The scene was one of paramount celebration. Tanks paraded with trucks throughout the streets of the southern Netherlands. Kids hopped on top in ecstasy, as soldiers handed out chocolates.
It was the fall of 1944, and the region had just been liberated from German occupation.
Sixty or 70 per cent of the allied forces in the Netherlands were Canadian and left such an impression on a nine-year-old Tony Spierings that he vowed to move to Canada to find out more about his freedom fighters.
“I had to find out who these people were,” said Spierings, who will be turning 76. “They would be quartered in our homes and I remember them being so generous. It was quite sentimental when they left because we had gotten quite close.”
Spierings shared his stories of both joy and horror with animated hands and wide eyes.
Coming to Canada wasn’t easy for him. He first had to serve three years in the Dutch army until he was 21. He then realized the Canadian government wasn’t taking in any more immigrants of his trade.
Undeterred, Spierings picked up a new one. He spent six months in farm school, where he worked in minus 10-degree weather to till the land and milk the cows, all the while driven by his curiosity about Canadians.
He finally got here and is now the youth liaison and poppy fund vice chair for the Richmond Royal Canadian Legion. He spoke with 609 air cadets at Walter Lee School Wednesday evening about his experiences as a child during the Second World War.
“We need to do this to remind people what the war was all about,” said Spierings. “We have to keep the memory alive so that we can avoid it from happening again. Kids today need to know who fought for their freedom.”
Because of NATO, Spierings has been recognized as a veteran in Canada as well, due to his service with the Dutch military. He dons his legion uniform as a way of giving back to the country that liberated his own.
From going to a potato field in minus six-degree weather to dig up frozen potatoes by hand, to watching a German soldier beat a dog to death for no particular reason, to losing 17 of his schoolmates, Spierings told his most horrific stories to the cadets.
“The V-1 was the most terrifying experience,” he said. “It was the first German rocket which was very noisy and unreliable. It would stutter in the sky and when aimed for England, 75 per cent of them landed in the Netherlands. So we’d always here the noise of it, but never knew where it would land.”
Pieces of shrapnel from the rocket could puncture a brick building.
Spierings and his 10 brothers and sisters witnessed first hand the victims of the rocket, as they had to walk through a makeshift hospital above their bomb shelter in order to use the washroom. He would pass rows and rows of beds with crying patrons whose flesh had been shredded with shrapnel.
But with the negative also came the positive. Spierings remembers running around with his siblings, playing games, as well as the kindness of an unusual stranger. Through lack of food and poor living conditions, he developed eczema. A German doctor saw his skin and asked Spierings’ father if he could treat him. The doctor saw him every few days for six weeks to make sure his skin was okay.
“My father was very surprised with this offer, but accompanied me to each visit,” he said. “But here I was, being healed by the enemy doctor.”
Although his family stayed in the Netherlands, Spierings moved westward and promotes the importance of educating youth about war throughout Richmond. “My mother always said she wanted a relative overseas,” he said. “So here I am.”
Remembrance Day events
- Richmond’s annual Remembrance Day Ceremony and Parade will take place on Sunday, Nov. 11 at Richmond City Hall, 6911 No. 3 Rd., beginning at 7 a.m. For more information and the schedule, visit www.richmondremembers.ca.
- Ordinary and life members of the Royal Canadian Legion, the army, navy and air force veterans and the Korean Veterans Association will be able to ride free on any TransLink service (except West Coast Express, which won’t run on Remembrance Day) on Sunday, Nov. 11.
For more information on eligibility, visit www.translink.ca/en/About-Us/Media/2012/November/Lest-We-Forget-Vets-Ride-Free-on-Remembrance-Day.aspx.
- A few veterans will visit Richmond High school on Friday to attend the Remembrance Day service at 9 a.m.