In the coming generations, stories of World War II will only be found in history books, movies and TV specials. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates under 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the second world war are alive in 2018.
Oak Harbor resident Hank Koetje is one of those survivors, and his stories are told both firsthand and in at least one of those TV specials. National Geographic released last year a documentary series “Drain the Ocean,” which examined the sinking of the troopship Leopoldville and the unique tragedy of its situation.
“The last scene I saw, when the destroyer pulled away, was the bow of the ship covered with men just before it sank,” Koetje recalled.
Born and raised in Oak Harbor, Koetje was drafted into the Army in 1943 at age 19. He became a member of the 66th Black Panther Infantry Division, and by 1944 he was a sergeant in charge of a mortar gun squad composed of 15 men.
Koetje was 20 years old the Christmas Eve on which his troopship — headed for Cherbourg, France and the Battle of the Bulge — was torpedoed by a German submarine. The ship was just five miles from its destination.
More than 2,200 Americans were aboard, and it’s estimated around 300 people died from the initial impact.
“The seas were getting heavier and the ship was getting listless,” Koetje said. “Even though we were told it wasn’t going to sink, I was pretty sure it was going to pretty quickly.”
The Belgian crew correctly predicted the ship’s doomed fate and evacuated on the lifeboats. The remaining American soldiers did not know how to deploy the Carley floats, a type life raft that had been attached to the Leopoldville.
Koetje only had a gut feeling and 15 men were looking to him for guidance. The HMS Brilliant, a British destroyer briefly came alongside the troopship for assistance. The smaller vessel could only take a few hundred men, and it spent just minutes beside the sinking Leopoldville.
Koetje told his men he was going to try and jump onto the destroyer, unsure of whether this would lead to a better outcome or not.
“I gave them the choice to follow or stay where they were at,” he said.
The four men who followed him all survived. The others didn’t.
“I always felt bad that I didn’t order them along with me,” Koetje said. “But at the time, I didn’t know what to do … I didn’t know what was the best thing to do.”
The destroyer, damaged from hitting the troopship, was able to make it to shore just after Koetje jumped aboard. Had he spent a minute longer making his decision, it’s likely he wouldn’t have made it. Over 800 Americans who’d been aboard the Leopoldville perished. Divers didn’t discover the undeployed life rafts until years later.
The story of the troopship remained untold for years, even to the families of the men who died.
“The Army told us not to talk about this at all,” Koetje said.
Families of the fallen were only told their brothers, husbands and fathers were missing in action. The truth of the incident didn’t become known until 50 years later.
“It was hard keeping it a secret for a long time,” Koetje said.
As an infantryman, Koetje’s part in history wasn’t over. He made it to France and fought on the front lines in France for 133 consecutive days as the Battle of the Bulge raged on nearby.
Koetje shared few details of those 133 days. It was winter in France — cold and wet. The men were usually exhausted and often were only able to sleep a couple hours at a time.
“Why I’m here, I don’t know,” he said as he remembered the battle. “… It was hell.”
Americans completely halted the German offensive Jan. 25, 1945. It’s estimated 19,276 U.S. servicemen died in one of the most lethal American battles to date.
After the war ended, Koetje spent a year and a half on occupation duty in Germany and Austria. At the age of 23, he returned home to Whidbey Island.
In a dramatic shift from his role in the infantry, Koetje went to work with his uncle Neil Koetje. He became certified as a real estate agent and later studied insurance. He co-founded Koetje Agency Inc., Island Savings and Loan, and Island Title Company.
Although he found professional success at home, Koetje said his transition back to civilian life could at times be fraught with struggle.
“I had a hard time for a year or two,” he said. “It wasn’t easy … I don’t know how to explain it.”
He said for years he felt on edge. For at least a decade after coming home, he still slept with a gun. And he missed the men he came to know.
“You get a camaraderie with people you’re in the war with that you don’t get with people in any other time,” he said.
He said it’s probable he had suffered from PTSD, but it was never diagnosed. Although his post-war years came with a number of challenges, he wouldn’t have picked anywhere else to be besides Oak Harbor.
“Even though I’ve traveled a lot, this is the best place ever,” Koetje said, as he sat in his Dillard Lane home, overlooking the harbor.
Koetje is now 95 and is still reflective of his experiences in WWII. In the days leading to Veterans Day, he had one sentiment he wanted to pass on:
“My country called, and I answered. My country asked and I gave. Reach out now, through the years and in your tears, remember me.”