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