There are few signs on the unlined, Nordic face of Cornelius Koekkoek that would lead anyone to suspect that he had seen his fair share of war, or done more than his fair share of freedom fighting.
Except for a profile that calls to mind an ancient Roman coin, the result of a nose badly broken at the hands of German soldiers more than 40 years ago, there is nothing to suggest that the San Fernando Valley butcher once led his native Holland's underground network against the Germans--a Resistance so effective in sabotaging Nazi efforts and helping Jews and shot-down Allied pilots escape that it was dubbed Holland's "Fifth Infantry" during World War II.
The 10th of 12 children, Koekkoek ("You say it 'Kook-Kook' but just call me 'Dutch'--it's easier to pronounce") was 18 years old when war broke out in Europe, and 20 when Holland was invaded by Germany. It was then that he and two of his older brothers joined hands and made a pact to do "anything and everything we could" to fight the Germans and help anyone persecuted by them.
Won Presidential Citation
It was a commitment that later would earn Koekkoek a presidential citation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower for saving the lives of 12 American pilots shot down over the waterways of Holland, a citation from the Canadian Air Force for saving four Canadian pilots, and recognition as an American patriot in the bicentennial celebration 10 years ago.
"In the beginning," Koekkoek said in a heavy accent, sitting in his mobile home in Newbury Park, "the underground wasn't coordinated, and so we just did whatever we could. We would wrap crosses with barbed wire or sprinkle nails on the roads at night so the Germans' tires would go flat. Also, we did a lot of blowing things up. We blew up anything we could to slow them down--bridges, railroads, you name it."
But, as the Dutch Resistance machine became better oiled, its movements became more synchronized and effective. Koekkoek became one of its top commanders. "We developed a wonderful system for hiding people," he said. "The Resistance was all over Holland, and even the mayor of the town of Laren where I grew up was in it. Someone would need hiding, and we would keep moving them all over--two weeks here, three weeks there. We had an advantage over the Germans because it was our country and we knew every inch of it, and we knew how to move around in it without being seen."
Adept at Saving Pilots
Dozens of Americans, British and Canadian pilots who are alive today also have reason to be grateful for that knowledge. The Dutch Resistance was particularly adept at retrieving pilots forced to bail out over Holland, and hiding them until English forces could be contacted and given coordinates of where to pick them up.
"If the pilots weren't injured, we hid them until we knew exactly when and where the British planes would be coming to get them. Then, in the middle of the night," he said excitedly, his hands dipping through the air, "the planes would come out of nowhere and land on what you would call freeways there. Before the Germans knew what had happened, the planes would be off again--a clean getaway."
But the system for getting pilots out didn't last long. Once the Germans realized how the downed pilots were escaping, they placed telephone poles in the road to prevent the planes from landing. Many of the stranded aviators were taken back to Koekkoek's secluded thatched-roof home about 25 miles east of Amsterdam. Some remained there until the end of the war.
House a Restaurant Today
The house outside the small town of Blaricum, where Koekkoek's wife of 43 years was born and raised, is a restaurant today. But then it had all the makings of a perfect hiding spot. It was given to the Koekkoeks by Blaricum City Hall, and many of the members of the town's governing committee were fully aware of how it would be used, Koekkoek said.
Tucked away near a large lake that was dug during the Depression in the early 1930s, the house was built directly next to a large sand dike, with a space about 12 feet by 12 feet under the house actually dug into the dike itself.
The floorboards above the room had been removed, and in their place a "one-piece" floor was made that resembled individual boards nailed together, but which lifted up easily and was bolted from below. A small tunnel had been built as well, which could have been sealed off at the tug of a lever within the house anytime the hiding place was in danger of discovery. In that room, up to 20 pilots and Jewish men, women and children huddled in darkness and silence when the Germans came.
Nazis Demand Information
And come the Germans did. Anne Marie Koekkoek, who often was gone from the house for days at a time in search "any kind of food I could get my hands on to feed them," recalled the night the SS came to the house, demanding to know where the pilots were hidden. By that time, Koekkoek and his wife were the parents of a baby girl, which Anne Marie held in her arms as the Germans burst through the door.
"They held a gun to my husband's head," Anne Marie recalled in a lilting voice. "They told him he had five minutes to live unless he told them where they were hidden, and kept counting down. 'Four minutes to live. . . . Don't you want to see your wife and baby daughter alive? . . . Three minutes to live . . . . 'I looked at my husband and wondered what he would say. Of course, he said nothing. It was the only way. We both knew that his only hope was to deny everything, because if he told them they would have taken them all out and shot them right there."
Eventually the Germans left, but not before they beat Koekkoek brutally and broke his nose.
Life a Relative Luxury
Living in the Blaricum house was a luxury that Koekkoek said he never took for granted, especially after having had far less comfortable accommodations as an unwilling guest of the Germans. Koekkoek had been rounded up during a routine sweep through Holland by the Germans to find young men to work in factories, and was taken to a work camp near the northern German city of Hanover.
Surviving on a daily diet of two pieces of bread, water and one cup of coffee while working in a nearby train station for 14 hours a day, he said, he dropped 35 pounds in the six weeks he was there. Koekkoek escaped by convincing the commander of the camp to let him return to Holland to get married.
"I told him that we wanted to be together, and so I would bring her back to work in the kitchens," he said. Amazingly, the commander let him go. He left the country with a German-issued passport, which today he keeps tucked away in a drawer along with other war memorabilia. Needless to say, he never returned to the camp.
Koekkoek has seemingly limitless stories of narrow escapes and sheer luck in avoiding capture.
'Very Frightening Moments'
"After 40 years, I can laugh about some of these things now. But I tell you," he said quietly, "there were some very frightening moments."
Although Koekkoek has been credited with saving the lives of more than 40 Jews and 16 Allied pilots, except for one instance he has had no contact with any of them. "All of us in the underground made a pact at the end of the war," he said. "We didn't save those people for any other reason than it was the only thing we as human beings could do. And so we all made a pact that we never would contact any of the people, because then they might feel obligated to us. We did not want anyone to feel an obligation."
Letters from the grateful families of American pilots were sent to them in Holland shortly after the war, "but we had to have them translated and knew no English then, so we never wrote back," Anne Marie recalled.
In 1954, after rearing three children in the Blaricum house, the Koekkoeks tried to immigrate to the United States, but were told by the American consulate in Amsterdam that Dutch quotas had been filled. The family then moved to Canada for four years, where they set up a meat-cutting business that foundered in the shaky postwar economy. Then came the opportunity to move south.
'I Love This Country'
"I chose America to live in, and I love this country. It is the only one with such great freedom. And I have known very well what it is to live without freedom and to fight for it. Believe me, though. I would fight again for it and do it all again if I had to."
Koekkoek's love of country and freedom apparently was not lost on his only son. Gordon Koekkoek fought in Vietnam and was awarded a medal for bravery.
Cornelius and Anne Marie Koekkoek have traveled back to Holland several times and visited the towns of Laren and Blaricum, and dined at the hideout-turned-restaurant on the lake. Their last journey in January, however, was a sad occasion, since it was to attend the funeral of his oldest brother, a Dutch writer who received Holland's Medal of Honor for his role during the war.
"He was very loved, and there were more than 200 people there," Koekkoek said. Among all the faces he saw was one he remembered from years before, in a lifetime long ago.
Jewish Refugee There
"One of the Jewish men I had hidden in my house was there at the funeral," Koekkoek said, his voice wavering slightly and his eyes suddenly brimming with tears. "He came up to me and said, 'Oh my God, I am so happy to see you.' He just kept telling me that. 'I am so happy to see you.' "
Although Koekkoek has never gone back to Germany, he says it is not because of any hatred for the German people. "Life is too precious to waste it hating. I don't hate the Germans. But what I do hate is regimes.
"I am a happy man today, and that comes from giving a lot of love. You give love, and, oh boy, I tell you that you will get love. You have to look for what is good in life, and not live in what is bad."