By Marta K. Dodd
The Michigan Military Heritage Museum in Grass Lake has connected two men who, unknowingly, experienced one of World War II’s most significant humanitarian efforts from opposite perspectives. They became aware of each other only by chance, last April.
Their shared story began in late April 1945, when World War II was ending. At that time, millions of people in the Netherlands (Holland) were starving because Nazi occupiers had blockaded food and fuel shipments in retaliation for the Allied forces’ failed attempt to gain control of several vital Dutch bridges, a daring plan that might have ended the war much earlier.
One of the two men was at that time 13-year-old Nicolaas (Nico) Akemann, living with his parents and four siblings in The Hague, Netherlands. Like so many others, his family was in dire straits. From autumn 1944 until spring 1945 there was very little food coming into their area. When food did come, shopkeepers usually sold it on the black market rather than to their regular clientele.
Without the humanitarian effort the two men shared, “I think in a matter of weeks we would have died,” Akemann said, “œespecially my older brother. He was in bad, bad shape. He could barely walk.”
The other of the two men linked by coincidence in 1945 was Jackson, Mich., native Ralph Brown, a 25-year-old navigator (flight officer) on a U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bomber. Like so many of his generation, Brown enlisted in December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In those days, before satellite communications and GPS, a B-17 navigator used windows at the front and sides of the plane’s nose to watch for landmarks on the ground, or calculated distances by using time and speed. They also relied on radio navigation, or figured out a line of position with a sextant (or some combination of those methods).
Brown’s 861st Squadron crew was in one of four squadrons in the 493rd Bomb Group, part of the Army’s “Mighty Eighth” Air Force. The 493rd flew combat missions from an airbase in Suffolk, England, roughly three hours round-trip across the North Sea from where the Akemann family lived.
The 493rd Bomb Group flew approximately 160 combat missions and dropped an estimated 12,000 tons of bombs, primarily against German industrial and military installations. Their last combat mission was on April 20, 1945.
Also in April 1945, with several thousand Dutch people already dead, three to four million more at risk of death without immediate food, and the war nearing an end, the Dutch royal government asked for help. In a matter of days, the allies negotiated a temporary truce with the Germans, created a food drop plan, and established a specific route for humanitarian flights into the Netherlands. German forces would not fire on the relief planes if the planes did not bomb German positions.
The British and Canadian Royal Air Forces dropped about 7,000 tons of food in the Netherlands from April 29 to May 8, 1945, and the USAAF dropped about 4,000 tons of food from May 1 to 7. Organizers dubbed the two efforts Operation Manna and Operation Chowhound, respectively.
Each plane carried about two and one-half tons of food, crammed into empty bomb bays. When a plane reached a predetermined target site, the food was released to drop to the ground. The two operations amounted to more than 5,200 missions in the 10-day relief effort.
As the planes flew over and dropped crates and bags of food from 100 feet or so in the air, the flight crews could see masses of Dutch people waving and cheering.
The original plan called for flying at 400 feet (much lower than during combat missions), but many flew at much lower altitudes. Some pilots returned to base with tree branches in their plane’s landing gear. Brown once shot photographs of factory smokestacks reaching higher than the altitude his plane was flying.
Brown said he probably was on at least two or three of the humanitarian flights in the USAAF’s six-day operation.
“I know some of the food was not packaged very well,” he said. “Some of it got splattered all over the airfield.” His flights dropped food at Schiphol Airfield, near Amsterdam. Brown said he saw some of the many thank-you messages the Dutch people spelled out on the ground with tulips, so the plane crews could see them.
“It was just routine,” Brown said recently, and described each of his Operation Chowhound flights as “just another airplane ride. They never told us what we had, just to get up there and fly and drop it.”
Some of the food dropped was the U.S. armed forces’ K-Rations, each package containing a non-perishable ready-to-eat breakfast, lunch and dinner portion totaling 2,000 to 3,000 calories, including such things as canned meats, fruit paste, instant coffee, sugar, milk powder, candy, and chocolate.
Food falling from the sky was a surprise to the Akemann family. The Allied Expeditionary Force had earlier dropped notices describing (in English and Dutch) the upcoming flights, but on the ground, the leaflets quickly disappeared; the Akemanns had not seen them. Nico Akemann’s father did not believe a neighbor who said he had heard about food drops while listening to Radio London on a radio his family hid in a closet.
Then they heard the planes. The Royal Air Force’s Lancasters came first, then a few days later, the USAAF B-17s.
“When the planes started coming over, the sound was unbelievable,” Akemann said. “There were hundreds of them at a time. They just kept going and going. My mother immediately gave us kids white pillowcases, and said, “Go up on the roof and wave at them.” There was a lot of commotion.”
Akemann’s father, who worked for the railroad, had access to some busses. He and other men drove a couple miles to the nearby Ypenburg Airfield, to pick up food. (“He was in bad shape, and had to drag himself to do it,” Akemann said of his father.) The men brought food back to distribution centers in The Hague, where everyone, including Akemann’s mother, could get food for their families.
“There was dried beef in big square tin cans,” Akemann recalled. “There was bacon, powdered eggs and powdered milk. There were dried potatoes. At first my mother didn’t know what to do with those, but she figured it out quickly.”
The German High Command surrendered effective May 9, 1945. WW II was over. Soon after that, Akemann said, large Canadian trucks loaded with food arrived and the food situation improved.
His time in the war at an end, Brown and his crew flew their own plane back to the U.S. that summer, but even that trip was anything but simple.
“We started out from Wales in England, flew to the Azores,” he said. “I had to hit those islands for us to land and gas up. We flew from there up to Newfoundland, and from there down to Maine. I did most of it by shooting the sun [with a sextant] because shortly after we left Wales, our plane’s antenna broke, so we could not use the radio. It was all up to me.” Later in 1945, Brown was discharged from the Army as a second lieutenant.
Brown and his wife, Dorothy (now deceased) lived in Jackson, had two children, and he operated Ralph Brown Construction, building kitchens, baths, and other residential projects. The Browns traveled extensively, including visiting the Netherlands.
“While we were there, if I told people I was in one of the planes that dropped food, they thanked me,” he said, even though decades had passed.
As things normalized, post-war, Akemann served in the Dutch Air Force for two years, then in 1958 he and his first wife, Lilian, and their first child immigrated to the United States, ending up in Milwaukee. He found work there as a design draftsman with American Motors Corp. (AMC). The Akemanns became naturalized American citizens in 1971. They had four more children, and lived in Milwaukee for 17 years before AMC transferred him to Detroit, and South Lyon became their new home. In 1998, Akemann retired from Chrysler Corp. (which AMC became) as a design engineer. (Lilian Akemann is deceased.)
Akemann has just two items that he brought with him to the United States in 1958 – a six-inch needle his father and grandfather used for leather work, and a pristine, still-in-the box KLM-monogramed cigarette lighter given to him aboard their KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight out of the Netherlands.
In spite of their ordeal in the war, Nico Akemann’s father and mother lived to be 86 and 99, respectively. Akemann said of his mother, “She held us all together during the war.” Akemann’s two younger siblings still live in Holland.
Some memories of difficult times linger forever. Whenever the Yankee Air Museum near Willow Run Airport (about 15 miles “as the crow flies” from the Akemann’s home) fires up its treasured, restored B-17 bomber, just the sound of it flying over their home brings World War II memories flooding back, Akemann said.
Brown and Akemann’s unlikely story picked up again 72 years after the food drops, when Akemann and his wife, Karen, saw an article about the MMHM in the March 27, 2017, issue of the Detroit Free Press. They went to the museum days later. There, Akemann encountered an exhibit about Brown’s involvement in Operation Chowhound, including Brown’s uniform, footlocker, and memorabilia from his service years.
Unexpectedly seeing those items and learning that Brown, now 97, lives in Spring Arbor was an emotional discovery for Akemann, now 85. On a subsequent visit to the museum, Akemann and Brown talked by telephone, another emotional experience for Akemann.
“When we were at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, a few years ago, Nico kept asking veterans where they had served,” Karen Akemann said. “He has always wanted to thank an Operation Chowhound veteran, to say, I know what you did. I remember.” That all finally happened at this museum in Grass Lake. It was amazing. He finally got to say thank you.”
Nico Akemann said it does not matter that his family did not get food from Brown’s particular plane, because “It was from the 8th Air Force, that Lt. Brown represented.” Akeman said he feels some peace after the telephone conversation with Brown last spring, and from finally being able to thank someone for saving his family and so many others, but he added, “We will complete it when I can physically shake the guy’s hand.
That could happen Saturday, at the museum’s Aug. 5 summer campaign community event. Both men plan to attend. After unknowingly experiencing the two sides of the lifesaving Operation Chowhound 72 years ago, they will finally share a face-to-face experience.