BANGOR, Maine — Although it happened 68 years ago, Paula Turcotte of Bangor still tears up when she remembers the American GIs who liberated her Dutch hometown near the end of World War II.
She also recalls May 10, 1940, the day that German troops marched into her hometown of Heer, marking the start of an occupation that would last more than four years — a time of great deprivation and rationing, bravery and betrayal and, after it was over, indescribable joy.
“All the people were lined up in front of their stoops and watched this,” Turcotte said last week, her voice still heavily tinged with the Dutch accent of her childhood, when her maiden name was Moermans. “Hitler the night before proclaimed on the radio that he would never invade Holland, but his troops already were at the border. We didn’t live far from the border.”
The years that followed were harsh for the Dutch. Food and clothing were scarce. Turcotte, her parents and her two younger sisters, Mimi and Tonni, were better off than many because her father was the local plumber. Though cash was rare, her father was able to provide food for the table because he was paid in commodities — peas, butter, eggs, meat.
Others weren’t so lucky, she said. They would walk across the Netherlands in search of food, only to have any they found confiscated by the Germans, who had bombed the system of dikes, causing farm fields to flood.
Turcotte spoke of the fear she experienced because her parents were part of the Dutch resistance, a risky proposition that could have sent them to the concentration camps.
“My parents were in the underground and they hid Jews,” she said. “The Germans came often because people would watch. Some were nice, some were not nice and so they betrayed you.”
“I remember one man they found in our house,” she said. “[Nazi soldiers] yelled at my mother and I’m standing behind my mother like a little child does. My mother is yelling right back at them and I couldn’t understand the language because it was German. My mom was born in Germany of a German mother and a Dutch father.
“So they spoke German to her and that saved her because they weren’t going to take a German citizen to the concentration camp,” she said.
Turcotte said she will never forget Sept. 13, 1944 — the day her town was freed from German forces — a day preceded by weeks of bombing that forced her family and her neighbors, who had two daughters, to hunker down in the basement of her family’s home.
“We knew something was going on as children but we didn’t know really what,” she said. “We had heard some bombshells and all that. … One of my dad’s employees, his family was wiped out except for he and his two children. Everybody else the whole block was wiped out.”
And then something remarkable happened.
“All of a sudden my friends’ mother came downstairs and she gave such a yell that what I thought at that moment was, ‘We are going to die,’” Turcotte said.
“‘No, no,’ she says. ‘Come on with us, come on.’ The five of us girls, we all went upstairs and there came the [U.S.] soldiers on single file on either side of the road. In the middle of the street were the tanks and that is where I handed one of them a cookie,” she said.
The moment was captured in a photograph taken by her father. She was 7 years old at the time.
“The one next in line handed me in return a stick of gum and that stick of gum had to be divided into five pieces for the five girls there,” she said.
“‘So what do we do with it?’” she asked. “And he said, ‘Well, you chew it.’
“Before you knew it, the flags were out, the orange streamers — orange because of the [royal Dutch] House of Orange — the bands were out. Just thinking about it, it was unbelievable,” she said. “It was phenomenal. You just don’t forget that.”
Shortly afterward, her family met their liberators, Turcotte said.
“There in a big meadow the soldiers were bivouacking,” she said. “They were in the tents and some were shaving in their helmets. I remember the smell of the coffee, and my mom loved coffee. There wasn’t much of that because we were on the rations. Sometimes I smell coffee — I don’t know what it is — and I’m back in that meadow again.”
The troops and the townspeople quickly befriended each other.
“Everybody in town invited [the soldiers] to come their house and they loved it. They absolutely loved it,” she said. In exchange for the hospitality, the troops brought luxuries the Dutch people had lived without under the the Nazi occupation.
“They were wonderful to us,” she said.
Whenever a convoy of trucks came through town, soldiers would toss out “boxes of graham crackers or chocolate bars or gum or whatever they had. They would throw it at people just like in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.”
In recent years, Turcotte came across a starkly accurate account of what she experienced as a child. Titled “ Liberation of the Municipality of Heer on Wednesday 13 September, 1944,” the written history tells the story of the days leading to the liberation and the joy that followed.
She found the document while doing Internet research to help her granddaughter MaggieBeth Turcotte Seavey with a digital story project for a class at William S. Cohen School in Bangor.
Among the childhood mementos Turcotte dug out for her granddaughter’s school project was a photograph of her younger sisters taken shortly after the war. The photo shows her sisters kneeling on either side of the grave of 2nd Lt. Robert Mathewson, an American soldier from Peoria, Ill. He is among the 8,302 U.S. troops buried at the American War Cemetery Margraten five miles from her hometown.
“He had no family,” Turcotte said softly, her eyes welling up. Turcotte, who has looked up Mathewson’s military records, said the soldier died before having a chance to marry and have children. His grave was among thousands adopted by grateful Dutch people after the war.
“They are so well kept. They know where every soldier is,” she said of the cemeteries. “These graves now are taken care of by the grandchildren of the families that initially took care of them.”
Two U.S. soldiers in particular — Sam Bartlett and Delbert Kutcher of the 41st Evacuation Hospital Unit — held a special place in her family’s heart.
The Moermans and the medics met when Turcotte’s sister Mimi was struck by a military jeep two days before Christmas of 1944 and suffered a skull fracture. In addition, her father was asked by the Americans to install water pipes in the former monastery they had converted into a hospital.
Turcotte said that Kutcher, an orderly, took her sister under his wing. As she recovered from her surgery, he took her on walks through the military hospital, visiting rooms along the way.
“Everybody would give her something. My mom would come home with a bag of stuff every night,” she said. “The family was invited to spend Christmas at the hospital.”
Her sister fully recovered. She turns 73 this month and has four children and nine grandchildren, Turcotte said.
“They saved her life,” Turcotte said softly of the military doctors. “Our local doctor said there was no facility where we were living at the time that could have saved her. The Americans saved her. Actually, she has American blood in her veins [from blood transfusions during her surgery]. I’m always fond of explaining that to her.”
Kutcher hailed from Nebraska, she said.
“He told his family about us and every year [for the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6] a package came, a package with goodies. One year they sent us a gold chain and a beautiful gold cross. They sent us dolls,” Turcotte said. “They sent fabric because the dolls had to have clothes — but my mother said, ‘Uh, uh.’ She had dresses made out of them for us.”
Over the decades, Turcotte’s family and the troops they befriended swapped wedding pictures and baby pictures. After she and her family emigrated to Canada, and after she married and had her four children, the family moved to Washington state, where Turcotte renewed her friendship with Kutcher, who lived two hours away. For a decade, the Turcotte and Kutcher families spent Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July together.
Turcotte said she spoke at Kutcher’s funeral. “Not that much was known about [his wartime service]. … I told all the people what he had done for us and his family did for us after the war.
“And this is what I would like the soldiers’ families here to know — what their sons or what their fathers did for us. You can’t tell anybody, really, if you don’t understand it. You have to have lived through it.”