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Search for Canadian wartime friend culminate in huge party

Memories of 1945 still important:

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

PERTH, Ontario - A visiting Dutchman's search for a Canadian wartime friend had experienced downs and ups in recent years. Anticlimactic was the news of the man's death, many years ago. The upside of his search was that thousands of Canadians, among them hundreds of Dutch descent, paid a unique tribute to a deceased Canadian soldier and a young Dutchman whose life the soldier had saved during the Liberation of the Netherlands.

The unsung hero in Joop Markerink's life was Howard Stokes, a private, who had lived near this historic and picturesque small town in Eastern Ontario. Stokes died more than 15 years ago.

Joop Markerink and his wife Trudi, were guest of honour at a special Canada-Holland day in Perth, recently. The Dutchman credits Stokes with saving his life in those terrible, yet wonderful days of April 1945. Markerink - then 19 - was bedridden at his parents' Enschede home with pneumonia and pleurisy, often fatal diseases in those days. Recalls Markerink: "The day the war ended, for us late Sunday, April 1, I could not go to the celebrations near my home. I missed the whole thing because I was too sick to go." One of the Canadian soldiers marching by was Stokes. "My bed was near the window, and when he looked back at me he must have seen how I was." Private Stokes came to talk to the boy, befriended him, and regularly brought him medicine and candies. Stokes was a shy country boy and not much older than Markerink. Perhaps this is partly why he spent so much time with the sick young Dutchman when Stokes' buddies were having a good time. Markerink says simply: "He saved my life".

After Stokes returned to Canada, the two friends kept in touch by mail for a while. In 1993, the Dutchman visited Canada in search of his wartime friend and called the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa for help. To his bitter disappointment he learned that Howard Stokes had died in the early 1980's.

It would have been the end of the story except for a brainwave by Jeremy Swanson, a senior official of the Canadian War Museum who couldn't let the story end like that. Swanson came up with a plan to bring Joop and Trudi Markerink to Canada as guests of honour at the start of a new museum exhibit called 'We'll Meet Again'.

The day after the opening of the exhibit, Stokes' home town of Perth put on one of its biggest street parties and parades ever to honour its late townsman and the visiting Dutch couple. The Markerinks became a symbol of thousands of Dutch people who befriended Canadian soldiers. And, most importantly, Private Stokes was made a symbol of the thousands of Canadian soldiers who fought in the Liberation of the Netherlands.

When he was still alive, Howard Stokes was hardly seen as a war hero, except by his family. Now Howard Stokes has been honoured in a way very few army privates ever have. And, most important of all, he was honoured in his home town. As many as 10.000 people joined in the ceremonies and celebrations.

Ottawa Dutch go Perth

For the Dutch-Canadian Association of the Ottawa Valley, the event capped a busy period. So far this year, DCA held a successful 'Oranjebal' and operated a hugely successful Dutch cafe at the recent six-day Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa. The cafe featured the Tomato Soup Dutch Band from London, Ontario.

Another participant in the Perth event were the principals behind the Friendship Windmill, who soon hope to have news of a definite site for their ambitious memorial project. Organisers aim to build a working windmill in Ottawa with donations from Dutch Canadians across the country. John Stants, new president of the project, was encouraged by the terrific reception in Perth.

Engelien Leduc, a 33-year-old Dutch Canadian, dressed in a traditional Dutch costume while volunteering at the Friendship Windmill booth, summed up what Dutch people want to say to their Canadian friends: Bedankt voor alles wat jullie in Nederland hebben gedaan.