A chance Memorial Day reminder of the rich history, sometimes unknown, of individual lives

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Just before a small Memorial Day parade in Chicago, I was reminded of life's many unreported acts of bravery and decency; and of how little we may know about even those near and dear to us.

 

It was via an email I forgot to open the past week from a New York banker, Job B.B. Sandberg, a big executive with ING. It was about World War II and a part of his life apparently little known even to close friends and business associates, but about which I'd stumbled onto after recently speaking to a professional association to which he belongs.

 

He's a distinctly refined Dutch native who lives in Connecticut and turns out to be the son of a heralded pilot who fought on two fronts for his country. I'd asked him about his past and soon heard a tale of ultimate gratitude toward the United States; about our defeating the Nazi occupation of Holland, allowing his father to come home and Job to be born in March, 1946.

 

"I, quite literally, owe my life to America and I am deeply grateful to the USA for it. Of all the countries I know in the world [he's been to 87], America is still the best!"

 

Sandberg's two emails each included the same three, wonderful photos. One is a front page of the New York Herald Tribune from May 1945, with the headline: "Invasion On, Allies Land in France As Planes and Ships Blast Coast; Montgomery Leads the Advance"

 

A second is of many wings and distinctions awarded his father, who fought and escaped the Germans, wound up briefly in England and was then sent to the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School in Jackson, Mississippi. He was transferred to Australia and fought the Japanese in New Guinea. He came home after the war to his wife and Job's older brother and went on to become a successful military attaché for his country.

 

But it was a third photo which caught my attention. It's of the front of a 100-pound bag of flour, made by B.A. Eckhart Milling Co. of Chicago and dropped near his family's house 10 months before he was born, in May 1945, from the cargo doors of a U.S. bomber.

 

 The flour, he told me, "literally saved my mother's life and thus made my life possible. I still have the front of the bag in our home in Darien, CT."

 

The photo is only of the bag's front since his mother used the back, which didn't have any print, to make clothes during what the Dutch referred to as the "Hunger Winter" of 1944-1945.

 

"Due to the German occupation, the economy had completely collapsed," Sandberg told me in the note I finally read Memorial Day morning. "There was no food nor coal or wood to burn to keep the house warm. When the allied forces finally liberated Holland, the troops were stunned to find many houses with no doors or trim left: everything and anything combustible had been burnt to survive the brutally cold winter of '44. Likewise, there was nothing to eat! The Dutch, in their despair, ate tulip bulbs, just to stay alive."

 

His mother was a member of "de Ondergrondse", the Dutch resistance to defeat the "Moffen" ("'Moffen,'" he wrote, "was the worst swear word, filled with revulsion and disgust the Dutch had for the Germans"). She'd somehow kept her bicycle (most had been confiscated) and would ride to an illegal print shop where they counterfeited food stamps. The son told me that his mom would intrepidly and covertly distribute them to people in even worse shape than her, the son told me.

 "If the Germans caught you, the soldiers would routinely put you against a wall and machine gun you down on the spot (I remember seeing bullet riddled walls after the war)."

His mom didn't have anywhere near enough food for her own family, and wound up so malnourished that she developed a dangerous infection in her central spinal cord and became paralyzed from the waist down. But she survived and was able to conceive Job.

After the professional association meeting in California, I'd mentioned parts of his family story to other members of the group. They, too, are all successful but none had a clue about their dapper and erudite friend's rich past. To some, he's basically the convivial fellow, and smart director of financial institutions at ING, who runs the tennis tournament at the annual meeting.

 

It was a reminder about the frequent complexity of lives and our subsequent, if almost inevitable, penchant to caricature people; as a doctor, lawyer, journalist, politician, banker, nurse, whatever, and then to conjure up, and adhere to, images based mostly on their work.

 

It was also a reminder, especially on Memorial Day, of how little we may often understand about our individual family stories.

 

What did mom, dad, granddad or Uncle Joe do in the war?

 

 

 

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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