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Still gratefull, 72 years later – recipient of food drop gives thanks

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By Marta K. Dodd
Exponent feature writer
A handshake 72 years in the making occurred on Saturday, Aug. 5 at the Michigan Military Heritage Museum in Grass Lake.
At the museum’s Summer Campaign community event, Netherlands native Nicolaas (Nico) Akemann, 85, fulfilled a life-long dream of directly thanking someone involved in the World War II humanitarian aerial food drops known as Operation Chowhound, over his home country.
The 10-day delivery of millions of pounds of food by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Operation Chowhound, and the similar British and Canadian Operation Manna, saved Akemann’s life, his family’s lives, and millions more Dutch families near death because of Nazi blockades of food supplies in the occupied Netherlands.
At the MMHM event, Akemann, now of South Lyon, Mich., shook hands with Jackson native Ralph Brown, 97, now of Spring Arbor. Brown was a navigator (flight officer) aboard a U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 bomber in World War II, and participated in Operation Chowhound flights as the war wound down in April 1945. His task was to keep the plane’s course within the narrowly- prescribed route, allowing them to pass through German-occupied territory without being fired upon.
During a visit to the museum last March, Akemann saw Brown’s USAAF uniform on exhibit and learned about his role in Operation Chowhound. They talked briefly by telephone, but did not meet until Aug. 5.
Brown said his flights dropped food at a different Dutch airfield (Schiphol) than where the Akemann’s received food supplies (Ypenburg), but, “That does not matter,” Akeman said, adding, “The food was delivered by the U.S.’s 8th Air Force, that Lt. Brown represents.” Akemann said that the Aug. 5 handshake means their improbable story “has come to a conclusion,” finally closing the circle on his decades-long wish to thank an Operation Chowhound veteran.
“Shaking his hand was a very emotional experience for me,” Akemann said, “actually seeing a guy who was in one of the planes that dropped food to save our lives. I am just glad that on behalf of my entire family, I was able to thank him for his role in that.”
Akemann’s son, Marc, of Whitmore Lake, agreed, saying, “World War II stole my father’s childhood, from about age eight to 13 years old [when the food drops occurred]. His family – his parents and four siblings – amazingly survived the war intact.  My grandfather had a job with a train station in The Hague, Netherlands, where they lived; his position and street smarts were a big part of their survival.
“As time went on and my parents emigrated to the U.S. with their four-month-old son – me – my father wanted in some way to show thanks to the Allied Forces.  After all these years, actually meeting Mr. Brown is one of the most meaningful things to happen for my father. To thank a veteran from that operation is really the most significant thing he can do.
“I’m also glad this happened because I wouldn’t be here if it were not for the Allied forces. I was born in The Hague just 11 years after World War II ended. My mother grew up in Indonesia. That country was dealing with the Japanese while my father’s country was dealing with the Germans. Not many people can say they had parents on both fronts in World War II,” Marc Akemann said, adding, “We know that thousands and thousands of soldiers like Mr. Brown risked and lost their lives to liberate the Netherlands, as well as the rest of Europe, from the Nazis.”
“For us, having Ralph and Nico meet here is what this museum is all about,” said Scott Gerych, board of trustees member of the Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, the all-volunteer nonprofit that operates the museum. “The fact that our small exhibit brought these two together, and brings additional validation to Ralph’s mission (not that the missions needed validation), as well as bringing closure for Nico, is incredible.”
The museum’s event, attended by about 70 people, included a flag ceremony performed by the Veterans Honor Guard of Washtenaw County.  An honor guard bugler performed “Taps,” the short military bugle call performed at dusk, during flag ceremonies, and at military funerals since the 1860s.
The honor guard presented the American flag to each of the six World War II veterans attending, including Brown. The other veterans honored were Lillian Campbell and Eugene Setlock, both of whom served in the U.S. Navy; Herb Kohn and Earl Roberts, both of whom served in the U.S. Army (all four live in Grass Lake); and Jackson resident Philip Rosenberg, who served in the U.S. Army.
Also at the event, representatives of the American Legion Riders Post 514 from Ida, Mich., presented a $200-donation to the museum. The group’s mission is “veterans helping veterans and/or families of veterans.”
“The Dugouts,” a musical ensemble from suburban Detroit, performed patriotic songs ranging from the American Civil War era to World War II.

1 Comment

  1. Phyllis Dreiling

    August 18, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    This is such an awesome story. Ralph’s sister in Ks. Shared it with me. Thank you for your service Ralph.

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