A single rumpled burlap sack that fell from the sky above Holland 70 years ago has connected two Carson Valley residents for a lifetime.
Former U.S. Army Air Force pilot Clarence Godecke, 95, dropped that sack into the backyard of Garry Den Heyer, 81, who was a small boy living in Sheveningen, a district within southern Holland’s The Hague.
“I want to thank you personally for what you have done for us,” Den Heyer of Gardnerville, said as he touched Godecke’s arm. “I still personally feel I can never replace what the U.S. has given me.”
The Record-Courier brought the two Valley residents together in honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, which was Friday.
From May 1-8, 1945, U.S. pilots traded in their bombs for thousands of pounds of aid bags to drop near Holland’s coast in the last mission they would fly during World War II called Operation Chowhound.
Godecke, a lieutenant colonel of the 338 Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group, responded to Den Heyer’s thanks by explaining his emotions taking off on that mission, the last of his career.
“I was very glad to do that after dropping nothing but bombs for years,” the 95-year-old said. “It was nice to do some good. I had a little different emotion about this mercy mission than any other I’d flown, but I took it on.”
Although he volunteered for a second tour of duty, Godecke was a little apprehensive about flying the mercy mission.
To ensure their safety during their mission, the U.S told the Germans, who continued to occupy Holland right up to the end, of their intentions.
“We got a message one day from the operations officer, who was actually my best friend, saying we had another mission to fly. I told him ‘I thought we were done over here.’ He said this was something different,” Godecke recalled. “I was told we had sent word to the Germans about our food drops down to the day and the time, and were just waiting for a reply from them to get started. Next thing I heard, the mission was set for a 3 a.m. briefing. There I was told I would fly from (England) to The Hague at 500 feet. There would be markers on the landscape of where to drop. I was excited and asked ‘Great, you heard from the Germans.’ My friend told me, ‘No.’”
Godecke lead two wingmen along the coast of The Hague was the guinea pig, checking to see if the Germans would fire on them.
Although the British Air Force had been delivering aid in a similar fashion in a mission called Operation Manna the week before, Godecke was still apprehensive of the U.S. version, which would include more than 70 planes.
“I was told to fly the course, and if I didn’t get shot down, I was to go out of The Hague and follow in at the tail end of the operation,” Godecke said. “I remember there was a pit right by the coast full of Germans and their guns. We were so close we could see them laugh. We were looking at the barrel-end of those things. I think I held my breath the whole time. It was a great relief when they let us go by.”
Den Heyer, who was about 7 years old at the time of the food drop, remembered watching the planes fly over his home.
“They flew so low we could see their faces,” Den Heyer said. “We could hear them all the time. You wouldn’t believe how Holland was thankful to the U.S. We saw their planes and knew we were safe.”
Like most Dutch at the time of the German invasion, Den Heyer was separated from his mother and two sisters to live with a family elsewhere in the country for his protection.
“We had a good-sized yard and grew all kinds of vegetables and potatoes,” he said. “We had to share everything, though, and at that time I knew if I went down in the cellar where we kept everything, I had to whistle so I wouldn’t be accused of stealing.”
While only a single bag of aid containing coffee, chocolate and beans dropped near Den Heyer’s home, he recalled the relief it brought his neighborhood.
“I remember the day my ‘aunt’ found something in the backyard,” he said. “We only found one thing but we were very happy and proud to have found it. We were hungry like everyone else, but not to the point that we were going to starve like some of our neighbors…it’s not every day that something falls in your backyard.”
The bag that landed in Den Heyer’s backyard stayed in one piece, however, not all of them did.
Godecke remembered watching the Dutch scramble to pick up the contents of the ruptured sacks.
“As we came by, we saw people grabbing the bags and scooping up all the coffee or chocolate off the ground. They didn’t leave anything on the ground. It was apparent they were hungry and desperate.” Godecke said. “They would always stop and wave as we went over again.”
Every rank of the Air Force flew during the food drops, Godecke said.
Over a week nearly 11,000 tons of food were delivered.
“Everyone wanted to go on these missions,” Godecke said. “We had all the help we needed. We had brigadier generals flying during the food drops.”
In 1990, 45 years after flying his last mission, Godecke and 140 other men who dropped aid in Operation Chowhound were invited back to Holland as guests of honor.
For 10 days Godecke and his comrades were shown the countryside and fed local cuisine, but Godecke remembers the trip being an emotional one.
“People turned out to stand by the side of the road,” he said. “All they wanted to do was try to touch us. I usually just kept walking, but I finally gave in and stopped and talked to a lady with a baby that kept tugging at my sleeve. She said ‘This is my grandchild and without you having brought food to my daughter who was very ill, they wouldn’t have survived.’ She was crying great big tears. Soon I was crying great big tears.”
“I hope we never forget what these men did,” Den Heyer said. “Everybody should learn to have sympathy for those in need, just like the U.S. did for Holland.”
The 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, ending the war, is Aug. 15.