Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List (Bucket List)

These last two days in Holland have been incredible!  This trip to Holland was one of the major items on my Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List which I made while I was undergoing chemotherapy in 2012. The activities I've engaged in are the culmination of my husband's research into my Great Uncle Russell's demise during Operation Market Garden in WWII.  My husband's interest was peaked throughout the years as I always recount the stories my grandma and my mom would tell me about Uncle Russell.  Of course, I never knew him as I was born many years after WWII.  My mom was very, very good in keeping his memory alive by showing me pictures and telling me how he died.

My husband started researching Uncle Russell's movements from 1939 onwards. He contacted the Canadian Government and various internet sites dealing with Operation Market Garden. Uncle Russell was part of the Canadian Royal Engineers 23rd Field Company. My husband has been in touch with various people who have helped him with his research through the last several years.  One gentleman from one of these sites suggested my husband should contact another gentleman named Lt. Russell Kennedy who was also part of the Royal Canadian Engineers 23rd Field Company. As it turned out, Lt. Kennedy lived in the same city that we were living in! My husband called him up to make an appointment to meet with Mr. Kennedy. You must realize that this was more than 60 years after the end of WWII. My husband asked Lt. Kennedy if he had known Lt. Russell Martin. What a gift to us it was to have Mr. Kennedy (who actually had retired from the military as a Colonel) say that Uncle Russell was his best friend!!

After reading and researching, my husband was contacted by a lady in Holland who was also researching the seven men from the Royal Canadian Engineers 23rd Field Company.  She is trying to make sure that these seven men who died during Operation Market Garden are not forgotten.  She is trying to give each man's name a picture and story to go with it.  To make a very long story a little shorter, she offered to be our "host" if we ever came to Holland.  So for the last two days, Alice van Bekkum has very generously and graciously been our guide as we wanted to visit the various places where Uncle Russell had been.

My husband found a house to rent for 10 days. It is surrounded by a conservation area which during WWII saw intense fighting as the Allied Forces clashed with the German forces to try and take control of the area. My Uncle Russell was not involved with this part of the campaign. The living room in this house has a complete wall that is one huge picture window.  As I sit inside the house, I feel like I am outdoors.  I can see the various coloured birds flitting around and I can hear their chirps and bright songs.  I can hear the breeze rustling through the leaves of the trees. These same trees have witnessed the fighting that took place here 70 years ago!!  But I digress from my adventures of the last 2 days. Two days ago, Alice arrived at our location to pick us up and lead us on a very grand and emotional adventure.  My husband had been in touch with her via email but he'd not met her or talked with her on the phone before. I was a little nervous but very quickly was at ease with Alice. What a delightful woman with such an abundance of energy and drive!  Our first stop was at the Nationaal Bevrijdingsmuseum 1944-1945 (Liberation Museum). This museum is divided up into three sections which told the story of Holland and how the Germans invaded and occupied Holland, then how Holland was liberated by the Allied Forces and then post war Holland.  This museum has a Memorial Hall that is a separate building.  It has been built to look like a parachute and contains all the names of those men in the Allied Forces who were killed during the liberation of Holland. There was a book with the emblem of the Royal Engineers mounted on the wall above it.  Alice's husband went into the Memorial Hall, while my husband and I were still in the museum, and opened up the book to Uncle Russell's name.  This hall had soft classical music playing in the background which was very soothing. There was a place to leave a message on a piece of paper. As I sat at the table to write my message, my heart was overcome with emotion. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I hung my message on the hook with the other messages. I was overwhelmed because there were so many names in all the books in this room. These are not just names but each name was a person and has a story with family behind the name. Each name has generations that have not been able to know them. Each name is an "Uncle Russell"!

After the Bevrijdingmuseum, we drove to a road called Klein Amerika (Little America) where there was a field with a monument showing the dropping zone of the 82nd Airborne. The day was wet and gray so we were unable to get good pictures of the monument. My husband and I may return there in the next couple of days to get a picture as it isn't far from where we are staying.  Alice had a wonderful itinerary set out for us. Due to the amount of time we took in the first museum, we had to forego the Airborne Museum.  My husband and I will go there on our own in the next couple of days. Alice then took us to Oosterbeek where we enjoyed a nice lunch before continuing on our way to Westerbouwing.  This was an area of very high ground on the Neder Rijn (Rhine River) across and down river from where Uncle Russell died. Alice showed us approximately where Uncle Russell's boat would have been launched from on the other side of the river (but upstream). As I looked at the view upstream, my heart was full with emotions. The rain had stopped briefly but it was overcast.  All I could think was that Uncle Russell had been doing this in the dark of night, in very wet, windy and cold conditions.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to an old church where the British and Polish paratroopers had hidden waiting for the Royal Engineers (British and Canadian) to rescue them and help them evacuate. The stone walls on the outside of the church still have the bullet holes that were from the Germans shooting at the paratroopers. The house beside the church was owned by a woman who helped look after the wounded British and Polish paratroopers. Alice mentioned that this lady died a number of years ago as she was hit by a car while she tried to cross the road in front of her house.  The road is a highway and there are some very tight curves right at that spot. We had to be careful ourselves as we crossed the road to get back to Alice's car. Before we left the church/house, Alice showed us the path that the paratroopers would have taken to run through gunfire to get to the rescue boats that came to evacuate them.

Our next stop was to the Engineers Monument in Driel/Arnhem. This was a very emotional time for me!! At this location, is where my Uncle Russell would have helped unload the storm boats and carry them across the fields and two dikes in order to get to the Neder Rijn (Rhine River).  I stood on the road where the truck carrying him would have driven and stopped. As I looked downstream, I could see Westerbouwing where I had just been on the high ground. This is also where the Germans had been (at Westerbouwing) and where the mortar or 88mm shell (no one will ever know for sure which one was used) was launched from that made the direct hit on Uncle Russell's boat. As I write this I again feel the very strong emotions of grief but also a close feeling to Uncle Russell as I stood where he walked and worked.  It was time to move along as the drizzle started to get a little heavier.  Our next stop was in Elst which is a small village downstream.

We went to a small Dutch General Cemetery (community cemetery) in Elst. On the edge of the river at Elst is where Uncle Russell's body was found. He was then buried in this General Cemetery for a brief time before he was moved to Holten Cemetery.  Alice showed us the space where Uncle Russell had been buried. It is an area where there are is a military grave, then a space (big enough for another grave) filled with flowers and an evergreen shrub and then another military grave.  So the garden area is flanked on either side by 2 military graves. Near the graves was a very old tree and again, I had a moment of emotion as this tree would have witnessed my Uncle Russell being buried. Thus ended our first day with Alice.

Yesterday morning, we met Alice at her home.  The only thing on the agenda was a visit to Holten Cemetery to see Uncle Russell's grave and then a nice dinner out with Alice and her husband.  A small way to thank them for their wonderful hospitality.  We left their home and drove to Holten via a route into Germany. We had a small lunch in Holten at Bakkery Nijkamp and then I bought some flowers (red and white roses) to leave with Uncle Russell. In preparation to visit Uncle Russell's grave, I had contacted my mom, uncle and aunt to see what messages they wanted left on Uncle Russell's grave.  The Dutch Legion sells wooden poppy crosses that you can write a message on and leave on the grave.  I had bought a Canadian flag at the National Bevrijdingsmuseum so that I could leave that at the grave as well. After buying the flowers, off we went to Holten Cemetery.  It is located outside of the village and to get there we drove through a beautiful country lane/road that meandered through the woods.  The cemetery is very impressive.  We found his grave.  I had six poppy crosses with messages. Five of these were from Uncle Russell's immediate nieces and nephew. I inserted them in the ground along the base of his headstone. My own cross with the message, I placed in front.  I felt that I am a great-niece and should be that one generation removed, hence my cross was not place right next to the headstone.  I inserted the Canadian flag on the left beside the headstone.  I pushed the stems of the red and white roses into the dirt on the right beside the headstone so they looked like fresh flowers in a vase.  Alice had brought along a beautiful candle in a red pillar holder with a gold metal top.  I lit the candle and placed it in front of everything else.  After all the various pictures were taken, I took a number of moments to sit and pray and "commune" with Uncle Russell.  How I wish I had been able to know him. I felt close to him at that moment.  With my throat tight, my eyes full of tears, it was time to go.  I was off to the Visitors' Centre at Holten Cemetery to meet a gentleman named Gert Jan van Holt who is attempting to collect pictures and the family story of each soldier that is buried in Holten Cemetery.  I met Mr. van Holt and have promised to write as full an account of Uncle Russell as I can.  Not so much his military movements, which my husband has researched, but more the personal, family background. After meeting Mr. van Holt, we toured the Visitors' Centre and watched a movie which was narrated by Mr. van Holt.

We ended our day with Alice and her husband by taking them out to dinner to a restaurant of their choice.  Alice is very involved with the Legion and has just joined the Canadian Legion in Holland as well.  She has been to this restaurant for meetings but had never been for dinner.  It was called Canadian Restaurant Mondani and is located in Lochem.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner and the food was excellent.  The two husbands had buffalo steak, Alice had Pacific Cedar Planked Salmon and I had a venison steak with Saskatoon berries.  It was all very good and we shared much laughter.  A new friendship has been born these last couple of days with Alice.

I can now put a big check mark beside "Trip to Holland" on my Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List.  It might be interesting to now do a trip from Normandy where Uncle Russell landed and travel in his footsteps up through Belgium into Holland. Hmmmm....I think I had better add this to my Living List.


  1. Very exciting, Cathy! I hope you fulfill everything on your 'Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List'. And this is something everyone should do; fulfill their own bucket lists while they're still able to. We should live life to its fullest, and try to experience all the things we desire to the best of our ability. There's no point in waiting for the 'right time' in the future. The right time is always 'right now' because life does not guarantee the future.

    "These are not just names but each name was a person and has a story with family behind the name. Each name has generations that have not been able to know them. Each name is an "Uncle Russell"!" That is incredibly profound. How wonderful that the 'Uncle Russell' in your family is remembered, and now visited.

    1. Thank you Martha. You are so right when you mention that the right time is right now. We can't procrastinate because we never know what may blindside us just around the corner.