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I didn’t know him–couldn’t have. He was killed four years before I was born. For years I wouldn’t have known his story any more fully than I might have known the stories of any other veteran who didn’t return from Europe or the South Pacific, any of 16 million Americans who served our country in World War II.
I knew my dad spent the war years aboard a tugboat, pushing destroyers hither and yon in the South Pacific. Eventually I heard my father-in-law talk about his long trek from Normandy to Berlin in the motor pool, where he and his gearhead buddies repaired everything that should have moved and couldn’t–jeeps and tanks and dozens of deuce-and-a-halfs. Those two were the only WWII stories I knew in even modest detail.
Gerrit Ter Horst’s story slowly came into focus years later. Ter Horst was an Orange City boy, a farm kid who’d be 100 years old on September 4 of this year. He went to Christian School and Northwestern Academy, where he graduated in 1935. In telling the community the news of his death, the newspaper makes claims Orange City-ites would want to hear: “He was faithful as a church member, a member of C. E. and the Sunday School of the First Reformed Church.”
On January 23, 1943, in Virginia, Pvt. Ter Horst began his first fourteen weeks of military training, along with a buddy named Ken Jacobs. The two stayed together for more than a year. From Virginia, Gerrit went to a Replacement Depot in Pennsylvania, and then New York. In late May he and literally millions of other GIs, including my father-in-law, set sail for Europe, the war zone. In the entire time he served, Gerrit Ter Horst was never furloughed, never saw again the beloved he’d left behind.
His stone in the Orange City cemetery carries the date of his death as June 6, 1944, D-day, 75 years ago yesterday.
Pvt. Ter Horst–one of the letters calls him “Gerry”–served in the Combat Engineer Corps. From this point on, the story I can tell is based on lore passed along through the years.
Somewhere on the English shore, Gerry likely spent the night of July 5 wide awake, conscious of something huge in the wind, something far bigger than anything he could have imagined. The skies were so full of planes you could walk on them.
Sometime during that night, he may have been one of the troops who saw General Eisenhower come through the lines. In all likelihood, surrounded by buddies, some of them he couldn’t have known, all of them friends, buddies, he was likely as ready as he could ever be, his ample gear in perfect condition. He had to be scared. Everyone was. His imagination probably wasn’t broad enough to conceive the scale of Operation Overlord. No one could.
I’m guessing Gerrit Ter Horst knew his mission: to lay in whatever explosive devices he could and thereby destroy the iron works Nazis had set into the shoreline just off the beach. Get himself out of the landing craft and take out whatever mines or barriers he could find, quickly and efficiently, to make the invasion possible.
Hundreds of landing craft rolled up to the Normandy shore that day, thousands of GIs looked to secure a toehold on beaches heavily fortified by German armaments. Many in that very first wave never made it to sand, dozens–maybe hundreds–drowned. Those who stumbled and sloshed to the beach faced withering machine gun fire that shredded the front. The U. S. Army suffered 2500 casualties that morning on Omaha Beach, all of it 75 years ago yesterday.
Pvt. Gerrit Ter Horst didn’t make it to shore. The story goes that he no more than stepped out of the landing craft and caught the bullet or bullets that killed him. That he never accomplished his mission doesn’t make him any less a great hero.
I have a stake here, telling this story. One of the beloved Gerry Ter Horst left behind was the woman to whom he was pledged to marry, a woman that newspaper story names as Bertha Visser, the 1940 Tulip Queen. On June 6, 1944, I’m sure it was impossible for her to visualize her future without Pvt. Ter Horst, without Gerry.
But a telegram from the Army ended that dream long before it could have come true. I have no idea how Bertha Visser endured that immense sadness. That she was not alone in her deep sadness doen’t mean that what she’d suffered wasn’t devastating to heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Just a few years later she married my father-in-law and had a daughter, who became my wife. Bertha Visser Van Gelder was my mother-in-law.
When she was alive, I couldn’t help thinking it would be inappropriate to ask her how she dealt with that horrific loss. Did the man she married after the war fill what must have been her grievous emptiness? Did his presence send the shadows away? How long did it take to forget? Did the sadness ever leave? How did you find comfort?– all questions I never asked.
What I know is that one day a young woman once betrothed to a man who died in the shallow water off the Normandy beach told her little brother that she simply could not bring that ring into the jewelry shop, simply couldn’t do it. So he did, as loving a gesture as any sibling could imagine. He took it in and when he left he had in his hands one of those nautical clocks that chimes at any hour if you so choose.
Mom is gone, and that clock is ours today. It doesn’t chime; it’s not plugged in. But that clock has a very special longer and sadder story than anything else among our most treasured possessions.
Even though he never had a day of furlough, even though she hadn’t seen him for a year and a half, even though she likely never forgot the day the telegram came or what she was doing or how short her breath must have come, all these many years later, I like to think the story that nautical clock still tells is only somewhat about D-Day or war or death itself.
More to the point, I’d like my mother-in-law’s grandchildren, and theirs after them, to know that old nautical clock is really all about life, and even very much about their own.