On Dec. 23, 2017, Anne Kraft’s phone rang.
“Get to the cemetery,” her grandson Anthony said. “They’re having a military ceremony for grandpop.”
Anne got dressed, gathered her family, and made it to Our Lady of Lourdes cemetery in 20 minutes on a chilly, rainy day. From 1951 to 1953, Anne’s husband Donald was a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. After Donald died of cancer in 1990, Anne advocated to get an honor guard medallion placed on his grave, but a fire in 1957 destroyed 12 years’ worth of sentinel records long before they could have been digitized. He was never recognized for his service.
Anne worked for years gathering proof—photos, newspaper clippings, copies of his discharge papers, anything she could find that showed Donald at his post. She contacted Rep. Chris Smith, she reached out to Fort Myers, where Donald was stationed. She did everything she could do get her husband the recognition she knew he deserved. And then, 27 years after his death, almost to the day, it finally happened, thanks to her efforts and the diligence of the Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Bucks County Firefighter and EMS Memorial Honor Guard.
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Donald graduated from Hamilton High School in 1948, where he played soccer and baseball. He went on to Trenton State College for a while, but college wasn’t for him. He worked for the state for a number of years, and the “baseball purist,” said Anne, played the sport well into his 50s after a stint in AAA. Donald also coached at Nottingham Little League—where a flagpole is dedicated to him at the B League field—and Hamilton Babe Ruth. He assisted in soccer with the Hamilton 66ers, too.
Anne worked as a teacher for 25 years, and after she retired, she traveled from school to school volunteering her time as a “story lady” for four years. She loved reading to children and bringing them snacks, she said. Together Anne and Donald had three children, Angela, Bernadette, and Christopher, and four grandchildren.
The Krafts built a happy, fulfilling life together. But it wasn’t until Donald’s mother died that Anne learned he served as a sentinel. His period of service culminated before they met, and Anne only found out when they came across a newspaper photo of Donald in his uniform while going through his mother’s things.
“People were in the war dying,” Anne remembers him saying. “I just happened to be the right size.” At the time, she said, men who served as tomb guards had to be a certain height and weight.
Anne, though, always saw it as an honor, which is why she was so dedicated to getting him recognized.
“At that time, Donald used to say it was terrible,” she said. “Kids would try to jump in their faces, and they weren’t allowed to react. The only thing they were allowed to say was ‘Clear the mat, please.’”
After she was told the records were gone, she reached out to Smith, who tried to get Donald in the registry. The best he could do was send Anne a flag that flew over Congress, which she appreciated.
“I’m going to be 80 years old,” she said. “I couldn’t fight anymore. He tried to open every door for me, but his hands were tied.”
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It turns out Anne wasn’t the only one who thought Donald deserved recognition, though.
The Bucks County Firefighter and EMS Memorial Honor Guard enlisted the help of the Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay respects to Donald. The group sponsors, among other things, memorial services at the gravesites of veterans who may not have been honored in death. Donald was on their list, but there was one problem—they couldn’t get in contact with his family.
“I tried and left a message, but for all they knew, I was nuts,” said Kevin Donovan, a sentinel who served from 1981 to 1984. “You don’t know what the family situation is like. They could’ve not wanted to be involved. Out of respect, I didn’t want to pester them.”
So they went ahead and scheduled the ceremony for Dec. 23, three days before the anniversary of Donald’s death—the group tries to hold ceremonies as close to the date of death as possible. The group of uniformed honor guard members and four sentinels—Pasquale Varillo, the second-oldest living sentinel; Irvin Emerson, Lonny LeGrand and Donovan—gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes, equipped with a wreath, roses and “Taps” player. A steady rain fell as a couple already in the cemetery approached them and inquired about the ceremony.
“Do you mean Donald Kraft?” one of them asked. It turns out the man was the godfather of Anne and Donald’s grandson, Anthony. The honor guard and sentinels held off on starting the ceremony until the family showed up.
“It’s not a small family cemetery,” Donovan said. “It’s surreal that someone there would know him. It was an amazing day.”
Twenty minutes later, after a series of phone calls, carloads of Kraft family members pulled up. It was an emotional experience for everyone there that day. Each family member was given a long-stemmed rose to place on Donald’s grave, and Anne said it was a pleasure to meet the other sentinels, especially Varillo.
“It was a crappy day, pouring rain, but everyone was all smiles,” said Dave Hathaway, of the Bucks County group. “It was neat for [Anne] that he was acknowledged. Hopefully that provided some closure. It’s important for family members to have their loved ones recognized.”
Anne called the day a miracle—that Donald was honored, the timing of the cemetery visit, the fact that she was able to gather so many of her family members to see the ceremony on such short notice. The best part for her, though, was seeing Donald recognized 50 years after he stood guard and nearly 30 years after he died.
“I couldn’t stop crying, and I’m not a crier,” she said. “Everybody was slopping around. To see them just stand there with rain falling on their faces, they don’t move. I saw my family lose it when they were playing ‘Taps,’ when each of the sentinels went up and saluted him.”
It’s all part of the job, Donovan said, a job that he feels honored to do.
“It’s like a stamp of acceptance,” Donovan said. “It’s a sign of brotherhood. It was a great feeling to give Mrs. Kraft and her family that validity, to let them know that he was accepted, that we welcomed him. I take this role in honoring those before me seriously. It’s a feeling of gratitude and humility. When I have the opportunity to honor a family, it’s an amazing day.”
And that, after all, was what Anne wanted, in the end: acceptance and acknowledgment.
“It takes your breath away,” she said. “And those guys wanted nothing—no donation, no affirmation. The time and effort they put into this—they didn’t know me. They didn’t know him. To do all that? It was a very nice day.”