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MRS. VERSIE ADAMS
Interviewed by: Dr. Russell Burns
March 16, 1999
Edited by JDA 12-18-99
BURNS: Today our conversation is with Mrs. Versie Adams, who is the former Janine Dardenne, born in Boirs, Belgium and who came to the United States in April of 1946 as a war bride. Janine, tell us something of the village from which you came, something about your early life there and your parents, your school and in general life in this tiny Belgian village. Let's talk first about the village, let's talk about Boirs. Where is it and what did your parents do?
ADAMS: Boirs where I was born is in southeast Belgium, in the valley of the Geer. The Geer is a small stream that empties into the river Meuse in Maastricht, Holland. We are not far from Holland or Germany or Luxembourg.(1) During the war you could hear Aachen Germany being bombed and from the attic window in our house, you could see the night sky turn red from the fires set by the incendiary bombs. We are Walloons in southeast Belgium as opposed to Flemings who live mostly in the northwest part of the country. We speak French and have our own dialect, called Walloon, which is a spoken and not a written language and varies greatly from village to village. The Walloon of Liege might not be understood by the people of Namur or Charleroi or Bastogne, but then, we fall back on French. The Geer Valley was renowned for one thing: its hatmakers (Tchaplis) in Walloon. From early October through late April, most of the houses were boarded up while the owners were in Paris or Dublin or Brussels, making ladies' straw hats for the Spring and Summer seasons. We went to Paris where we kept a small apartment and where my mother's parents stayed full time. The hats were sewed on foot operated machines, stretched on special forms, sprayed with fixative and sent of the big department stores, like the Galleries Lafayette or Le Printemps where the modistes would decorate them in whatever style was "in" at the time. As for me, I went to school in Paris where I was nicknamed L'Hirondelle, (The Swallow) because I came and went at the same time each year and where my schoolmates made fun of my Belgian accent we tend to speak slowly and have very flat A's). It did not take me long each time to speak the way they did which of course caused me much grief when I returned to the one-room school in Boirs where my peers sarcastically called me "Mademoiselle" until my speech slowed and my A's broadened. When the hat business went belly-up in Paris, my parents went to work in Brussels doing the same thing they had done in France. I stayed with my great-aunt Victorine who lived there and I went to school in Brussels. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is in the middle of Flemish country and there is no love lost between us and them. That should you what my life was like in that school...I got my first black eye there (you should have seen the other girl!) And earned several trips to the lady principal's office accompanied by my distraught great-aunt who had sponsored me. Personally I was glad when women stopped wearing hats everywhere and I could return to Boirs and stay there. Even though the hat business died in the late thirties, the hatmakers have formed a guild in Walloon "Les Tchaplis" and they meet once a year to keep the memory alive. Those were the days!
BURNS: What do you remember from your childhood? Tell me about where you lived. What were the houses like? Were they stone houses?
ADAMS: No stone houses. All brick. Since Belgium is so densely populated even in the countryside you have very small plots of land. What the houses lack in width, they make up in height; most houses then had 4 floors: cellar and kitchen cellar; at street level: hall, dining room and living room; on the second floor: the bedrooms and above that the attic. No central heat no running water. There was a pump int he cellar with the best tasting water anywhere, always ice cold and crystal clear. Of course there were no bathrooms. The "convenience" as it was called was located as far from the house as the size of the lot would allow. A trip to it in the dead of winter required the same equipment as would a trip to the north pole.
BURNS: What did you use for heat?
ADAMS: We had a big pot bellied stove which was the only source of heat, but boy was it comforting! It was the cookstove, the water heater, the very center of family life. Each summer, we would buy a ton of coal which a truck would deliver and drop in the cellar through the coal chute and we were set for the long winter. At night, mother would bank the fire with a mixture of ashes, clay and water and in the morning there remained an eye of fire underneath the baked clay; then, open the flue add a couple of scoops of coal and she was ready to cook breakfast. My favorite breakfast (before the way and heaven help my arteries) was a huge slice of whole wheat bread fried in bacon grease with a chocolate bar for a chaser. During the war of course we ate much healthier: no grease, no chocolate, no meat but lots of rutabagas and a little margarine which prompted my dad to say that in between war, serve him no margarine and no rutabagas.
BURNS: I know children take things for granted, but do you remember your mother shopping for meat or groceries. Certainly there were no supermarkets or anything like that. Were there individual stores that had provisions?
ADAMS: We had two grocery stores which sold staples like flour, sugar, coffee, kerosene and canned goods. Also a laundry soap they sold by the pound and which looked like gooey caramel and could take the paint off a barndoor it was so strong...as for fruit and vegetables, those were raised in backyard gardens and small orchards. Meat was bought at the butcher's, milk and eggs at the farm down the road.
BURNS: You did have a garden?
ADAMS: Yes, we had a garden. We had rabbits and chickens and sometimes, before the war, we raised a pig.
BURNS: Did you have a cow?
ADAMS: No we got milk at the farm, fresh from the cow and brought it home in a pitcher and then boiled it.
BURNS: The school let's talk about the school, before the war. Was this what you would call a public school, a state school, or were you in a parochial school?
ADAMS: It was a public school in a very good school system. The school year was 10 months long. Summer vacation began July 15th and ended September 15th. In Boirs, we had a one-room school; but since there were few children we all got pretty special personal attention.
BURNS: A one room school.
ADAMS: Yes, but it was housed in a large handsome brick building. City hall in the middle, the boys school on the left and the girls on the right. We got a very good elementary education. When you got through there, you could add, subtract, divide and multiply. You could parse a sentence, read a book and speak correctly. You could also make a simple white sauce, cook a decent roast and mend torn clothing. My parents wanted me to continue my education so I went to a state school for girls in Vise about 13 miles from where I lived. Before the war, I went by train. During the war I went by bicycle (the Belgian army having blown the railroad bridges to slow down the German advance) - alas, they came by plane! When my bicycle tires could no longer be patched I stayed with a friend of my parents and walked home once a week. It did not mater how I got there however. I had to be in class by 8 a.m., no excuses accepted!
BURNS: You did not have buses?
ADAMS: No buses, you got there on your own.
BURNS:: You always have spoken so well, at what point did you begin English instruction?
ADAMS: Well, first we had to learn Flemish or Dutch which is spoken in the northern part of Belgium and also in Holland. We started this when I was 13, then the next year we added German and English. German grammar is atrociously difficult and we also had to learn to write and read the gothic script. My teacher must have been very good since even today I have a hard time reading German written in Roman script. As for English, the grammar was a breeze but the pronunciation was torture. Our class' favorite saying was: In English you write rubber and you pronounce it elastic. After 4 years we were reading, reciting and understanding German poetry from Goethe to Heinrich Heine and in English from Shakespeare to Wordsworth. This in addition to all the other courses. The only course which I almost always failed was math. I just did not get it. Geometry was Greek to me (come to think of it, I probably could have learned Greek more quickly) my circles were like helixes....they went on and one even with the instrument.
ADAMS: Compass, yes. I just could not get the hang of it. My triangles were lopsided and I just did not care if A + B equaled C-D. Now I liked algebra better because it took a little imagination.
BURNS: Is it some sort of left side right side thing?
ADAMS: It must be and the math side is totally atrophied. My language teacher, Mrs. Saenen, decided I had a gift for languages and she stayed behind me and for that I thank her. At the time, I thought she was so tough and she was but I think if she could see me today, she would be pleased at her handiwork.
BURNS: During the period of time you were going to Paris for the collections, do you remember anything about Paris? You were a very small girl at the time, what do you remember?
ADAMS: I remember being dragged through the Louvres every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, and I hated it. I saw everything a hundred times. Oh, if I could go back now every Sunday...how stupid I was....
BURNS: How normal you were!
ADAMS: I suppose, but I would rather have sailed my little boat on the basin of the Tuileries along with the other kids my age.
BURNS: When you and your parents went to Paris, did your grandparents accompany you?
ADAMS: They were there already. They lived in Paris all the time before the war. We kept a small apartment in the building where they lived.
BURNS: Were they also hat makers?
ADAMS: Yes, both sides of the family were in the hat making business. My father's sisters and brothers went to work in Ireland. My dad and us, we went to Paris. And I really loved it. Walking with Gramps along the Seine, shopping for food with Gran and taking a break in a pastry shop! We had a cat named Mourou which we took with us each time: from Boirs to Paris and back. He was a very handsome cat. In Paris, he lounged on grandmother's window sill, among her plants - but, back in Boirs he was a fierce hunter who preferred my father's lap to anyone else's.
BURNS: It was a happy time for you!
ADAMS: Yes, it really was.
BURNS: As a teenager, were you aware war was coming? What seemed to be the atmosphere in 1939?
ADAMS: In September of '39, we had a heads-up when Hitler attacked Poland. France and Britain immediately declared war on Germany. I remember that my father went to register with his draft board. He was 42 at the time. But then, things quieted down. And it became what was known as "The Funny War." The French stayed on their Maginot line, the Germans on their Siegfried line. Once in a while, they shot at each other - nobody much got hurt - we all began to relax - then, 4 days after my 15th birthday, Hitler decided "The Funny War" was over. On May 10, 1940 his forces attacked the low countries, thereby bypassing the Maginot line, which with typical French lack of foresight had been designed to shoot only toward Germany. The Germans came through the back door so to speak, marched all over us, on to Paris and took all of France in record time. As for us, we were awakened around 5, that chilly May morning, by the sound of explosions and the screaming noise the stukas made, dive bombing the Fort of Eben-Emael, the biggest fort in Europe at the time and whose guns could also not be turned to shoot in any direction except Germany. Ten German paratroopers took the fort without any casualties. Our military "geniuses" had been asleep at the switch. They could not fathom an air war. They retained a 1914 mentality. By 5:30, we were dressed and took to the ditches across from the house.
BURNS: Was that fort far from your house?
ADAMS: About 10 miles east of us.
BURNS: Do you remember anything at that time of the Belgian resistance? Do you remember seeing Belgian troops?
ADAMS: No. We kept waiting for the French and the English forces - but no one came. They were busy running away. An air war is very demoralizing. The only ally we saw was a French fighter plane who made a pass above us and was shot down a few minutes later by German artillery.
BURNS: Of course, you were small...
ADAMS: I was 15, and you know, this is so crazy, but the first thing I thought about when I hit the ditch was "no school today--hurrah!" About that time the 1st wave of bombers came over and dropped a few bombs on the village. Three people were killed - one of them being my best friend's grandmother - and 5 wounded. The bombs having had their desired effect, everybody started to leave - I guess we thought if the French and the English can't find us, we'll go find them. Of course, that is exactly what the Germans wanted - get a horde of refugees on the road between their advancing army and the allies. We were their shield, their buffer. My father, like me, did not like crowds, so when the long ribbon of displaced persons we had suddenly become took the right at the first crossroad, the three of us took the left and were lucky; we got to Liege, to my mother's first cousin and spent the night there. The next day, Liege was declared an open city sparing it the raids we had known in the country. One thing I forgot to tell you: It was very dark on the way to Liege and my mother ran her bicycle into a stationary Belgian tank. It took the tank crew and a couple of choice words to straighten her wheel. After we got to Liege and before it was declared an open city, Cousin Carl had rounded up a truck and some gasoline and wanted us all to go to Spain before the Germans got to he border. His wife wouldn't go - she was "birdbrained" (my father's words) but he said birdbrained people had an instinct. And if she wouldn't go, we wouldn't go either. So a couple of days later, we got on our bicycles and went home. We rain into a German patrol but they let us pass. Further down the road, we got to an abandoned farm and since I was thirsty my father went in looking for water, he got no further than the entrance: there on a pile of manure was the dead body of a Belgian soldier. My parents took him off, cleaned him up as best they could - we left him in front of the farm, the body covered with one of our blankets - (for some reasons, which she never did understand, mother took 6 blankets and absolutely nothing else when we evacuated!). All I remember of him is how young he looked. And so we got home. My grandparents had not budged having decided to die together with the house. Except for a broken window and some shrapnel in the front door, the house was fine. We just settled into "occupation."
BURNS: After you returned after 3 days to an occupied village, were there German troops garrisoned there?
ADAMS: No - but we soon got an anti-aircraft battery on top of the hill. One incident I forgot to tell you: While we were still in Liege there was a nearby small fort, the Fort of Loncin, a leftover from the First world War and so unimportant that the German army did not bother with it. Of course everyone had abandoned it except one soldier. No one told him Liege was an open city (He did not answer his field telephone - if he had one!). And so he kept lobbing shells over the city until he ran out of ammunition.
BURNS: He was a one-man war.
ADAMS: Yes! The only respite we got is when he had to go to the bathroom and finally when he ran out of shells!
BURNS: After you got back home things had not gotten back to normal, but they had settled down. Did you have to have some sort of identification?
ADAMS: We always had that, before the war as well as now; you always carry your "carte d'identite" identification card. It has your picture, date and place of birth, your employment and marital status.
BURNS: When the troops had passed through, did you have soldiers coming through your house - did they come to search your house?
BURNS: After the occupation really started, were you subjected to search of the premises or anything such as that?
ADAMS: No. Not unless you were suspected of harboring a fugitive.
BURNS: Were you allowed to move freely?
ADAMS: Well yes, to a certain extent. I went back to school and we could travel inside Belgium but not to another country.
BURNS: Were there people deported from your village?
ADAMS: No, we did not have a Jewish population in Boirs; however one of the boys I used to go to school with (we took the same train before the war) was executed by the Germans for blowing up some railroad tracks.
BURNS: During the occupation by the Germans, were German soldiers quartered in people's houses?
ADAMS: No, but they were quartered in public buildings. We had to give them our brand new school in Vise and move into an old dilapidated convent to finish our education.
BURNS: Let's talk about getting the news again: did your parents have a radio?
ADAMS: We used to. Dad loved classical music and he used to listen to Hilversum station in Holland. But right after the war started our old Phillips radio broke down (during one of Hitler's speeches) and could not be fixed for lack of parts. But our neighbor's still worked and every night at either 7 or 8, don't remember which, the whole neighborhood used to go there to listen to the BBC. It always started with the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. We kids stayed outside on watch because listening to the BBC was strictly "verboten!"
BURNS: You were the look-outs.
ADAMS: Yes, and any time someone walked up or down the road, we went to warn the listeners.
BURNS: These were not necessarily occupation forces?
ADAMS: Oh no; but you never knew friend from foe. It was just being careful.
BURNS: You mentioned it was forbidden to listen to the BBC. What other things was it forbidden to do?
ADAMS: Well, travel to an unoccupied country, own a gun, help the enemy of the Reich, and that included a lot of people!
BURNS: Do you remember anything about there being a resistance movement in Europe?
ADAMS: Well, the personal messages on the BBC were a pretty good indication there was something afoot somewhere! And we suspected there were a couple of groups in the village, but we never talked about it because it was a dangerous thing to do.
BURNS: This was all strictly on the Q.T., just rumors, that sort of thing?
ADAMS: Just rumors, yes.
BURNS: You were not actually aware of any bombings, bridges being destroyed by the resistance?
ADAMS: Well, once in a while someone would publish a clandestine newspaper and slip it under the door during the night. You read it quickly and burned it immediately after.
BURNS: It just appeared in the middle of the night?
BURNS: As the tides of war changed after 1942, especially after the allies gained total air superiority over Europe, were you ware of this? Did you witness any of the massive bombing raids that took place from England into Germany?
ADAMS: Lord yes, we were aware!! Boirs is on the flight pass to Aachen, we have a huge chalk quarry in Boirs; it reflects moonlight and starlight and I believe it acted as a beacon for the 8th Air Force. I think their orders were: turn right at the quarry, then straight ahead! We used to call the quarry our White Cliffs of Dover.
BURNS: Aachen was how far?
ADAMS: Not too far as the crow or the B-17 flies. About 50 miles.
BURNS: At another time when we were talking, you told me that just outside your village there was a German anti-aircraft station.
ADAMS: Yes, there was, up on a hill above Boirs.
BURNS: Did you ever see anything shot down?
ADAMS: Not by that particular battery; what we used to see was the bombers caught in the search lights. Sometimes, if the bombers had a fighter escort, those would dive-bomb the searchlights; if not, then the Ack-Ack would start firing and you could see the shells exploding all around the plane caught in the searchlight. One day, on my way to school, I saw a German sentry stationed by a hedge at the bottom of a hill. He was guarding the body of an American flyer, laying face down in his brown flight suit and all covered with frost. He was tall and had very dark hair. He was buried in the cemetery at Roclenge near where he fell. There were no many people at the service that the crowd overflowed all the way into the village. After the war, his remains were returned into his family in the U.S. Then also there was August 17, 1943 - two B-17's returning from a raid on Schweinfurt were attacked and set on fire by German fighters. They crashed near the house.
BURNS: Was this a night raid or a day raid?
ADAMS: Day raid. By 1943 there were day raids practically every day. These two planes I was talking about: both crews got out by parachuting to safety. One of the men fell in an apple tree behind the carpentry shop of the Tilkins - father and son - the son who was in the underground, cut him out of the tree and led him into the shop where he was asked: England or prisoner? He said England. So, the parachute was burned, he was taken to the house next to the shop, given a shot of Peket (the Walloon equivalent of White Lightening) which dulled the pain of his broken arm and assorted bruises. He was hidden in a cupboard and when the Germans came, they found nothing. Later that evening, he was taken to a safe house. The event of his rescue was recorded for posterity by one of the shop's workers who, with his box camera took a picture of rescuers and rescuee at the very moment he got off the tree. Of course, the camera was confiscated by the junior Tilkin and the picture developed after the liberation. A life-size copy of it now hangs at the 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah, GA. But back to my story: the underground swung into action planning the next step of Joseph Walters' (that was the name of the parachutist) journey back to England. Albert Tilkin who was a friend of my father and who knew I was learning English came and asked Dad if he would let me come and translate the proposed plan to the American.
BURNS: You were picked because you spoke English?
ADAMS: Yes, I spoke a little English. Not as well as I do now (if I do now!). But I was able to tell him a truck would pick him up at 5 a.m. He would be dressed as a construction worker, given a pick and a shovel and he would sit in the back of the truck with other (real) construction workers who went to work that way every morning. He asked if I would come by in the morning and see him off and I said yes - and mamma said no - so I stood at my bedroom window at 5 a.m. the next morning and I heard the truck pick him up and take him away.
BURNS: How did they take him out of Belgium?
ADAMS: This is what I found out after the war: they sneaked him out of the construction site into the house of an underground friendly doctor (who later was caught and executed) who fixed his arm and with whom he stayed until the next step was worked out. He went from one safe house to another, through Belgium, France and through the Pyrenees into Spain, and from there back to England. It took 4 months.
BURNS: Let's back up one minute. You told me one time how impressed you were with him the first time you saw him. Tell what happened.
ADAMS: He was sitting in the kitchen with three of his rescuers and he stood up when I walked in. No man had ever stood up for "moi" before! That really impressed me! That and the fact that he was so tall and so calm and nice looking in a rugged sort of way.
BURNS: So your part in the rescue was to tell the man in language he could understand, what was going to happen to him and how they were going to get him back to England?
ADAMS: Yes but I did not know where he would go next. That information was strictly on a "need to know" basis. That way, if I were arrested I could not endanger the next link in the rescue chain.
BURNS: Did you ever hear from the man again?
ADAMS: Yes. With the help of Donald Hemphill who got in touch with the 8th Air Force locator (I had quite a bit of information about him: serial number, name of pilot, co-pilot, address, 4102 Windsor Street, but no city) Anyway the locator found three Joseph Walters and send them letters saying that if they had parachuted out of a disabled B-17 over Belgium on August 17, 1943, please get in touch with Don Hemphill. And soon thereafter Don got a letter saying "I am the Joe Walters you are looking for...." The reason I wanted to get in touch with him or his family is that when I went back to Belgium in '93, I met with the last survivor of the rescue party and he gave me a copy of the picture showing the rescue. I through the family would like to have it. As it turned out, Joe already had the picture and had had quite a few stories written about his trip through Europe...the hard way!
BURNS: Through the 8th Air Force you were able to make contact. You have talked and you have written. Have you seen him?
ADAMS: No, not yet. But we talk quite often and write to each other.
BURNS: I believe you said the entire crew of the plane was rescued.
ADAMS: Yes, they all lived and four of them made it back to England.
BURNS: I understand the famous picture that was going to put everyone in a concentration camp has been blown up and is hanging where?
ADAMS: At the 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah, GA. The last time Joseph called he said his daughter who lives in Atlanta had been to the museum and she was so glad and proud to see the picture. I still have the small version of it and in it Joseph looks stunned walking between two men as if he were on the way to the gallows! Of course at the time he did not yet know he was in Belgium and among friends.
BURNS: Has he ever seen or talked with other people involved in the rescue?
ADAMS: Just the daughter of the man who cut him out of the tree (everyone else is dead). They write each other. [Since this interview, Joseph and his daughter have gone to Europe to be in Boirs with his rescuer's daughter on August 17. The tree he landed in has since been cut down, the carpentry shop no longer exists. He did find my old house and sent me a picture he took of it.]
BURNS: So this has not been forgotten.
ADAMS: No, not by either side, it really hasn't.
BURNS: A wonderful thing for the villagers to take their lives in their hands.
ADAMS: Yes, an amazing thing! Boirs is a very small place and has always been bitterly divided; those who stayed and worked there during the harsh winters disliked those of us who spent that time in relative comfort in Paris. Also some of the families feuded about the ownership of parcels of land, some disputes having their roots in the middle ages. But for once, I guess, we rose to the occasion. No one, not one person said a word to anyone even though half the village observed the rescue. This would have been the perfect time to "get even." Instead, it was as if August 17, 1943 had been erased from Boirs' calendar. Except for me of course. Joseph had given me his K-ration chocolate bar which is so rich its supposed to keep you alive for a couple of days. Well I ate it on my way home. In case I got arrested, I wanted to die happy! Well, I didn't get arrested, but my internal system did not recognize something it had not seen in 3 years 3 months and 7 days, so it rejected it, violently! I was sick as a horse!
BURNS: You hadn't had anything that rich in three years.
ADAMS: I had not! That's why I was up at 5 the next morning. He also gave me a tiny compass no larger than a coat button and some Chiclets. I buried the compass across the road from my house, in the root of a tree and I chewed the Chiclets for weeks (and yes, they do lose their flavor on the bedpost overnight!) And one day, I swallowed the whole thing.
BURNS: You mentioned that when they would have bombing raids, you would go into the cellar. What do you remember about preparations for the invasion of France? What about life in the village after the allied invasion of France?
ADAMS: We really did not know where or when the invasion would happen. We just knew it was inevitable. The BBC always had these personal messages - such odd phrases - "Marie said Hello Henri." We knew something was afoot. On June 5th, we listened to the message that told the underground "see you tomorrow." Of course, we did not know its meaning at the time. It was two lines from a poem by Verlaine and went like this: "Les Sanglots longs des violons de L'Automne" (the long sobs of Autom's violins). That, it was revealed later, was the signal. Of course our elation at the thought of being rescued was tempered by the knowledge that, in order to get to Germany, you have to come through Belgium, and here again, we are in the middle. On one side the advancing allies whose shells are falling closer and closer every day, on the other the retreating German army, trigger happy and looting whatever their transportation would carry; most of those who retreated through Boirs were on bicycles. This was early September. We saw the last German going east pushing his loaded bike around 4 p.m. and at 5 p.m. we spotted our first jeep coming from the west containing two GI's on a reconnaissance mission. They asked where the Germans were and we said: they are gone. The whole village came out. One of the GI's was from Louisiana and spoke Cajun French. We just would not let them go. Folks dug out their good wines out of their hiding places, made wreaths out of asters and by 7 p.m. those two GI's wore leis around their necks and their jeep was awash in wine, Peket and champagne even! We thought this was the end of the war. We were so wrong.
BURNS: The allied advance sort of stalled, then the Germans launched the counterattack at the Bulge and the Americans had to go back through your village, so again you sat in no man's land.
ADAMS: Right. The first inkling we got that something was very wrong was seeing all kind of American troops and armor going west at top speed. Then the news filtered through that the Germans had broken through the American lines in the Ardenne, near Bastogne. The weather was the worst of the century. First it had snowed heavily, then it froze hard for days. Then a freezing mist settled over everything. If you went outside even for a minute, you would come back in looking as if you had powdered sugar all over. The clouds were gray and heavy and we did not see the sky for over a week. On December 23rd, around noon, father, mother, and I were sitting at the table under the kitchen window. We knew the Germans were getting closer. We could hear the battle in the east (the snow and cloud cover make far away sounds seem very close) and we knew this time, there was no place to run. This was it. We had disposed of everything the GI's had given us, furled every Belgian and American flags we had so joyfully deployed 2 months earlier, we wore every bit of clothing we could possibly wear and still breathe and we just waited and then there was sort of hum outside, we could feel vibrations and....a ray of sunshine touched my face and all of a sudden, there was this small patch of blue in the sky in front of us, and in that small patch was the origin of the hum--planes, hundreds of them, in familiar formations, then more blue sky and more planes. We ran outside in the icy cold and we started waving and screaming and crying and hugging each other. If I live to be a hundred, this will always be the moment in my life when I understood the meaning of total joy. Like a prisoner getting a last minute reprieve.
BURNS: Did you feel a sense of deliverance?
ADAMS: I felt like laughing and crying and did both as did all the neighbors in the street with us. We thought, this is it. The end; we are safe! But we were wrong. More Americans had to die, pushing the Germans back into Germany; as for us after a couple of quieter months, there came Hitler's last revenge: The V1's and V2's rockets, targets: London, Antwerp and Liege.
BURNS: After the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge and the retreat of the Germans well into Germany, was there an allied base set up close to your village?
ADAMS: Just a staging area, and a rest area for battle weary GI's. The bases were in Liege: E-514 an engineering depot - they constructed pontoons or repaired existing bridges. I worked there as a interpreter until they moved up the line. When they left, the C.O. recommended me to the C.O. of O-6014, an ordinance depot also in Liege and I went to work there as a typist, switchboard operator and interpreter. That's where I met Versie who was the S/Sgt in charge of the parts room.
BURNS: By this time, you had finished your schooling?
ADAMS: Yes, I was through.
BURNS: How were the villagers treated by the Americans?
ADAMS: Well, we sort of adopted each other. They gave us food and we did their laundry and cooked them a good home cooked meal once in a while. We met boys from Brooklyn, Texas, Boston, Chicago - they were all glad to be among friends, being so far from home and their families! We sort of helped each other.
BURNS: I remember a story you told me once about an American soldier knocking on your door and asking: Do you have any food?
ADAMS: I answered yes, we do. We'll be glad to share with you. (We had just received our first shipment of "real food" and we thought he had gotten separated from his unit and was hungry). And he said no, no, I wanted to bring you food if you didn't have any!
BURNS: I thought that was interesting. You were willing to share with him and he had come to share with you. Did other members of your family or people in the village work in these army bases as well?
ADAMS: Not many family members but many Belgians worked for the Americans in a variety of jobs.
BURNS: How long did you work there?
ADAMS: At 0-6014, from June 12, 1945 til December 22, 1945 when I got married. A couple of months before the wedding, I was interviewed by Major T. R. Curtis, whose job it was to check out prospective brides of GI's. He offered me a job in his office until time for me to sail to the States and since Versie had been transferred to Lille, France and 0-6014 was moving. I accepted, and so I worked there until a week before my departure for the States - April 15, 1946. Versie, who had been discharged right after the wedding, took a civilian job with the army (he signed a 6-month contract) in order to wait for me....but I left before he did. He stayed in Europe with my parents, and I came to Brookhaven, arriving on my 21st birthday. And I stayed with his parents until he made it home in August.
BURNS: Let's go back. You were working at this ordinance base and Versie Adams from Brookhaven, Mississippi was in charge of the parts department. Did you lay eyes on him and fall immediately head over heels in love?
ADAMS: Nooooo....not really. He said I was sarcastic, I thought he was arrogant. I couldn't understand half of what he said because I was taught British-English and he spoke South Mississippi English. After a couple of weeks, we came to an armed truce. Two weeks after that, he asked me to marry him. What brought this on, this 180 degree turn, was my mother's french fried potatoes (I don't know why they are called french fries - we Belgians invented them!). But anyway, the streetcars being on strike, he was asked by the captain in charge of the depot to get a vehicle from the motor pool, fill out a trip ticket and take me home, which he did. In a GMC 4x4 truck! When we got to my house, he escorted me to the front door I think only because he could smell the aroma wafting from the kitchen. My mother invited him to eat with us and he did. He ate all the french fires--every last one. From then on, getting a ride home with or without the captain's permission was child's play. I never had to ride the streetcar again and graduated from the GMC 4x4 to a very nice jeep.
BURNS: How was the courtship between you and this foreigner? How did your parents view that?
ADAMS: I guess they trusted my good judgement, and then Verse was very considerate of them and in spite of the language barrier (or perhaps because of it) they got along famously. Mama cooked, Verse ate, and he and I and my dad took long walks in the countryside.
BURNS: When did you and Versie marry?
ADAMS: December 22, 1945.
BURNS: Did you have a civil ceremony or a church ceremony or both?
ADAMS: We had both. In Belgium, the church ceremony was optional. To be legal, the marriage ceremony must be performed at city hall, by the mayor of the town where you live. Before it can happen though, you have to have bans published and affixed at the entrance of the city hall of your place of birth and that of the town where you now reside, for three weeks. If no one objects, then the wedding can go on. We were married by the mayor of Herstal where we had moved and after that we went to the Citadelle, which had at one time been a fort, a prison and a hospital and in its chapel, we were married by a Methodist Chaplain. A German P.O.W. played "Here Comes the Bride" as I walked down the aisle.
BURNS: After the marriage in December, when did you get your papers to come to America?
ADAMS: Around April 1st and I left on April 15th.
BURNS: You left from..?
ADAMS: Le Havre.
BURNS: And you were on a ship?
ADAMS: Yes, the Santa Paula, which later sank!
BURNS: Was the ship filled with war brides?
BURNS: About how many?
ADAMS: Gosh, there must have been at least 300 of us. We were 9 to a cabin. Three rows of 3-tiered bunk beds. I was assigned the middle bunk in the middle row and I never did sleep there! All the girls were sea sick and using their barf-bags constantly so, I took about 15 army blankets, went up on deck, lashed a deck chair (with my belt) to the inside railing, wrapped myself up and slept blissfully under the stars! Every morning I went down to the cabin to take a bath, brush my teeth and change clothes. Then, after checking to see if sea sickness had killed anybody during the night (it had not - but many of the sufferers wished it had!), I was out of there!
BURNS: You got through the journey without getting sea sick; was there any activity for you aboard the ship?
ADAMS: Yes, I went to work for the ship's newspaper, the "War Bride Express." We had movies and the few of us who were not sick ate well, and then also the weather was pretty rough - windy and the sea choppy. And we were kept pretty busy trying to help the sick ones.
BURNS: What happened when you got to New York?
ADAMS: We sailed in at night and the Statue of Liberty, all lit up was the first thing we saw. Very impressive and sort of scary. I think for the first time I realized how far I was from home, and how on my own I was. We spent the night on the ship at anchor and the next day we boarded buses to take us to the railroad station where we were put on trains to take us to our final destination. They put three of us on the wrong train and we wound up in Louisville, Kentucky on Derby Day!
BURNS: What did you do?
ADAMS: We went to traveler's aid whose people got in touch with the Red Cross. A Red Cross worker took us to dinner then put us on the next train to Memphis.
BURNS: They didn't take you to the derby?
ADAMS: No. We just wanted to get to our destination. When we got to Memphis, I called Brookhaven 191-J collect (that's the number Versie had given me for his family) and since the next train to New Orleans wouldn't leave until the next day, his two brothers, Z.T. and Roy came to get me.
BURNS: When all of a sudden you saw what became a new family for you, what were your feelings, what was your impressions when you saw those two men walk in to get you?
ADAMS: I was standing at the station window and I saw them before they saw me. I knew who they were because Roy and Versie look so alike. And they sound alike too. So, I just fell in. They treated me as if I were their sister and took me to my new home.
BURNS: With such a mixed-up trip from New York, to Louisville, to Memphis, think back: what was your first impression of the United States?
ADAMS: How big it is. And how the railroad comes through the middle of towns. In Europe, the railroad skirt the cities; but here, the station was right in the middle of Main Street! Also in Belgium, you run from one village into another; here you have these magnificent open spaces. I loved that.
BURNS: When you finally got to Brookhaven....
ADAMS: On my birthday, May 6th.
BURNS: Really? When you finally got to Brookhaven, what was your first impression of the town?
ADAMS: It was night when I arrived so I don't remember too much. But the next day, Bertha (Versie's twin sister) took me to visit all of the relatives and for a tour of the town, introducing me to it. Her friends, every one was so nice I immediately felt at home. I adapt very quickly--that's one thing 5 years of war did for me.
BURNS: There had to be a certain amount of culture shock. What adjustments did you have to make?
ADAMS: The food. So different from what I was used to. Drinking milk with your meal; iced tea; cornbread; turnip greens; fried chicken...it was fun. I discovered something new every day.
BURNS: Did you have trouble with the southern accent?
ADAMS: Not too much because by then I was used to Versie's and 0-6014 was manned by good "ole" southern boys who soon straightened out my British accent.
BURNS: How long before you went to work for the telephone company?
ADAMS: Two weeks. There was an opening. I applied and got the job.
BURNS: Did you actually work on the switchboard?
ADAMS: Yes. Local (number please) and long distance and sometimes information. I remember once taking a call to Pensacola from someone and writing Pepsi-Cola on my ticket! I now know the difference. But what a good laugh we all had.
BURNS: You've got to be able to laugh at yourself. From the switchboard you went to....
ADAMS: The business office, in 1955.
BURNS: How long did you work for the telephone company?
ADAMS: 34 years; 9 years as an operator, the rest of the time as a service representative.
BURNS: How long after you came here did your parents join you?
ADAMS: They came two years after I arrived.
BURNS: When they came, did they come with the intention of staying?
ADAMS: They did. They sold everything and came. I was an only child.
BURNS: When did your father die?
ADAMS: In June, 1951. He was only 54 years old.
BURNS: Your mother lived on.....
ADAMS: Yes until January, 1978. She was almost 81.
BURNS: You made a quick adjustment. Did they?
ADAMS: It was harder for them. They were older and the language barrier did not make things easier. Also my father had already had two strokes in Belgium and the third one killed him. After Dad died, mother went to work in the alteration department at Benoits, and that helped her a lot. She loved it there. She took three trips back to Belgium and was always glad to come back here.
BURNS: When you go back to Belgium, what do you notice the most that has changed?
ADAMS: Belgium has become Americanized. Open a Belgian newspaper and you read about "le hold-up;" "le dealer;" "l' overdose". Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's are all over the place and Coca-Cola is "le drink." They have also picked up our worst habits--trash and cans along the roadsides; sloppy dressing and a school system that produces illiterates.
BURNS: So what you are saying is the difference is there is no difference.
ADAMS: Yes. Too bad they picked up our bad habits but not our good ones.
BURNS: So the idyllic life you enjoyed as a child in the village....
ADAMS: It's gone.
BURNS: When you back over there, your family, your cousins, do they ever comment on the changes they see in you?
ADAMS: Yes, they say I speak French and Walloon with an American accent!
BURNS: You always have been teased about your accent!
BURNS: First the French, then the Belgians, and now your family.
ADAMS: And Americans too! I have been told I sound as if I had lived in Louisiana, in San Francisco and one poor soul said I surely saw life in Centralia, Illinois! Go figure.
BURNS: When your family comes over here and they see your lifestyle, the way you live, what surprises them?
ADAMS: The size of the lots, ranch-style houses, the friendliness of southern people, especially the friendliness.
BURNS: Considering everything that happened to you during and after the war, do you think that has affected your outlook on life?
ADAMS: I think it has made me self-reliant. I think fast and always hit the ground running. I also developed a strong sense of humor. I always try to see the humorous side of every situation. It's not always easy but after a while, it comes naturally.
BURNS: How do you think you have been changed by coming to America?
ADAMS: I think I have learned the meaning of freedom and the awesome responsibility that comes with it. I had to take a test before I became one of you and that gave me an insight into what I had elected to become. I vote in every election, not because I am obliged to, but because I want to. Because here for better or worse I am the government. I do not always win, but, one way or another, I let my voice be heard.
BURNS: What else would you like to say, what would you like to add?
ADAMS: Just one thing: I am forever grateful to the American GI's. So resourceful, so competent. They were given an impossible task and they did it with good ole American know-how. A bunch of ordinary guys, amateurs really, who together managed to defeat the strongest war machine the world had ever known. I say a prayer each night for those who died and for those who live. God bless them all.
1. Before the war, mother and I used to go shopping in Holland on our bicycles.
c2003 Lincoln-Lawrence-Franklin Regional Library
Brookhaven, MS 39601