Vet savors reward from WWII

To 26-year-old Dutch sisters Marieke and Janneke Groot, their hometown of Apeldoorn is a “royal” city that features an amusement park, a monkey zoo and a small Van Gogh museum.

But their pen pal, 87-year-old World War II veteran Morris Tracy of Nipomo, remembers Apeldoorn through the eyes of a young sergeant with a submachine gun, aware only of “streets, roads and fields,” he said. In mid-April 1945, these were the increments by which his advancing regiment, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, gauged success in direct combat against the Germans.

Apeldoorn was liberated on April 17 of that year. On May 8, Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman would declare V-E Day, Victory in Europe.

As Tracy recounts the war from his kitchen table, the timeline is vague, but memories are crisp. At 17, in the village of Streetsville, Ontario, Tracy said he was 18 to join the 48th Highlanders. His father, who had fought in the Boer Wars and World War I, said, “If you want to go son, go.”

Before Holland, Tracy spent two years “chasing Germans out of trenches” in Italy. He recounted, “If you have ever been cold, I mean cold, in the mountains of Italy — with no blankets, in the mud, sleeping on the ground — then you’ve been cold. That’s the thing that never goes away.”

Tracy’s features are worn but warm, and while gesturing to a frame containing seven campaign decorations, it’s apparent he still carries the broad shoulders of a soldier. He doesn’t “have a clue” how many people he killed during his campaigns, but says, “You try to remember the good things.”

Like when, after victory in Apeldoorn, a Hollander gave Tracy a rabbit for dinner and a cigar he must have been hiding for years. Tracy speaks highly of the Dutch, who he says never gave up. “There was an underground movement until the day our troops came in,” Tracy said. “They were eating tulip bulbs by the end of the war.”

The 48th Highlanders were invited back to Apeldoorn in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of liberation. Tracy and his wife, Irene, who met in 1970 while working for Southern California Edison, were “overwhelmed,” Irene said, by the “crowded parade, the bleachers, the trucks, the flags and signs of ‘Welcome Liberators.’ ”

As the couple walked through the streets of Apeldoorn, Janneke Groot — then 12 years old — ran out of the crowd to present a flower to Tracy, whose arms were already “full of flowers,” he said.

Later the veterans would visit local schools, where it is customary for students to learn English, and twins Marieke and Janneke Groot asked the Tracys for their address. When the Tracys returned home, there was a letter waiting — and so began a regular correspondence.

“If we got all the little goodies they have sent us over the years, I could line that counter,” Morris Tracy said, gesturing to the 10-foot slab of kitchen top.

On subsequent trips to Holland, the Tracys left their rental car idle as the Groots and their parents spent every day guiding them. “They are so grateful. They just want to show appreciation, and we don’t expect this,” Irene Tracy said.

Recently, the Tracys were able to receive the twins, their “adopted grandchildren,” here on the Central Coast.

While chatting with the Tracys, Marieke, a German teacher, and Janneke, a human resources adviser, are prone to laughter. And on their first trip to the United States, there are curiosities: the pelicans at Avila Beach; that all cashiers cheerily ask, “How are you?”; and the fact that everything — streets, stores, distances — is so much bigger here, especially “the huge platters of food” Janneke witnessed women eating at F.McClintocks. Morris Tracy is getting ready to cook them spaghetti.

In 2010, the 48th Hollanders have been invited for a final time to Apeldoorn, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the liberation — the Tracys will be there.But Marieke says, “It’s really good to be here now. It was our turn to visit.”