Dedicated to the `bands of brothers' who went to war

Charlie Kratz builds a memorial and burial site for family, veterans

Obsessions

September 12, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

An article in last Sunday's Arts & Society section may have given a misimpression about the holder of a Maryland sportfishing record. In 1980, the late George H.W. Pierson of Baltimore landed the heaviest white marlin on record in state waters. Charles Kratz of West Friendship, who was featured in the article, was captain and owner of the boat, The Five C's, on which Pierson made his catch.

Charlie Kratz is one lucky man. As the native of Highlandtown looks back over his 80 years - something he has had ample occasion to do lately - he feels as if he's watching a film so good he has no idea where to stop for highlights.

Should it be at some point in World War II, a time in his life when, as a technical sergeant in Europe, he came of age? Maybe much later, when a handful of veterans he has gotten to know over the years became stars, their lives retold in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers? Or maybe just that one day in 1980, when he took his boat, Five Seas, out near one of his two condos in Ocean City and bagged, he says, "the biggest white marlin ever caught in Maryland sports-fishing history."

"A hundred thirty-five pounds," says the retired auto-parts salesman, his words coming faster than he had to be working his reel that day. "They'll never beat that. Some guy won a million dollars in the tournament down there, for a fish half that size. I've got mine on a mount outside one of my condos, where people can stop by and see it."

The peripatetic Kratz has similar hopes for his latest creation.

Since turning operations of Kratz Auto Supply, the company that made him a millionaire, over to his son-in-law, he has had a lot of time on his hands. He has spent most of the past two years - and $150,000 of his own money - designing and building a monument garden, Kratz Memorial Park, a shady hillside in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville.

Part family plot, part memorial for his own World War II brothers in arms, the site is something like a summation of what matters to Kratz, a fellow who has done well for himself and now makes it a mission, he says, to give back.

"I've made a lot of money," says Kratz, who founded his company "with no money and no education" in 1961. "And one thing I know is that we'd have nothing in this great country if it weren't for the brave veterans who have fought our wars. I want that to always be remembered."

The park, which Kratz encourages any and all Baltimoreans to visit, is in part a loving plot for his family. His wife, Cassie, who passed away in 1997, and his grandfather are buried in a mausoleum there, and a series of granite benches Kratz designed contain plaques inscribed with grateful messages from his children.

He dedicates the rest to his other "family," his personal "Band of Brothers." A $6,000 sculpture thanks all veterans, singling out two he has gotten to know in the years since the war - William J. "Wild Bill" Guarnere and Edward J. "Babe" Heffron, whose exploits in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were memorialized in the 1992 Stephen Ambrose best seller, Band of Brothers, and the award-winning 2001 HBO series it spawned.

"When those two guys get together," says Kratz, "it's like a comedy act, they're so entertaining. They tell jokes and stories. You can't tear yourself away." He has often paid the pair to entertain disabled vets, including a group of 19 blinded former soldiers who live at a hospital near his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Kratz himself tried to join the Army three days after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. He was only 17, though, and his mother refused to give permission. As soon as he was of age, though, he signed up. He went on to serve in a 3rd Army chemical munitions unit in Europe and stayed in the service through 1949. In the years since, he has acted as host for more veterans' reunions then he can remember.

He'd always heard the 101st Airborne had raucous gatherings and wangled an invitation one year, only to meet the larger-than-life Guarnere, Heffron and Ambrose, who was collecting material for his book.

Eventually, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, co-producers of the HBO miniseries, made Kratz one of 1,500 vets invited to its Utah Beach premiere. He schmoozed with celebs, hung out with political bigwigs like Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, and got to know a few four-star generals. "Got it all on video," he gushes of his brush with greatness. "Oh, what a wonderful time."

In creating his park, Kratz has insured that his own "Band of Brothers" will be remembered. Forty-one Baltimore-area friends who fought in the war have their names on a marker alongside the names of Heffron and Guarnere.

And "Wild Bill" himself was there last month, cracking wise, along with Heffron, 30 other vets and their families, on the day Kratz dedicated his park.

Guarnere described Kratz to a reporter as a "great American," but not even "Wild Bill" knew that his friend is working on a deal with Baltimore to allow homeless vets to be buried in his plot free of charge. That may end up as Kratz's biggest achievement - bigger, even, than meeting Hanks or catching a record marlin.

The way he tells it, come to think of it, sounds like a fish story, albeit one with an ending that lasts.

"You have to see the place," says Kratz with an expansive gesture. "I don't know the acreage, but it's a lot of land, you know what I mean? You could bury 100 people there, if you wanted to."

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