May 6th was a day for the books. Unknown to our travellers, Glenn and myself were busy planning something unbelievably extraordinary for our veterans. Yep, those are the only two words that could describe the opportunity presented to us: Unbelievably extraordinary.
It was only a day before that the President of the 005 Canadian Legion, the only Canadian Legion outside of Canada, based here in the Netherlands, had rung my mobile. "I'm coming to your hotel" He said, "I am already on the way".
Upon his arrival, he told Glenn & I the news. We had been invited to the Peace Palace in the Hague, for a reception & dinner with the delegation of the Netherlands, to be served by the royal party. Out of the 153 Canadian veterans in Holland for the liberation events, it was our four boys who would be able to go and be honoured with a Certificate of Excellence, and ceremony for their service 70 years ago.
That's right. We would be representing Canada at the royal delegation dinner in honour of the liberators of Holland, which was to be held in the Peace Palace - a place rarely known to be open to the public.
The Peace Palace is often called the seat of international law because it houses the International Court of Justice (which is the principal judicial body of the United Nations), the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law, and an extensive Peace Palace Library. In summary - it was just an opportunity that we had to make happen.
^ The Peace Palace by night - a sight you usually can only see through the iron gates at the foot of the property.
After our meeting, Glenn and I hastily went on our private mission to hunt down Frank, Bud, Ray, & George to tell them the news, hoping that they would be open to the long night ahead of them in the following few days. Luckily, they all accepted with open arms, after a little convincing, that we were indeed telling the truth, and that they weren't dreaming. Telling thier companions was a different story, as they tried to plan out what they could wear for such an event. The only companion who seemed confident was Peter, George's second hand man. "I knew something would happen, I knew it." He told me confidently, "I brought my suit...something like was bound to happen."
When all was confirmed, it was time to tell the group - who would be taking the day to explore Amsterdam, followed by a shopping day in Apeldoorn. Everyone was so encouraging and overwhelmed with the news. Many were excited with the news, and asked for all of the details and photos upon our return. It was great to see the group so moved by an event for our boys. "Today is like a break from the reminder of war, and all the devestation that had come with it." Maureen had mentioned. Indeed, for the group it would be a day to relax and embrace the country as it is today, a remarkable country that came from such an unspeakable hardship due to the unimaginable efforts the Allies endured to liberate them. If you'd like to see how their day was, click here! Warning: they had a few surprises along the way too!
^ From left to right, President Gerard Hendricks of the 005 Legion, Ray Lewis, Treasurer Martin Van VandePoel of the 005 Legion, Bud Weeks, Frank Fordham, and George Skerkowski And so, with everything in place, our four veterans, their companions, and myself, hustled and bustled and made it to the cars awaiting us outside to sweep us away for the evening. To personally escort us, both Gerard Hendricks, and Martin Van Depoel were there, fully dressed in their ceremonial suits, and calmly standing in the lobby with nothing but warm smiles.
I laughed to myself, I couldn't imagine how busy this week had been for them, as the head organizers these two men were crucial to the important cermonial events throughout Holland such as the Apeldoorn parade (to be held on Saturday), the royal party, the Holten commemoration, and the burial at Bergen Op Zoom. And yet, even so, with so much in their hands, here they were, in the lobby of our hotel, just for our boys, just for our Canadians. I had to pinch myself several times over, I couldn't believe the monumental efforts they had managed to orchestrate just to make sure our four veterans were honoured for what they had done in a time before any of us could remember.
And with that, off we went. ___________________________________________________________________ The Reception
When we first arived, we were escorted to a reception party just to the left of the palace. Complete with news crews, violins, champagne, and fresh cold orange juice, I quickly pulled out as many Canadian flags as I could to show the rest of the delgation that we were the Canadians to look out for. Many American, Polish, Dutch, British...even Indonesian veterans, delegates, and embassadors were there, but none were Canadian. We waved our flags high.
^Flash flash flash, I found it hard to concentrate on the conversation I was having with Ray (He has been PATIENTLY teaching me Dutch), but Ray, Frank, George and Bud remained unflinched. After 6 days overseas, they were beginning to get used to it, and had been incredibly patient with those asking for photos and autographs.
I will admit, I think we were all caught off guard, as the cameras came out, and the various delegates started to approach us, introducing themselves and sitting with us. They had all taked the time to truly speak with us all in depth, thanking George, Bud, Frank & Ray individually for their service regardless of where they had been stationed, or what they had seen. The fascination, and the honour showed for our boys was moving to say the least, mind boggling is another word to describe it: they are celebrities here - And so they should have been all along.
Another smiling face was the memorable Defence-Attaché of the Canadian Embassy of the Netherlands, Mr. Colonel Michael George Anthony Hogan, with his wife Tracy Hogan. Although new to the role and the country, the couple put every effort forward to make us feel welcome, spending valuable time with George, Ray, Frank, and Bud.
It was truly an honour to not only have met them all, but to feel made welcome, and special, at such an event.
^General Ted Meines, shaking hands with Bud Weeks after learning where he had been stationed during the war.
___________________________________________________________________ The Dinner
After an hour or two greeting the delegates, professors, veterans, and embassadors, it was time for dinner. Together we walked across the pristine greens in front of the palace to the front entrance way for our evening dinner.
^ George stops to take a look at the palace from a far, before taking a big breath and giving Peter the okay to continue to the front of the entrance way.
^ We walked into a large hall, and I held my breathe. Stunning doesn't even begin to describe the ornate detail of the front hall, with its tapestries, chandeliers and complex wood carvings...my imagination hadn't done it justice. In the back of my mind, I started to worry. Any of us could have easily spilt our wine, talked with our mouth full, sneezed too loudly, snorted while we laughed ...among other things! I prayed that they party would forgive us of any manners we might forget amongst the hype of the evening.
^ From left to right, Sharon Weeks, Bud Weeks, Peter Price, and George Skerkowski. We sit down for dinner and look at the menu: Prosecco with violet oils and iced lemon, a cut of tender veal with garlic potatos, apricot mousse with a side of fresh fruit, and a crisp salad with herring sampler to start. For those who had paid to attend, the invitation was costed at over 2,000 Euros a meal. A glass of wine was always in front of you, and the royal waitstaff gave service that could be described none other than, devine.
^ Frank and Hedy Fordham take their place at the dinner table. As always, they brought life to the party, quickly getting along with everyone at their table. You might notice the American & Dutch flags at every table - that is because it was an American insurance company who was kind enough to sponsor the event. I took my Canadians flags and stuck them to every table I could - but there was no need - the entire presentation during dinner highlighted the Canadians and their efforts - as well as the handsome Canadian soldiers that the Dutch women had become so fond of, hence: the influx of so many Dutch war brides.
^ Frank made many friends at dinner, including this 93 year old veteran from Indonesia. Frank had a hard time saying goodbye at the end of the dinner - it took some persuaying to get him to leave!!
___________________________________________________________________ The Awards
To be honest, I had kept it a secret. The boys were happy enough to be invited. But, indeed, they would be honoured during the presentation given during the dinner & ceremony, along with the other men from various countries who had been involved in the Netherlands during the Second World War. After our delicious dessert, the certificates came out, with one awarded to each of our Canadian Veterans. Luckily, I was prepared and was there to capture each of the moments where they all first recieved their certificates.
^ Ray Lewis shows off his certificate to a very proud Jennifer Edmonds. Jennifer is the mother of Glenn, our principal tour guide on tour, who came along for the trip. We quickly named her the mother of the group - as she selflessly made sure everyone was well taken care of, Ray included, during our journey. Ray wished for her to escort him to our dinner.
^ "Presented to Private George Skerkowski, on the occasiaon of the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. The above named liberator fought during World War II to restore freedom to the Netherlands and Europe. This document is presented as a lasting reminder of the alliance, formed in war, that has endured for 70 years and continues today to ensure peace in Western Europe. Signed on the seventh day of May 2015, at the Peace Palace, The Hague." The document was signed by Bram Bom, the Chairman of the bond between Neterlands and the Americas, and Prince Jamie de Bournon is the second son and third child of Princess Irene of the Netherlands and the late Carlos Hugo, Duke of Parma. He is the Patron of the Veterans of Princess Irene. His grandmother is Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.
^ Bud smiles proudly while looking over his certificate long after they had been awarded. "This is one of the best days I've ever had" He says later, as he wheels through the crowd, a smile so big and bright - despite everything he had witnessed in his younger years.
^ George gladly lets me take a picture of his award up close. He had been pretty tired as the night wore on, but said the unexpected award had sparked a new found energy. Regardless, as soon as dinner had ended we were picked up and taken door to door back to the hotel so we could all get a well deserved rest.
^ A chance to eat a fancy dinner with my Canadian heroes - what a tremendous honour for me. I loved every minute I could spend with them.
^ Bud shows his daughter Sharon what he had been awarded. Although a touching picture, it doesn't quite do the moment justice.
It was suggested that all of the men who had been awarded take a group picture in the entrance of the hall. Seeing them all together once it had quieted down was a moment I will never forget. Imagine a moment of silence as everyone stood still, faces beaming... ...and then, a roar of applause that lasted several minutes, with shouts of "Thank You's" and "We Love You's". What a perfect moment, in a perfect place - the very palace built in the name of peace.