 1971, who died at birth or shortly after at the U.S. Army hospital at Landstuhl or nearby civilian hospitals, and were buried in the cemetery adjacent to the U.S. Army Daenner Kaserne. They were honored on Saturday, May 14, at the Kindergraves Memorial Ceremony. The event, held annually the Saturday after Mother’s Day, was hosted by the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein Area Chiefs’ Group and the German American and International Women’s Club. Both groups came together in the 1980s when the initial lease for the plots was set to expire. They worked with the city of Kaiserslautern and cemetery management to move the gravesites and draft a new lease.

Supported in large part from private donations from the U.S. Army community, the Kaiserslautern Kindergraves Memorial Foundation was established in 1986, according to Kindergraves Chairperson for the GAIWG, Brunhild Puetz. Today, KKMF maintains the memorial site, organizes remembrance ceremonies and is a conduit of information for families.

In addition to being a symbol of partnership between Germany and the U.S. and the U.S. military and the Kaiserslautern community, Kindergraves has helped families manage the pain of their loss, and continues to keep them connected to family histories.

“It is very important to talk about the grief of families and to remember the children,” said Puetz.

Cristina Covelli Di Bernardo was born eight years after baby Joseph died, but remembers the day she came home from elementary school crying because she missed her brother. “He would have been my closest sibling,” she said. There is a 15-year age gap between her and Nevadomski.

Covelli Di Bernardo and Nevadomski said they are grateful to the organizations and volunteers who continue to care for the Kindergraves and raise money to pay for the long-term lease renewals.

“There are real people attached to those babies,” said Nevadomski. “And it’s so important for those of us who can’t be there. We so appreciate the love and attention that the cemetery and those little souls get.”

Stefanie Johnson Darlington and her family have been involved with Kindergraves for the last 25 years. Her father Orville B. Johnson met his German wife Annemarie when he worked for General Dynamics in Germany from 1958 to 1967. They lost their first child, Ben Leroy Johnson when he was six months old. He was buried at Kindergraves in 1960. Stefanie was born less than a year later.

Johnson Darlington, her mother, and German grandmother often visited Kindergraves, leaving flowers for Ben. When the foundation was founded, they began donating on a regular basis.

“In German culture, taking care of graves is very important,” said Johnson Darlington, whose parents ultimately moved to Arkansas City, Kansas.

“It was heart-wrenching leaving him there, leaving him behind. Knowing that he [Ben] wasn’t alone and that there were people who cared gave me, my younger brother Dirk Johnson and both of my parents great comfort.

“It is so profound to know there are people who didn’t know these children, didn’t know us, who are so loving and kind to take care of those graves. It makes the world feel much smaller than it really is. For me, its humanity at its best.”

Col. Doug LeVien, Deputy Commander of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, represented the U.S. at the May 14 memorial service. He expressed gratitude to the supporting organizations, the City of Kaiserslautern, the Kaiserslautern Cemetery and volunteers.

“Thank you for acting with compassion to create and care for a place that acknowledges the most heart-wrenching pain imaginable, and offers hope,” he said. “A place where families, generations removed, make a point to visit. A place volunteers, American and German, work side-by-side to maintain and beautify.

“It is a place where the most innocent among us have been laid to rest, and have given us the opportunity to do good. The opportunity to be good.”