A 73-year-old ID bracelet, traded in 1945 to a Dutch family by a hungry soldier in the Canadian army, is at last headed home.
The bracelet bears the name and service identification number of Charles Bernhardt, who served in World War II with the British Columbia regiment, 3rd Canadian Division (3e Division du Canada), from 1940 to 1945.
It's been in the keeping of Bernadina (Wijers) Smith's family members ever since Bernhardt traded it to them for a few fresh eggs. But on Thursday, Bernadina's grandson Kyle Smith and daughter-in-law, Karen, took it back to British Columbia to be reunited with Bernhardt, now 97 and living in Summerland.
Kyle, who is studying computer networking and systems administration at Linn-Benton Community College, found Bernhardt for his grandmother and sent the former serviceman a letter. Both he and Karen later talked with Bernhardt on the phone.
"We're going to do a presentation and reunite him with this bracelet," Karen said earlier this week. "He said he is so excited, he couldn't even sleep."
At first, Bernhardt told them, he didn't remember the bracelet. But he recognized the ID number and confirmed it as his own, and then the story came back: the girl he'd met in London during a whirlwind romantic encounter in 1944, the misspelled bracelet she'd had made for him — "Chuck Bernhart" — and the day a year later when he offered it in trade to Bernadina's family, shortly after the Allies helped to liberate the Netherlands.
This past July 27, the bracelet moved with Bernadina to her new assisted living quarters at Bonaventure of Albany — and that's when Bernadina's son, Tony Smith, had the idea of trying to get it returned.
"If she hadn't moved, it still would have been sitting there," Karen explained. "Tony, my husband, he remembered it."
Bernadina had thought, over the years, about trying to give the bracelet back, but this was a harder job in the days before the internet. Kyle took on the challenge, tracked down a website that indicated Bernhardt had survived the war, then later found a Canadian military historian who put out a Facebook call on his behalf.
The website led to a notice in a newsletter about Bernhardt, who was to receive the French Legion of Honour for his service in Normandy during the war. It listed his place of residence: an assisted living facility in Summerland. Kyle wrote his letter and Bernhardt answered.
Bernadina isn't making the trip with her family — a "proud 83" years old, she didn't feel up to the 560-mile journey — but said she's thrilled the bracelet is being returned at last.
"If I had known, I would have done it much sooner," she said. "If that was me and I was looking for it — it would just mean that much."
Bernadina said she never minded having the bracelet around — "It doesn't take up too much room," she said — and often related the story around it.
Bernadina has many stories to tell of the war. Nazis occupied the Netherlands during most of her childhood. She was 6 when the SS soldiers took over her family's farmhouse in Hoog-Keepel, moving into the ground floors and forcing herself, her older brother and sister, and their parents onto the floors above.
The family grew vegetables and raised chickens, cows and show horses on the farm. They were able to bury the family silverware and a few guns in the garden before the Nazis turned the home into SS headquarters. They occupied the house for the next five years.
Bernadina's mother, Catherine, had to cook for the soldiers. Her father, Herman Wijers, did road work for them, digging ditches and foxholes, but secretly served with the Dutch resistance. Her brother Cornelius "Nick" Nichols, then about 12, also joined the resistance, sneaking out after the 10 p.m. curfew to deliver messages to the hidden radio in a tower in town.
Bernadina's childhood is peppered with memories of the occupation. She learned to dive into a ditch on the way to or from school if planes appeared to strafe the nearby railroad. She remembers the restriction on the color orange — the representation of the House of Orange, the Dutch royal family — and how you couldn't even grow orange flowers in your yard.
She remembers the Jewish neighbors and the yellow stars they wore — and how, one day, they simply disappeared; no one knew where.
And she remembers the day a misdirected bomb took out a nearby home and its entire family, sparing only the maid and the handyman, who lived in the rear of the building. Her class had to sing at the funeral service: "Safe in Jesus' Arms."
"I'll never forget that song," she said.
Mostly, however, Bernadina said, she remembers how hard her parents worked to keep life as normal as possible.
"They were so smart, our parents. They never let us know what was happening," she said. "For me to look back at my life — they were so wonderful during the war time. We pretty normally lived a whole life."
When Allied forces liberated her country, Bernadina said, everyone celebrated. Out came hidden Dutch flags. "We were going to be shot if we did that before," she said.
Then came the day the hungry soldier happened by. Bernadina doesn't remember who met him or how the deal was struck, but she kept the bracelet with her other talismans of the war years: the Resistance armbands worn by her father and brother, and the band that marked her father as a member of the civil patrol; someone who would sit in a foxhole and watch roofs for signs of fire after a bombing run.
Bernhardt's bracelet moved with the family from the Netherlands to the United States after the war, arriving at Ellis Island in 1948. "America is the land of opportunity," she remembers her father telling the family. "We must go."
The family traveled the five-day train route to White Salmon, Washington, where Bernadina's uncle waited to sponsor the family. It was carried along as they continued to move, first to Gervais, then to Tillamook.
Bernadina met her husband, Harvey Smith, in Tillamook — both worked at the cheese factory and went to the Methodist church. They married in 1953, when Bernadina was 19. She became an American citizen the following year.
The bracelet stayed at first with Bernadina's older sister, Willemiena. When she tired of keeping it, it went to Bernadina, who took it with her when she and Harvey moved to Corvallis. She worked for Hewlett-Packard there, and Harvey worked for the Bell telephone company.
She and Harvey were friends with another couple, John Fruetel and his wife, Jean. After she and John both lost their spouses, they began keeping company. The two have taken several trips together, including one back to the Netherlands, where the Wijers' home still stands (a cousin owns it, she thinks).
World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but the stories continue — and you never know when a piece of one might lead to a happy ending, Bernadina said.
"It's kind of nice to share this with people," she said. "It might help somebody."