Port Alberni resident Hank Mallon was 15 years old and living in Holland in the spring of 1945 when the Second World War was coming to an end.
Mallon spent his days working at a bakery and hanging out with his older brother, activities not much different from any other teenagers.
But one day in particular that May was different and it was special. It was the day Canadian troops crossed the Rhine River and liberated northern Holland from Nazi occupation. Other parts of Holland would be liberated as Germany surrendered shortly after.
“All of a sudden the war was over for us. It was like ‘boom’; suddenly the Canadians were all there,” said Mallon, who lived in the town of Hilversum, which is in northern Holland. “It was a beautiful time and I was just glad the war was over.”
The roots of the liberation were planted with the Nazi occupation of Holland five years earlier. Holland declared neutrality in the Second World War but Germany invaded it nevertheless in May 1940. Overwhelmed Dutch forces surrendered one month later.
Mallon lived with his parents and eight siblings in Hilversum. He’d just finished school and was working in the bakery when the Nazis first appeared in his hometown.
Two of his elder brothers who were soldiers in the Dutch army were spirited away to labour camps after the Dutch surrender.
“We didn’t see them again until after the war,” Mallon said.
His father, who had worked as a mechanic, lost his job after Nazis forbid Dutch citizens from using cars or bicycles, he said.
Germany didn’t just plant troops in Holland. It also instituted social controls that disrupted Dutch life. A German-appointed civilian governor headed the state. ‘Gleichschaltung’ — the policy of totalitarian control over all aspects of Dutch life — was enacted. And the policy of ‘Arbeitseinsatz’ allowed the state to force able-bodied Dutch men into labour camps.
“I know they took people. They took my brothers because they’d been in the Dutch army,” Mallon said.
“Things got tougher later when those guys with the black shirts, the Gestapo, came around.”
Mallon’s father became a commander with the Dutch Resistance, which carried out sabotage and spying operations for the Allies.
“My brother and I used to deliver messages for them. Paper stuff, we always delivered paper from point A to point B,” Mallon said. “When I think back to what we were doing we didn’t realize the seriousness of it because we were just kids.”
Living conditions got tougher in the latter years of the war, Mallon said.
The suffering crested in 1944 when the Allied Operation Market Garden stalled in Arnhem, where the Allies couldn’t capture the Rhine bridge. Germany implemented a food embargo in Western Holland in September 1944. The embargo was lifted two months later but winter set in and the canals froze, making barge shipments impossible.
A period known to the Dutch as Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) set in and lasted until May 1945. Food stores depleted, rations were cut drastically and some people had nothing to eat but tulips and sugar beets. An estimated 30,000 people died from malnutrition during this time.
Mallon remembers lean times but said he never knew they were lean. “We had no oil or gas and had to burn brush for heat. And I remember my mother got some things with coupons you took to the store,” he said.
“My parents never talked about it though. We were just kids so we didn’t look at it the same way as adults.”
Conditions changed with the arrival of Canadian soldiers.
Mallon worked at a camp of Canadian soldiers in Hilversum at first, then joined a group that entertained soldiers in the region, a position he held for two years.
“The Canadian guys were all so friendly and polite,” Mallon said. “They’d call me ‘Dutchy’ when they ordered beer and were just good guys.”
Dutch people commemorate the liberation by celebrating Bevrijdingsdag, or Liberation Day on May 5.
The experience with Canadians left an indelible impression on the Mallons—so much so that father Willem sold all of the family’s possessions and with his wife Henderieka brought six of their eight children to Canada two years later.
Mallon’s sister Henny had already met and married Port Alberni resident Fred Drinkwater, who was with the Canadian troops in Hilversum as a signal core member.
(A Mallon brother remained in Holland with his own wife and children, and followed the rest to Canada two years later.)
Drinkwater’s family sponsored the Mallons, extending shelter and finding them jobs when they arrived in Alberni. The Mallons all became Canadian citizens in 1953.
Mallon worked at a logging camp in Great Central Lake for two years before moving to the plywood mill where he worked until he retired in 1988.
Today, the married father of three and grandparent to four grandchildren lives in Beaver Creek with his wife. An accomplished guitarist, Mallon also spends some of his time entertaining care facility residents with music.
He may have been born in Holland but he’s Canadian through-and-through, he said. “I’ve been here longer now than I was there,” Mallon said. “I always try to enjoy life and take each day as it comes.”
Mallon has never been back to Holland since he left. “My life is here now and my wife and I are happy with the way our lives are here,” he said. “But I know if you go there and say you’re a Canadian then they still love you.”
For other Alberni Valley residents of Dutch heritage who relocated after the war, life in Holland during the Nazi occupation elicits dark memories that are painful to remember.
John Huysmans lived on Holland with his family during the war. “It was a time of celebration. I remember that,” he said of the liberation. “But I don’t like talking about the war. I don’t like remembering what happened then. I don’t even watch anything to do with the war on television.”
Adrian van Gaans, 92, was 24 when Holland was liberated. But he too suffered in the years before the liberation and is reticent about the experience.
“I was held in a slave labour camp before the liberation. But I don’t want to talk about these things,” he said.
Mallon said when he watches the news that he sees wars still raging across the world, and he asks himself the same question, the answer to which forever alludes him.
“When I see that stuff I think back to our experience and I ask myself ‘Why war, why do they still do it,” he said. “It’s so sad and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”