A Special Friendship: The Soldier and the Little Girl
By Brad Hoopes
War is hell. Yes that statement is a cliché and yet not truly understood by those of us who have never experienced it. It is something World War II veteran Roy Laman of Fort Collins knows very well though. Roy will be the first to admit he was lucky and had it better than the frontline soldier. As a communications officer with the 2nd Signal Battalion who processed top secret messages, he jokes that he was close enough to the frontline not to have to wear a tie, but far enough back not to be shot at.
But as Roy and his unit followed the war across Europe, he saw the results of war: the total destruction, the death and maiming, the desperate people along the roads begging for food. I could tell in his eyes and in his voice that 65 years later it still bothered him very much. As he was telling me of his experiences in the war, within it he told of a 3-week period when he received a wonderful reprieve from it all.
This period of very fond memories for Roy started when his unit pulled into Heerlen, Holland, to set up their headquarters. He was billeted with a local family and soon became very close to them, in particular with one of the young daughters, Irmine.
“They were incredibly kind to me and treated me like a member of the family,” he recalled.
One memory in particular that stood out was the warm feeling and sense of family he missed, but now felt, when he went to Christmas Eve services with the family. He and Irmine played games and would take walks. He often brought them supplies when he could. He laughs when he tells about once bringing cans of sweet corn and being stumped by their reaction. He soon found out that back then corn was only eaten by the livestock. Chocolate on the other hand was like gold to them.
As the front line started moving east towards Germany, it was time for Roy to move as well. While saying his goodbyes to the family, he was presented a braid of hair by Irmine’s sister, Illa. She had cut it off to give him a memento to remember them all by. Roy would go on to carry that braid with him through the rest of the war.
Sadly though, on the troop ship home after the war had ended, an outbreak of scabies forced everyone to toss all of their personal affects overboard. That evening as I was processing his videotaped interview onto a DVD to give back to him, I couldn’t stop thinking about this story I tossed and turned in bed that night thinking about it. Once again, by the sparkle in his eyes, I could tell just how special this time and family was to him. When I finally did fall asleep, like many of the other stories I have heard in the past, it seeped into my dreams.
When I woke up that next morning, I decided I had to try and find Irmine. Finding Irmine proved to be easy, testament to the power of the internet. I didn’t have her last name or any address, but I did have pictures. I found the website of the local newspaper in Heerlen. Using a translation website, I worked my way around the newspaper’s site until I found their ‘news tips’ button. I sent them a message explaining what I was trying to do and asked if they could help. 4 or 5 days went by with no response and I began to wonder what other approaches I could take.
I then received an email from Stefan Gillisson, a reporter with the newspaper, saying that he would be interested in doing such a story. We exchanged additional emails where I gave him what details and pictures I had. He said the story was to run the following Saturday. That Friday night, like the night after I first interviewed Roy, I tossed and turned in bed. Finally very early in the morning, I got up and turned on the computer. With the time difference between the Netherlands and Colorado, I hoped there would be good news. There was an email from Stefan - Irmine had been found!
Soon after, I got an email from Irmine’s neighbor Frank. Because she had read in the article about how much that Christmas Eve service meant to Roy, he and Irmine went over and snapped a picture of her in front of the church and emailed it to me. I received a number of emails from others as well. What struck me about every email I got was that each mentioned additionally just how grateful they still were for what the Americans had done.
I waited then for a decent hour to call Roy and his wife Marilyn. I had not told them I was doing this, waiting instead to do so when I had something to give them. I took all the emails and the picture of Irmine over to them. I also took my video camera. They recorded a message to Irmine and I sent it to her via YouTube. A few days later Irmine and sent them a video message back. The story only got more special and touching though once Irmine told her side of it.
Irmine told her side of the story when Stefan went out to do a follow up article after she was found. She pulled out her wartime diary and showed where Roy had written a message in it:
“To my little darling. Of all the girls in the world, you have made me most happy. You see, I have a little darling (a special niece) back in America. While I am in Holland, you have been like that little girl. I hope you will grow up to be a grand lady like your mother. May you always be happy and stay as beautiful as you are today. Love you baby. Yours, Roy”
She talked about the games they played and walks they took. She also told about the time Roy announced a great general was in their town. Irmine’s mother wrapped a red, white and blue shawl around her and she and Roy walked hand in hand to go meet the general. She sat on the general’s lap. As a little girl, she had no idea who General Eisenhower was.
Roy returned home after the war, went into the printing business and married his lovely wife Marilyn. They have been married for 66 years and have 5 sons (sadly, losing one in an auto accident), 9 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild.
Irmine would go on to start a program in the Netherlands that helps children in third world countries. She was married to her husband Peter for 45 years until his passing. In the follow up article Irmine states, “I miss Peter very much. Roy’s search comes at the right moment. It lightens my heart and eases the sadness.”
Sadly, six months after she and Roy had reconnected, Irmine was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died a month later.