Canadian vets, Dutch bond endures

Canadian veteran Pat Reidy enlisted at age 15. (Mike Hensen, QMI Agency)

Canadian veteran Pat Reidy enlisted at age 15. (Mike Hensen, QMI Agency)

DEBORA VAN BRENK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. - Don't make this a war story, says Canadian veteran Pat Reidy.

No, says Reidy -- who's earned the right to tell battle tales for the rest of his life if he chooses -- it's instead a generations-long tale of romance.

"I think the greatest love story of World War Two was the relationship between the Dutch people and the Canadian soldiers, now veterans. It's endured. It's never ended."

Now, 65 years after the Second World War ended, Reidy is one of few veterans left to bear first-hand testimony to that relationship.

A celebration in London next month -- and a larger one in the Netherlands -- will likely be the last large commemoration of its kind with veterans.

And as Dutch citizens and Dutch-Canadians -- Canada has more than one million people of Dutch origin, with Southwestern Ontario home to the largest population of them -- mark the event, so, too, do veterans.

Reidy comes from a line of military men, including his father's and uncle's battles at Vimy Ridge in the First World War.

So when two older brothers went overseas in 1940, Reidy pledged to follow.

Just 15 years old, he and a buddy paid a London solicitor 25 cents to sign an affidavit that they were 18 and of legal age to enlist.

By the time Reidy was 19. he was part of a Canadian Army force pushing its way through France and Belgium.

Along the way, he took part in some of the key battles of the war: Normandy in 1944, the Falais Gap and the Battle of the Scheldt.

They arrived in Nijmegen (pronounced Ny'-may-gen) in the Netherlands in November 1944 during a wave of regional liberation that lasted several months. They over-wintered there, defending a bridgehead that was pivotal to the Allies crossing the Maas and Rhine rivers and advancing deeper towards Germany.

"When we moved into Nijmegen, the first thing I saw was the malnutrition the kids were suffering with," says Reidy. "(That image) has never gone away."

That was the so-called "hungry winter" of 1944 and 1945, a famine that claimed as many as 10,000 Dutch lives as rations ran out and a bitter cold seeped in over the destroyed cities and farm fields.

Reidy and his buddies found ways to give some of their rations to the children.

They slipped some of their blankets to mothers who would sew them into coats for their children.

Then, for Reidy and his comrades, it was on to the Battle of the Rhineland, a springtime campaign of mud and gore through the Siegfried Line and into Germany as town after town was liberated in a wave that spread eastward.

Reidy doesn't want to talk about those battles, that particularly "nasty part" of the war.

But he does offer this: there was jubilation at the end of it all, and the Dutch celebrated with their liberators.

"Invitations to street dance, a love that you can't explain, a welcome, a warmth everlasting."

***

At the end of the war, "there were great pledges of eternal friendship between the two countries," says Robert T. Walsh, public relations officer for the Royal Canadian Legion branches in London.

Despite those assurances, Walsh says, many assumed the commitment would peter out after a few years, as Canadian military men and women resumed civilian lives and as the Dutch rebuilt their country. "But it hasn't (faded). It's an enduring friendship."

Walsh says as many as 100 local veterans and their spouses or caregivers have pledged to attend London's 65th-anniversary celebrations of the end of the Second World War.

Based at the cenotaph in Victoria Park and at the Dutch Canadian Society building in east London, the local events take place May 15.

They will also include Polish veterans, who also played key roles in the liberation of the Netherlands.

The London events take place soon after a contingent of veterans and high schoolers return from a commemorative trip to Europe to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War at the start of May.

Students from about 90 high schools across Canada on the trip will include students from London's Clarke Road and Sir Frederick Banting high schools and Woodstock's Huron Park secondary.

Richard ter-Vrugt, the Dutch consul in London, says it was expected the 60th anniversary marker would be the last -- but both Dutch and Canadian people insisted on marking the milestone in a big way again this year.

"It's an important one because it's probably going to be the last one," says Harry Coemans, a key player in raising money for a commemorative carillon the local Dutch-Canadian community installed in London's Victoria Park five years ago, and who is involved in this year's marker, too.

Coemans was a boy in Nijmegen when Reidy and his comrades drove out the German forces. Coemans once talked at length with another Canadian veteran who was also there.

"He looked at me and said, 'You remember that?' I remember it like it was yesterday."

***

Jack Western of Sarnia never set foot in the Netherlands and yet has vivid memories of the "hungry winter," which he saw much closer than an airman should.

He was 16 when he enlisted. His goal of becoming a pilot dashed by a medical issue, he instead folded his 6'1" frame into the rear of a Lancaster bomber to become a tail gunner.

His crew -- three Brits and four Canadians -- flew 18 bombing missions into Germany.

But the missions he recalls best were the "food bombs" dropped down to the Netherlands -- many of its people starving after five years of German occupation -- in the dying days of the war.

Three tons of food, packed into sacks, were carefully loaded into the bomb bay.

On May 1, they headed toward Rotterdam, where the German Air Force's bombardment almost exactly five years earlier marked the start of the German occupation of the Netherlands.

And then, over Rotterdam parks, they opened the bomb-bay doors and the loads plummeted to the ground.

They dropped more food to Rotterdam the next day, then to the Hague and Amsterdam, a mission that came to be known as Operation Manna.

The Germans allowed the mercy flights, with strict rules.

"The rule was that we were not to fly over 200 feet or they would shoot us," Western recalls.

On one flight, people were waving from a windmill railing -- waving down, not up, at the plane as it nearly grazed the ground.

"We were so low we could actually see the tulips bending over" from the bomber's draft.

Western says it was as if even the tulips were waving thanks.

"It was fantastic. The signs on the rooftops in sheets said, "thank you!"

Western went on to a policing career, then served as a justice of the peace in Sarnia and is founder of the Bomber Command Association of Canada.

"To me, of all the things I've done during the Second World War, flying, the most fantastic thing was dropping food to Holland. We were saving lives."

His health has prevented a return to the Netherlands, but the association he founded has taken its displays and talks throughout Southwestern Ontario.

During a show in Strathroy a few years ago, the support from the sizeable Dutch community there was overwhelming and he met recipients of the Operation Manna mission.

"People would come to us and cry. People would say, 'you saved our lives, you saved so many thousands of lives.' "

***

More than 7,200 Canadians were killed in the Netherlands during the Second World War. In total, 42,789 Canadians lost their lives during those six years of war.

And if the Dutch remain grateful, remaining Canadian veterans are also grateful for that time in their lives.

***

"I have no regrets about where I've been, what I've done, what I've seen," says Reidy. "The guy upstairs has been pretty good to me."

Reidy is, at 85, among the younger Canadian veterans.

His blue eyes are clear and direct, his beefy hands hinting at the physical strength of the man in his youth.

A recent knee operation prevents his returning to the Netherlands for the 65th anniversary.

Twenty men in his immediate and extended family signed up. Seven of those were wounded, four were prisoners of war. "I've told my kids, 'Your space in this country is bought and paid for.' "

He has 10 medals and countless memories, good and bad.

Among the best of the good: his recollections of the enduring relationship between the Dutch and the Canadians.

During each of his seven trips back, he has been greeted by wildly appreciative people, including the time a woman grabbed him by the arm during a 50th-anniversary thank-you parade. They started dancing in the street -- a dance captured by international media, to the bemusement of his wife and children back home.

Once, as he toured a Dutch cheese factory, a young woman spotted him in his uniform and shouted, "Canadese soldaten! Canadese soldaten!" She threw her arms around him and followed him down the street.

He hastens to add so many thousands of people helped to liberate the Netherlands. "I don't want to give the impression that I was the only Canadian guy that was in Holland."

But their numbers are shrinking daily and he is compelled to keep the story alive by speaking to Canadian school kids through the Memory Project.

And what he tells those school children is not so much about the war as about how it was to forge a friendship with people who knew what it was to live under an occupying force and to experience the fresh, sweet taste of liberty again.

"I tell them the two greatest virtues are love of God, as you understand him, and love of country. Freedom is a great thing. The people in this country sometimes don't realize how good they have it."

deb.vanbrenk@sunmedia.ca

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