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 on Nov. 11, 2010 — 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 parachutes and the joy of liberation.
And he offered thanks: “You saved my town. You saved my life,” Schoffelmeer told Wood as he held his hand tight.
The meeting was 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.”
Part of Market Garden operation
Holland would be Wood’s first jump, and he steeled himself for battle.
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 Nijmegen, 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 were 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 most planes and paratroopers, fighting on the ground was intense.
Wood, a sergeant during the flight from England into Holland, led a small unit of 16 men who were part of G Company.
“All the time while you’re flying, no one is talking. The men are icy cold and iron-faced.”
When it came time to jump: “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!’ ”
“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. “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 and often feared going to sleep.
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.
Wood, the son of a United Brethren minister, was working in the Seattle-Tacoma shipyards on Dec. 7, 1941, when a co-worker shouted the news: The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Within a year he had volunteered to become a paratrooper, a dangerous pursuit in contrast to his upbringing as a preacher’s kid.
Once on the ground, Wood’s paratrooper unit fought its way to the bridge and wrested it from German control. They then moved into the city. It was close-range, brutal fighting.
Much of the city was left in ruins. But it was freed.
The Dutch 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 had 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.
After 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. 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.
Both sought peace, and service
Operation Market Garden ultimately failed and Allied plans of winning the war by Christmas 1944 were dashed.
Wood and his crew had a brief break from fighting but soon found themselves fighting at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge when shrapnel hit him. 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.
He was among the approximately 90,000 American casualties of that battle, including 19,000 killed.
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.
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.”