I have had some “chats” with various family members over the past couple of days since our return from England and Belgium and think it might be a good idea to have a look at what this whole journey has meant to me.
My first thoughts have been about Dad and those thoughts are tinged with sadness, of course. I wish he was still here along with Mom. I think he would have been embarrassed by all the attention but I also think he would have thought the dedication of our new trans-Atlantic friends was amazing – as do I. I’d really like to thank those who have given so freely of their time and knowledge to help me find out about those last few weeks of my Dad’s time in WWII.
The first inquiry went from Cousin David Hall to Serge Bonge in Belgium in December 2008 who then put us onto Allan Hillman in Truro, England who then put us onto Guido van Roy in Belgium and Karel Baeten in Opglabbeek who put us onto William Engelen and the rest is history. All these people helped in different ways which allowed me to go with confidence to a place I’d never been. When I saw Karel at the Mardaga on the Friday evening, it was like greeting a close family member. And then there were all the other people I met in As and Opglabbeek who were so willing to share their stories and their family’s stories – especially all the folks at the wonderful display. Mayor Benny Spreeuwers and his council and staff were so welcoming and made it so special that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to say anything meaningful at all.
When we were at the Mardaga and I looked out our room’s window at the back garden with the community woods beyond, I had a bit of a picture in my mind of Dad’s Spitfire coming down with the wing coming off, Dad getting out of the cockpit with one hand, Dad’s plane hitting the top of that little hill, and Dad landing and unhooking his G.Q. parachute number 392 and walking down the hill and around to the Mardaga’s front door on January 16, 1945 - right where we walked in for the first time on Friday, January 15, 2010. It was quite the feeling of relief that he made it, of sorrow that I didn’t know about it when he was still alive, sorrow that I didn’t talk to Mom about all this when she was still alive and elation that other people thought this event was important enough to bring memories forward from all those years ago in those Belgian communities.
Here is an excerpt of an email Karel sent which touches my heart – “Your visit also made a lot happen here. Almost every day I receive questions, stories, people give us tips, they are asking for help in searching missing elements in their own memories….
“Tonight we had a small gathering in our street, just to give best wishes for 2010 to all our neighbours. Almost everyone wanted to know the story of that Spitfire in the backyard of Hotel Mardaga.
“For me, the memories of the past weekend are still very strong also. I’m still a little bit overwhelmed by the thought of my meeting with the daughter of one of the fine men who came to our country to fight for freedom and I’m very grateful to have met you and your fine husband.”
When it comes right down to it, I think Dad was a young man who loved to fly. As soon as he could afford it, he took flying lessons in Ottawa. In 1938, people knew there was a possibility of war. Being a pilot in the air force was the most glamorous of the services then. With his parents still tied very firmly to England – they went back as often as they could afford it – it was not strange for him to go to London in early 1939 to try to join up there. We also have to remember the times – it was the right thing to do for a young man to go off and fight “for King and Country.” Like many, many other Commonwealth young people, Dad felt it was important to defend England. And, to be honest, it was also probably somewhat of an adventure as it was for so many at the beginning. While by the end of the war, I expect the feelings were much different. I don’t think he thought of himself as a hero. I think he loved to fly and believed he had a job to do in helping to win the war.
He was a very straight forward type of person – honest, loyal, conscientious, patriotic and probably pretty focussed. All those attributes would have made him an excellent pilot and eventually a good leader. He continued flying after the war off and on and I remember when we were in St. Hubert in the late 50s, he was studying books in the living room and it had to do with flying. I think he didn’t want to give it up. But the only non-jets being flown then were kind of like ferrying cargo around and I doubt that would have held much for him after flying those Spitfires. Years and years later, he and his friend Pete Bonnell in North Bay built and sold Lazair Ultralights – those little one-man planes that (at that time) didn’t require a pilot’s license. He got to fly those. And his iceboat was a really fast little number, I’m told. It seems to me, he also had a sports car at one time. I’m sure I’ll hear from one of the family about it.
So now, after this remarkable trip back in time, I am so pleased Bill and I were able to make this happen. My fondest wish is that people in Opglabbeek and As and surrounding communities continue to bring forward their stories from those to the historical society. They are part of the fabric of their world and it will be so important to keep the stories for generations to come.
My love goes out to all who went with me on this journey – it has brought me closer to my family history and to a whole new group of friends.
And this is Y.32 Ophoven today - a peaceful green field with a hard history that we won't forget.