deMarcken shares story of secret flag
Christian deMarcken of Paxton MA, was the guest speaker at the Saturday night banquet during the San Antonio Convention.
This is his story:
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. What an honor to be asked to address our liberators. My wife Jeanne and I owe so much to all the American veterans who liberated us in September 1944, and who defended us during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. We owe special gratitude to our fallen heroes and their families. They made the ultimate sacrifice.
"Rather than having a moment of silence in honor of our heroes, I would like to read a short prayer written by Thomas Jefferson, our third president.
Prayer for the Nation
You have given us this land as our heritage
Bless our land,
Save us from violence and from every evil way
Defend our liberties,
Endow with the Spirit of Wisdom
Those to whom in Your name
We entrust the authority of government
In the time of prosperity
Fill or hearts with thankfulness
And in the day of trouble
Do not allow our trust in You to fail.
"My comments will center on the civilian life under the German oppression as I was asked to do. For those of you who do not know me, please rest assured that Glenn Bronson, your president, did not invite a member of a Panzer Division to address this distinguished association.
"On May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked Belgium and Dad, who was an American citizen raised and educated in Chicago IL, was not able to get his family back to the States. As Americans we were enemy number one. Dad was taken away to concentration camps in Tittmoning and Laufen, Germany. Those of you who had the misfortune to be taken prisoner and sent to Bad Orb and Moosberg know what it is to be in a German camp. Dad left home weighing 184 pounds and came back home more than two years later weighing 109 pounds.
"We had a German guard in the house at all times. We were forbidden to learn English. They took all our English books away. We were not allowed to have a telephone, a radio, or a vehicle. I was only 13 years old when the Germans took Dad away. I was the oldest of nine children.
"As long as the Germans were winning in Africa, they did not care if American civilians died in camp in 1941-42-43. However, as the United States pushed the Krauts out of Africa and the Allied landing in Italy forced the Italians to capitulate, the Germans became scared and were afraid of possible retaliation.
"As a result, if an American civilian prisoner was ready to die, the Germans would send her or him back home to die. Home could be the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, or France. This allowed the Germans to claim that the American civilian died at home and they were not to blame.
"Father had a kidney removed in 1936, and he was in very bad shape. One of the prisoners was Doctor Bobea. The Germans hated him. He was not afraid of them and he would always help his fellow prisoners. Doctor Bobea told Dad he should not drink for three days before the next German checkup. This would influence the medical checkup and show that Father's second kidney was ready to give up. Dad followed the doctor's advice and sure enough, the Krauts thought he was ready to die and sent him home.
"He was released from Laufen, Germany, which is east of Moosberg, Germany. Dad arrived in the village as we were attending church services. We had no knowledge of his release. Father was a short, stocky, probably slightly overweight and clean-shaved gentleman when the Germans captured him a little over two years earlier. You imagine our surprise to see an old-looking, skinny, bearded man dressed up in an old army overcoat kneel next to Mother. No one ever dreamt of kneeling in Dad's chair. This was his chair and everyone respected his absence. We all wondered why this homeless-looking man would kneel next to our mother, when there were plenty of empty chairs all around the church.
"Mother did not recognize her husband. After a short while, the skinny, bearded man poked his elbow in mother's ribs and said in English, 'Are you going to kiss me?' It is only at the sound of Dad's voice that Mother realized who was kneeling next to her. What an emotional reunion! To be very honest, I am not sure what was the reaction of the priest and all the local parishioners. They probably did not recognize Dad and must have been very surprised to see Mother kiss this old stranger.
"Mother put Dad back in half-decent health and they both resumed their underground activities. Dad became the president of the Army of Liberation, a well-organized underground resistance group, which was in continual contact with London. This group was involved in sabotaging railroad lines, bridges, and power distribution lines.
"Roughly 62 years ago you veterans volunteered to go and liberate the world from the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese Imperialism. You never thought of another aspect of this horrendous war, which was to keep our country, the United States of America, free.
"We saw many German soldiers carrying black and white photographs. These pictures were unknown in Belgium. In Europe at that period of time the photographs were black on a beige or light brown background. I remember one proud Luftwaffe (German Air Force) soldier showing the pictures of a large farm, which he was going to own when the Germans won the war. He had the pictures of the house in Wisconsin, the owners and their children, the various barns and storage buildings. He knew the exact acreage of the farm, the number of cows, the number of tractors and other pieces of equipment.
"When we asked the German: 'What will happen to the present owners?' His answer was, 'They will be my slaves.' Hitler and his crew had already divided our country. Do you realize what an incentive it was for a German soldier? If he fought well and if Germany won the war, he was going from a small 10-acre plot in Germany, to a 100-acre (or more) farm in Wisconsin, which had become part of the new German colony.
"Another fact never mentioned in the history books is worth talking about. Namely, how did the Germans control the occupied countries using the minimum military police force in those countries? I will give you an example. Five of the known leaders in the small town of Wavre, Belgium, received a formal letter from the local German "feld commandatur" or German police station. This letter notified the mayor, Alphonse Bosch, my father, Gustave R. deMarcken, and three other men, who were active in community affairs, that if a German was killed in the area, all five of them would be executed. We found out another five leaders had received similar letters telling them that if two Germans were killed all 10 of them would be executed. In fact, the Germans were banking on the local leaders to keep control over the Belgian population and the local members of the underground resistance movement.
On Aug. 2, 1944, Father was arrested by the German SS. He had been betrayed by a Spanish woman who apparently had seen him in the woods with American airmen, who were trying to escape back to England. Hiding an American airman was a capital offense, which was punished by automatic death by firing squad. Dad was sentenced the same day and scheduled to be shot on Sept. 13, 1944. He was placed in a small one-man cell with three other men, also condemned to death because they had been caught resisting the German oppression. They were in the infamous Saint Gilles prison in Brussels, Belgium. At the time there were more than 1,500 women and men on death row in St. Gilles.
"On Aug 4, 1944, a German was killed in our area. On Aug. 6, 1944, the Germans picked up Mayor Alphonse Bosch and the other three men. They came to our home and asked mother to talk to Dad. Mother told the Germans that the SS had taken her husband away four days earlier. After checking with the SS, the killers took the four Belgian civilians and brought them to a ditch on the outskirts of Wavre. This was along the road leading toward Chaumont-Gistoux. The four prisoners were murdered and the Germans gave strict instructions not to remove the bodies. They wanted to make sure the population would see what happened to people who disobeyed their orders.
"Again, Father had without knowing it, escaped death. On Sept. 2, 1944, the Allies were getting very close to Brussels. The Germans decided at 2 a.m. to empty the St. Gilles prison and herd the prisoners in a train heading for Germany. The train was composed of a series of small boxcars called 40&8. The 40&8 came from the fact that all Belgian boxcars were marked by the Belgian Army: '40 hommes ou 8 chevaux' (40 men or eight horses). Dad was lucky he only had 92 people in his boxcar. Some had up to 110 women and men compressed in one of these small cars.
"Thanks to the Belgian train engineers who sabotaged the engine by letting the water run out and by getting the train on wrong tracks, and thanks to the Belgian underground resistance who notified the Allies that this train was loaded with prisoners, the American 9th Air Force P-47 Thunderbolts managed to damage the rial tracks ahead of the convoy. The train went toward Malines, then it got in the way of a train transporting German troops trying to escape the American advance. Finally, the Belgian train engineers did a fantastic and heroic maneuver. They got the train in a cul de sac at the Petite Isle train station in Brussels.
"This train was guarded by Wehrmacht soldiers who were most anxious to retreat toward Germany. As they fled, the 1,500-plus prisoners dispersed in the town of Brussels.
"Dad hid in the Soigne Forest and walked back home. At the time we were being subjected to a real shooting party. The Germans were in full retreat. They had run out of fuel and they had stolen every available horse from Belgian farmers. These horses were used to pull the German trucks loaded with troops and ammunition. We saw one of these German convoys passing on the road at the end of our driveway. Just before Dad arrived home, about 12 P-47 Thunderbolts took aim at this German convoy. What a beautiful sight! The American planes would come swooping down a very low level. You could see all .50-caliber guns firing, and you could hear the Germans and the horses cry, and the ammunition trucks were blowing up. During that time my brother Pete and I were hugging a huge tree, praying and hoping that the American pilots kept their guns aimed at the road and not the woods.
"Our family has a special tie to the 99th Infantry Division. You all have heard of Lt. Samuel Lombardo. He was a platoon leader in Company I, 394th Infantry Regiment. Lt. Lombardo asked his commanding officer for an American flag, which of course was not available. During the Battle of the Bulge a flag was a luxury when ammunition was at a premium.
"Lt. Lombardo and his platoon decided that the first German surrender flag would be the base for their American flag. One of the members of the platoon was a tailor by trade. He was originally from Poughkeepsie NY.
"Col. Samuel Lombardo and my mother have something in common. While Dad was in concentration camp in Tittmoning and Laufen, Germany, we had a German guard in the house at all times. He was there to keep an eye on this American family. Mother would wait for the old Wehrmacht guard to fall asleep, then she would sew the American flag, which she hid under the wooden floor in her bedroom.
"Mother was born Alix U. de Kerchove. She was a Belgian. She knew the flag had 13 stripes and 48 stars, however, she did not know the stars were pointing to the sky.
"On Sept. 5, 1944, Mother came back from the village. She was all excited. She had heard the American troops were approaching. She asked me to go under a certain cabinet in her room and lift the loose flooring and get the American flag and raise it at the window on the third floor. This window was right over the main entrance of our home. What a proud moment to see for the very first times our flag flying in the breeze. This did not last long.
"Within an hour Mother came back pedaling her bicycle as fast as she could. She shouted to me: 'Christian take the flag down, there are two German tanks at the entrance of the property.'
"Believe me, I never climbed the stairs faster in my life and I can tell you that I did not fold the flag! It went back under the floor and stayed there until we actually saw our first liberator.
"Luckily for us, the two German Panzers literally ran out of fuel at the end of our driveway. The two crews jumped on the first German vehicle they could find. They were most anxious to get out of sight of the U.S. troops.
"Now I will ask Col. Samuel Lombardo to come and help me unfurl my mother's flag, which has the stars pointing down, making this U.S. flag a very unique souvenir of World War II.
"Thank you for inviting us to attend your reunion. It was an honor to be with our liberators."
DeMarcken received this note from Sam Lombardo following the convention:
The platoon acquired the white surrender flag as they crossed into Germany. As they entered a German house they found beautiful blue curtains, just the right color for a U.S. flag. Upstairs the platoon found nice red pillows on one of the beds. Again the red was just the appropriate shade of red for the stripes.
The platoon was in a resting position and some of the men were playing football in a field in front of the house. The GIs had never seen eider-filled pillows, as the men took their knives and opened the pillows, the eider literally filled the room. The men were choking on this fluffy goose eider. They quickly opened the window. The men who were playing outside could not believe their eyes — a cloud of white, very light stuff was floating out of the second floor window.
One of the platoon members was a Jewish fellow from New York NY. He knew German. Every time the platoon was not fighting and the platoon was in a village or town, the New Yorker would go and see the local mayor and requisition a sewing machine, which would be returned, as the platoon was ready to leave the area. One side of the flag was completed by the time the platoon crossed the Rhine at Remagen in early March 1945.
As the platoon reached the Danube, they men worked by candlelight way past midnight to make sure the flag would be finished as the platoon was crossing the Danube River.