February 20, 2011 in City

Priest meets paratrooper who liberated his town during WWII

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: A chance meeting

Lying in a hospital bed, his heart failing, Allan Wood met a priest.

The two were sharing a room at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center when Wood discerned the priest’s Dutch accent. They struck up a conversation, and soon these two men, ages 89 and 88, uncovered a shared experience from decades ago that molded their lives.

They had never met until their chance encounter in the hospital last Nov. 11 – Veterans Day. But they spoke intimately of Sept. 17, 1944, in Nijmegen, one of Holland’s oldest cities.

Wood was among more than 40,000 U.S. Army soldiers who boarded a fleet of C-47 airplanes in England, flew several hundred miles on a crisp clear day, and parachuted into a daring military plan drawn up to liberate the Dutch, outflank the enemy and seize the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany.

The priest, Arnold Schoffelmeer, was a seminary student at the time. He lived quietly, sometimes hiding to avoid being conscripted into the occupying German army or sent to labor camps.

The two elderly men shared their memories of those momentous days. Wood told of his jump and tough mission. Schoffelmeer, who struggles to speak, recalled the joy of liberation and street celebrations. And he offered thanks.

“You saved my town. You saved my life,” Schoffelmeer told Wood as he held his hand tight.

The meeting has been cathartic for Wood, who received the Bronze Star for combat valor and a Purple Heart. He has struggled all his life with his memories and role in the war.

“I really wept. It was such a powerful statement from him, and to think I had a part in that was just unreal,” he said.

“He lived in that city and he saw our chutes opening and us coming down.”

‘Icy cold and iron-faced’

Holland would be Wood’s first jump, and he steeled himself for battle.

He had missed parachuting into Normandy three months earlier. Commanders had sent him to cadet training in Vermont instead.

He felt guilty about missing the invasion of France where his unit, like so many others, took heavy casualties.

With 80 pounds of guns, grenades, bullets and extra gear strapped to his body, he drifted into the Dutch countryside as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Inside the city, the drone of hundreds of airplanes brought townspeople to their windows and into the streets. Among them was Schoffelmeer, who gazed into the sky as the paratroopers descended “like angels.” They represented freedom to the Dutch, who had lived under Nazi occupation for five years.

“We were so happy,” Schoffelmeer, a Spokane priest for decades, told close friends who are supervising his care in a North Side nursing home. “We wanted to be saved. To be free.”

It wouldn’t come easy.

The military operation – called Market Garden – represented the high stakes of World War II.

The paratroopers employed the element of surprise. They would be fast, tough and lethal. They were to seize and hold a series of bridges that would allow British and then American tanks and mechanized army forces to speed across the canals and rivers and punch into Germany, where they would destroy factories, cripple the Nazi war effort and race to Berlin.

But the Germans had the numbers advantage: more tanks and more soldiers.

It proved a fatal mix. While light anti-aircraft fire missed the vast majority of planes and paratroopers, fighting on the ground was intense.

Most soldiers landed in the early afternoon, and were met by exploding artillery shells and bullets.

Wood recalls the plane ride from England across the North Sea and into Holland as a sergeant leading a small unit of 16 men who were part of G Company.

“Some planes did get shot down. Many were shot up, but not ours,” he said. “All the time while you’re flying, no one is talking. The men are icy cold and iron-faced.”

When the time to jump neared, the soldiers stood up, hooked in and moved in a line toward the open door of the plane.

Wood recalled the red light signaling two minutes until jump time. As the green light snapped on, the jump master inside the plane helped the soldiers out.

“You bend at the hips and keep your head down. … You’re stone cold. You count ‘one thousand, two thousand, three thousand,’ or, if you were in our company, you yelled ‘Geronimo!’ ”

No longer a ‘PK’

Wood doesn’t recall much. All of the focus was on landing, regrouping and getting ready to fight.

“Our mission was to race to the bridge at Nijmegen and hold that bridge before the Germans could blow it,” Wood said.

There were German soldiers everywhere.

“I don’t know, even now at this point, how many of those Nazis we killed,” he said, as tears welled in his eyes and his voice tapered during a recent interview. “We captured some POWs, but there were so many Germans lying around dead. I fired my weapon so many times. After we landed it was kill or be killed.”

Wood still struggles to talk about his actions; he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has often feared going to sleep because of nightmares.

As he raised a family, worked for state government and preached, he kept his experiences bottled up.

His daughter, Susan Wood, said she and her sisters knew their dad fought in Europe, but it wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he began talking about his experiences – good and bad – and then often in generalities.

Wood was born in a North Bend, Ore., parsonage in 1921, the son of a United Brethren minister. The family moved to Tacoma during the Great Depression when his father developed Parkinson’s disease.

After high school he found work painting in the Seattle-Tacoma shipyards.

He was painting in the hold of an escort carrier on Dec. 7, 1941, when a co-worker shouted the news: The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

“I just stood there in disbelief,” he said.

Within a year he had volunteered to become a paratrooper and reported to training camp. Jumping from airplanes behind enemy lines was dangerous service that Wood sought.

“The reason … is because I didn’t like the title of being a PK (preacher’s kid), or TO – theologian offspring,” he said. Joining the paratroopers “gave me the opportunity to lose that PK nomenclature.”

Wood’s paratrooper unit succeeded in its mission. They made it to the bridge and wrested it from German control. Some soldiers of the regiment used small boats to cross the river, many using their rifle butts as paddles, a practice later made famous by the movie “A Bridge Too Far.” With the German effort to detonate explosives and destroy the span foiled, the soldiers moved into the city to evict the Germans – house by house.

It was close-range, brutal fighting.

Much of the city was left in ruins. But the Dutch people celebrated. They rushed the American soldiers, showering them with hugs, kisses and food.

“They gave us what they had,” Wood said. “Drinks and fruits and these wonderful baked rolls. Oh, they were delicious.”

One of Schoffelmeer’s sisters, Hildegard, remembers when the Americans and the British liberated many of Holland’s cities.

“There was an enormous feast when the American soldiers came,” she told family friend Sue Miller Smith, of Spokane. “Everyone came out of their houses and danced and sang in the streets. The soldiers came house to house and told us we were free.”

Through it all Wood wondered how and why he survived, questions that would continue to mount as the war dragged on.

Priest’s outlook forged during wartime

For Schoffelmeer, the liberation of Nijmegen helped him realize his dreams of seeing his family again and joining the priesthood.

While he lived in Nijmegen during the occupation, his twin brother, Theo, was captured and sent to a labor camp in Germany for two years. His parents continued to operate two stores from their home in Groningen, and they had to sneak food on occasion to their children.

In the years following the war, Schoffelmeer and as many as nine other Dutch priests and seminarians came to Spokane, said Monsignor William Van Ommeren, who was a seminary student in his hometown of Tilburg.

Word of Spokane as a place to serve had spread among many in the seminary following the war.

Schoffelmeer was ordained in May 1956 and spent his entire career in the Spokane Diocese.

Throughout his life Schoffelmeer became known for his emotional and enthusiastic homilies, his wisdom, and his willingness to tackle uncomfortable issues, including the difficulties of love and forgiveness.

One parishioner still remembers a Mother’s Day message he delivered more than 40 years ago. The story recounted a disturbed son who kills his mother. Distraught, the son flees and then stumbles. As he lies on the ground hurt, his mother’s pursuing spirit arrives. She asks: “Are you hurt? How may I help you? I love you.”

Schoffelmeer’s words may have been his greatest deeds, connecting people with God, said family friend Smith.

And he exhibited unwavering support for American soldiers and ideals.

Intense, savage fighting

Operation Market Garden ultimately failed. The Germans were able to destroy most of the bridges, notably the crucial bridge at Arnhem, and Allied plans of winning the war by Christmas 1944 were dashed.

While some of Holland – including Nijmegen – was liberated, Van Ommeren said the Dutch cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam were not liberated until the very end of the war when Allied troops were in Berlin.

With Market Garden abandoned, Wood and his crew had a brief break from fighting but soon found themselves fighting at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The German offensive in the winter of 1944-’45 marked one of the last gasps of the German army before Allied forces rolled into Germany from east and west.

Wood earned a Purple Heart when he was hit with a piece of shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell on Dec. 22, 1944. His shirt was tattered and the shrapnel sliced open his left side. He bled plenty, but did not suffer any broken ribs or serious internal injuries. He recovered in a hospital where the vast majority of patients were being treated for severe frostbite. He was among the approximately 90,000 American casualties of the Battle of the Bulge, including 19,000 killed.

Later he entered Germany with his regiment, which had been tasked with clearing a 20-mile area. The force included two armored cars, three tanks and a couple of tank destroyers and other vehicles. As the unit crested a hill, the Germans fired into the ranks. The armored cars were destroyed and several soldiers quickly killed.

As artillery continued to explode, Wood and friend Leonard “KC” Knowles dived beneath a tank for cover. An officer ran up and said he had lost his helmet and wanted to borrow Wood’s. So he passed it around the tread of the tank.

After a couple of minutes Wood said, “Let’s get up and get out of here. They might need us.”

They jumped into a nearby jeep and sped toward the front of the line as artillery continued to land all around.

Bodies of American soldiers were scattered about. Wood saw his helmet 3 feet from the corpse of the captain who had borrowed it, his body torn up by an explosion.

The two soldiers were stunned. Wood doesn’t remember if he grabbed his helmet. They loaded four wounded soldiers onto the jeep and sped toward medical help.

While the war was marked by savage fighting, there were moments of compassion. In one building Wood and his men shot a German soldier at close range, the bullet tearing through his shoulder.

The men tore the German’s shirt away and poured sulphanilamide powder to help stop the bleeding and cauterized the wound. They taped his wound shut and left him in Wood’s care for the night.

Wood said he tried to make his prisoner comfortable and urged him to sleep as the war continued to rage outside.

In the middle of the night Wood fetched the German a drink of water. He wonders today what became of the man.

Following the war Wood married and returned to Europe on a missionary project. He and his wife had five children, and he worked in Washington state’s prison system as a counselor. After retirement he worked with the Veterans Administration to help soldiers with mental illnesses in the Puget Sound region. He sometimes shares his stories so that Americans never forget the horrors of war.

Schoffelmeer served several parishes, finishing with a 15-year tenure at St. Thomas More Parish in 1992.

“He was a devoted and wonderful priest,” Van Ommeren said.

Both soldier and priest sought lives of peace and service to others after their experiences.

When Wood visited Nijmegen decades after the war, he was struck by the serenity.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “From our dark days good things happened.”


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