War is hell. Yes that statement is a cliché and yet not truly understood by those of us who have never experienced it. However, it is something World War II veteran Roy Laman knows very well. Roy will be the first to admit he is lucky and has it better than the frontline soldier. As a communications officer with the 2nd Signal Battalion who processes top secret messages, he jokes that he is close enough to the frontline not to have to wear a tie, but far enough back not to be shot at.
by Brad Hoopes
But as Roy and his unit follow the war across Europe, he sees the results of war: the total destruction, the death and maiming, the desperate people along the roads begging for food. I can tell in his eyes and in his voice that 65 years later it still bothers him very much. As he is telling me of his experiences in the war, within it he tells of a 3-week period when he receives a wonderful reprieve from it all.
This period of very fond memories for Roy starts when his unit pulled into Heerlen, the Netherlands to set up their headquarters. He is billeted with a local family and soon becomes very close to them, in particular with one of the young daughters, Irmine. “They were incredibly kind to me and the other soldier staying there and treated us like members of the family,” he recalled. One memory in particular that stands out is the warm feeling and sense of family he misses, but now feels when he goes to Christmas Eve services with the family. He and Irmine play games and take walks. He often brings them supplies when he can. He laughs when he tells about once bringing cans of sweet corn and being stumped by their reaction. He soon finds out that back then corn is only eaten by the livestock. Chocolate on the other hand is like gold to them. As the front line starts moving east towards Germany, it is time for Roy to move as well. While saying his goodbyes to the family, he is presented a braid of hair by Irmine’s sister Illa. She cut it off to give him a memento to remember them all by. Roy carries that braid with him through the rest of the war. Sadly however, on the troop ship home after the war had ended, an outbreak of scabies forces everyone to toss all of their personal items overboard.
That evening as I am processing his videotaped interview to give back to him and his family, I can’t stop thinking about this story. I have done many interviews and almost every one of them has had an affect on me. Roy’s story is no exception, the only difference being this time it is a happier story. I toss and turn in bed that night thinking about it. Once again, by the sparkle in his eyes I can tell just how special this time and family is to him. When I finally do fall asleep, like many of the other stories I have heard in the past, it seeps into my dreams. When I wake up that next morning, I decide I must try and find Irmine.
Finding Irmine proves to be easy, a testament to the power of the internet. I don’t have her last name or an address, but I do have pictures. I find the website of the local newspaper in Heerlen. Plugging words into a translation website, I work my way around the newspaper’s site until I find their “news tips” button. I send them a message explaining what I am trying to do and ask if they can help. A week goes by with no response and I begin to wonder what other approaches I can take. I then receive an email from Stefan Gillisson, a reporter with the newspaper, saying he would be interested in doing such a story. We exchange additional emails in which I give him what details and pictures I have. He says the story will run the following Saturday. Friday night, like the night after I first interviewed Roy, I toss and turn in bed. Finally very early in the morning, I get up and turn on the computer. With the time difference between the Netherlands and Colorado, I hope there will be good news. There is an email from Stefan….Irmine has been found!
Soon after, I get an email from Irmine’s neighbor Frank. Because she has read in the article about how much that Christmas Eve service meant to Roy, Frank and Irmine go over and snap a picture of her in front of the church and email it to me. I receive a number of emails from others as well. What strikes me about every email I get is that each mentions additionally just how grateful they still are for what the Americans had done. I wait then for a decent hour to call Roy and his wife Marilyn. I had not told them I was doing this, waiting instead to do so when I had something to give them. I take all the emails and the picture of Irmine over to them. I also take my video camera. They record a message to Irmine and I send it to her via Youtube. A few days later Irmine and Frank sent them a video message back. The story only gets more special and touching though once Irmine tells her side of it.
Irmine tells her side of the story when Stefan does a follow up article after she is found. She pulls out her wartime diary and shows where Roy had written a message in it:
To my little darling. Of all the girls in the world, you have made me most happy. You
see, I have a little darling (a special niece) back in America. While I am in Holland, you have
been like that little girl. I hope you will grow up to be a grand lady like your mother. May
you always be happy and stay as beautiful as you are today. Love you baby. Yours, Roy
She talks about the games they play and walks they take. She also told about the time Roy announces a great general was in their town. Irmine’s mother wraps a red, white and blue shawl around her, and she and Roy walk hand in hand to go meet the general. She sits on the general’s lap and he gives her a bag of donuts. As a little girl, she had no idea who General Eisenhower is.
Roy returns home after the war, goes into the printing business and marries his lovely wife Marilyn. They have been married for sixty-four years and have five sons (sadly, losing one in an auto accident), nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Irmine will go on to start a program in the Netherlands that helps children in third world countries. She is married to her husband Peter for forty-five years until his passing six months earlier. In the follow up article Irmine states, “I miss Peter very much. Roy’s search comes at the right moment. It lightens my heart and eases the sadness.”
Sadly, a few months after she and Roy reconnected, Irmine passed away.