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Belated Bronze Star

Hank Koetje, 79, a resident of Oak Harbor, will officially receive the Bronze Star Medal in a ceremony on Friday, April 19. The award comes 58 years after Koetje served on the front lines in France. Congressman Rick Larsen will attend. - Christine Smith
Hank Koetje, 79, a resident of Oak Harbor, will officially receive the Bronze Star Medal in a ceremony on Friday, April 19. The award comes 58 years after Koetje served on the front lines in France. Congressman Rick Larsen will attend.
— image credit: Christine Smith

An Oak Harbor man is about to receive a prestigious medal for meritorious achievement in ground battle, nearly 58 years after he served in World War II combat in the European Theater of Operations.

Hank Koetje was 21 years old when he found himself in peril that resulted in the death of 802 of his comrades when the troopship Leopoldville was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk in the English Channel on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Koetje, and a handful of others, managed to survive by jumping from the Leopoldville to the destroyer HMS Brilliant, which had pulled alongside in a rescue effort.

“I leaned on the rail for five or 10 minutes...and hoped when I let go I’d land on the destroyer,” Koetje said. He jumped about 20 feet and hit the rail on the Brilliant, tumbling onto the ship instead of off of it, like many others had done.

While he considers himself lucky, he cannot forget that so many others met an untimely death that night.

“When Christmas Eve comes around, I can’t help but think of all the families that lost sons and husbands and brothers that night,” Koetje said Thursday.

In many instances, Koetje said, families didn’t know for 50 years how their loved ones had died.

“They just said they were missing in action,” Koetje said.

After troops arrived to replace the more than 800 men lost on the Leopoldville, the men were sent to the front lines in France. There, Koetje’s division set a record of 133 consecutive days on the front until the end of the war in Europe, Koetje said.

Koetje found out he was eligible for the Bronze Star after U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen’s office looked into his eligibility. He is both honored and humbled by the award.

“I appreciate all the ceremony and everything. I don’t know if I deserve that … because so many did not get home,” Koetje said.

Larsen will present the Bronze Star Medal to Koetje in a private ceremony next Friday, April 19 at the Rotary Club lunch meeting at the Oak Harbor Yacht Club. About 15 or 20 of Koetje’s family members, including children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, plan to attend.

“I appreciate Congressman Larsen, with his busy schedule … that he’d take the time,” Koetje said.

After the war, Koetje returned to Oak Harbor and opened the Henry Koetje Agency, now the Koetje Agency, an insurance, property management and real estate business.

The Bronze Star medal is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the United States military, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not participating in aerial service.

The award was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Executive Order 9419 on Feb. 4, 1944, in response to a memorandum from Gen. George C. Marshall. Marshall, in the memo, had informed President Roosevelt that ground troops deserved a medal for extraordinary service, much like airmen had received in recognition for their service.

In 1947 a policy was implemented that authorized a retroactive award of the Bronze Star to those that had received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge during World War II.

Koetje, who had received the Combat Infantryman Badge, still didn’t expect the Bronze Star.

“I didn’t even know that I was eligible,” Koetje said. “I’m really surprised.”

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