It is the night of the first and second day of February in 1953 and a violent storm lashes the North Sea coast of the Netherlands with king tides along the west coast.
I am at our family home near the coast on weekend leave
from the army.
When the storm howls in we can hear the troubling sound of the waves spilling over the seawall only a few kilometres away and we worry about our safety
When it gets light we survey the damage, the roof tiles blown off , the fences
flattened, the trees uprooted around the house and in the village.
Then a policeman arrives on his bicycle with a priority travel form and tells me to report to my army base urgently. I pack and leave at once and arrive back at my unit before lunch time
where a small group of early arrivals has gathered.
We are an engineering corps and we have motorised assault boats, trucks and other equipment army command consider appropriate for such a rescue operation.
We, a lieutenant, a sergeant, and I are
bundled in a truck with a boat and with the sergeant as the driver take off to Zeeland and the flooded areas.
When we arrive it is established that I as the son of a fisherman am the only one who knows how to sail a boat, and therefore I am suddenly
promoted to lead the team. This promotion of a lowly soldier over a city born lieutenant and a sergeant creates envy but the jalousie disappears quickly when my companions realise I handle the boat professionally in the rough weather and the choppy seas.
We rescue people from the lofts of their houses and with their cats and dogs and make several trips to the protection of the areas where the dikes have held.
There is nothing we can do the poor horses and cows that are stabled in the sheds. That
are knee-deep in water. We are however able to lift sheep and goats into our boat.
I see my fellow crew members crying with emotion and fatigue and I also have trouble keeping calm and finally my lieutenant companion speaks, ‘We have to keep on
going mates there is nothing else to do.’ He is right of course and we keep going until it is too dark to continue.
When we return the next day we find the cattle drowned. Collapsed from exhaustion in the water that came up to their bellies. The
sadness of it all binds us together in a way not determined by army rank but by shared compassion and appreciation
As other units straggle in over the next few days we become part of a coordinated rescue operation that extends over several days at the
end of which we are lined up and inspected by Her Majesty Queen Juliana and I am placed once again right at the back of the unit unable to hear the speech of congratulation by Her majesty
I feel no resentment as I have had the satisfaction of the job
done with my companions in the best way we could.
Thus ended the only useful thing I achieved in 3 years of military service. In fact many years later I met an elderly Dutch couple in the United States who had lived through this disaster and had migrated
to the States who could not speak highly enough of the army efforts in which I had played a small but I like to think a significant part.