VERENIGING VAN AIRBORNE-VRIENDEN Lankelaar 19 - 5737 ES Lieshout
Veteranen-verhalen / Veteran Stories
It was in the early nineties that I went to Son, near Eindhoven in the South of the Netherlands.
Keep in mind, that this is about eighty kilometers from where my wife and I live.
There was a large horse riding stable at the edge of the former Drop Zone in Son where the 101st Airborne Division had jumped on September 17th, 1944, about sixty kilometers behind the German frontline.
The Division had to secure the bridges in the roads along which the ground troops would drive up from Belgium.
When I was there, there was a meeting with Dutch people and a group of about 200 veterans and relatives, who had just come from the States for a revisit to Holland.
We had to pick up a veteran there, who would be guest of my cousin, on whose Father’s farm the veteran had been during the war.
My cousin could not speak English, so he asked me to accompany him and translate and also when the veteran was at his home.
My cousin lives in the village named Slijk-Ewijk.
You need to know, that the Americans called Slijk-Ewijk “Slikkie Wikkie” because of pronunciation difficulties with the Dutch language.
My cousin and I were with our wives and the veteran was sitting at a table, when another veteran took a seat at our table.
His name was Sergeant Arthur Bittner and he asked us where we were from.
I told him: "From the Island".
His answer was: "There I’ve had the most emotional experience of the whole wartime!"
And that must have hurt him deeply, because he was also with the Marines in Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese strafed that harbor, as he later told us.
And he had already had some tough experiences in the fighting in Normandy and the Eindhoven area as an infantryman.
When those infantrymen came to the Island, they had already lost 35 percent of their original strength.
He told me: "One day I was on patrol with some men.
But for some reason I was at some distance behind another patrol member.
When I walked along a burned-out farm, I heard some noises from the underground cellar of that farm and thought that it would be Germans who were hiding there.
I pointed my gun at the small window of the cellar and yelled that they had to come out.
But they didn’t do this immediately.
And we already had the experience with the Germans, that when they did not came out immediately or waved a white flag in such circumstances, that they did not want to surrender but rather fight.
And, because I was in fact alone on the spot, I was very nervous and with a lot of tension.
Then I saw something move in the dark cellar and just wanted to pull the trigger, when a small boy appeared.
And I had almost shot him!
That broke my nerves.
I started to cry and was very emotional.
The other buddies of my group who had seen or heard that something was going on came back, stood around us, and tried to give me some courage again.
But I had collapsed into a wreck!
Anyhow, after a while they went further on patrol.
I went back to Slikkie Wikkie with that boy and took him to our kitchen where he was given delicious food and candy.
Then I brought him home at the only small shop in Slikkie Wikkie.
The name of that boy was Henk Balfoort, and he had two brothers.”
After telling me this story, Bittner showed me a picture of that boy.
That picture said nothing to me, because I did not recognize the boy in it.
He asked me if I could find that boy.
(Note Geurt van Rinsum: Breaking nerves happened more often to soldiers who had been trough very fierce fighting with tension and also the loss of many good comrades.)
I could respond to this story immediately.
I knew the boy of that shop in Slikkie Wikkie well, because I had attended evening school with him for two winters.
And I knew for a
fact, that he was the only son of the shop owner during the war and that
he owned that shop himself now.
Also, I knew the family names in the Island very well.
I went from door to door after the war in several of the Island’s villages.
The family name Balfoort was not from the Island at that time, surely not in the area West of Nijmegen.
But in our village Zetten there was an organization that owned about ten fairly large buildings, in which all kind of girls lived with the caretakers of these buildings.
And in our village a gardener to one of those buildings lived, and his last name was Balfoort.
He was not originally from the Island.
I knew that he had two sons, a little older than me, and the first name of one was Henk and the oldest was Bram!
But just because we had so many large buildings in our village, all occupied by Command Posts of Regiments, Battalions and Army hospitals, every day we got ten times more Germans shells than the surrounding villages.
One day in one of those buildings there were American officers in a conference, when a shell hit the conference room, and six men were killed at the spot.
For that reason, most of the people who did not have to stay necessarily, because they had cattle or a shop or such, had fled to the surrounding villages.
I told Bittner all of this and said that I probably knew the boy he was looking for, was Henk Balfoort.
I also told him that the owner of that shop during the war was named Coenen, and that he only had one son, Teun, whom I knew very well.
But also that Henk Balfoort, and his older brother Bram, already had passed away, and their wives too.
And also that neither of them had children.
Further, Henk Balfoort had married his next door neighbor’s daughter and I knew the whole family.
I explained that I was thinking that Henk Balfoort, who lived in Zetten, probably had fled to Slikkie Wikkie like many other people from that area.
When we went back to the Island, we drove to Slikkie Wikkie, and we asked the shop owner, Teun Coenen, what he knew about it.
He said; "Sure, I can remember that, but Henk Balfoort and his brother Bram were cousins of mine and because of the danger in Zetten, their parents had fled to us in Slikkie Wikkie.”
It was like I had thought and I did have to do any more research to Henk Balfoort whom Bittner had met, anymore.
So, end of the story.
One of the following days the group of veterans came to the Island, and I told Bittner what Teun Coenen had told about his cousins.
But remember, my
first conversation with Bittner happened near Eindhoven, eighty
kilometers from where we lived, and seventy kilometers from Slikkie
Wikkie and I lived about ten kilometers from Slikkie Wikkie.
He did not believe me, which I can understand, but he did not tell me this.
I can imagine that he thought: “This man wants to appear important.”
About three months later I received a letter from the owner of a factory in Son.
In the letter, the owner mentioned that Bittner had asked him to do some research to Henk Balfoort.
This man had
telephoned to all the Balfoort families that he could find in the
phonebook along the so-called “Hell’s Highway-“ route, the corridor from
Belgium to Arnhem in 1944, including Nijmegen, explaining about
Bittner's experience in Slijk-Ewijk.
The letter went on describing what I had told Bittner but that he did not believe me.
I wrote the man back, that the case was as hard as a rock.
I later received a phone call from him in which he asked if he could come over to talk, and we made an appointment.
I later talked about this with my Mother and she said: “Do you remember the couple that lived next to our cherry orchard?
They have also passed away, but that woman was a sister of Henk and Bram. A son of that couple still lives in Zetten.”
I did not know that, because that lady was older and already married when I was young.
I went to that man who had to call Henk and Bram ‘Uncle’.
He had inherited the photo album of his Uncle Henk, and in it was the same picture that Bittner possessed.
I was amazed!
Well, when the man from Son came to our appointment, I showed him the same picture of Henk that he had.
I also told him that I knew where Henk had lived, where I had lived during the war and where my neighbor’s daughter had lived, who had married Henk.
So, in all, I presented a very convincing case.
The man from Son wrote this all to Bittner, from whom I received a letter.
In it Bittner apologized to me a thousand times for not believing me.
In the letter was a twenty dollar bill to cover cost I had made.
He was really thankful.
After this, I have met Bittner twice.
This story is not finished yet.
After the war, Bittner claimed that he was the soldier in a famous
photograph taken at the edge of the former Drop Zone in Son.
I am a stamp collector myself and therefor very interested in this
Because it was certain that Jones took his photograph on the 17th 0f September 1944, and Bittner's unit arrived by glider on the 18th, it had to be a soldier from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment; Private First Class Park H. Appler of "G" Company.
In 2004, the Airborne Friends, used this photograph on a commemorative tile with no date, but the wish to "Remember September.... forever!"
© COPYRIGHT 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Airbornevrienden.nl