A veteran's journey from POW camp back home to Iowa
NEWTON, Iowa — Newton resident Verle Kooistra’s military portrait looks nothing out of the ordinary at first glance — a standard garrison cap, neaty-tied neck tie and a pair of eyeglasses. It was these glasses, however, that nearly determined his contribution to the American effort in World War II.
“I went into the service in March of 1943 and spent 15 months out in Nebraska,” Kooistra said. “I would have never had to leave the U.S. because my eyes are so bad, but I thought, ‘Shoot, I’m not doing anything here.’”
Feeling as though he had more to contribute, Kooistra volunteered for an experience he wouldn’t soon forget.
“I was in limited service and decided I wasn’t getting much done, so I volunteered for the infantry,” he said.
From there, Kooistra headed to southern Indiana for basic training before heading abroad.
“In July of 1944, I went to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, which was the home of the 422nd regiment of the 106th infantry,” Kooistra recalled. “I never had any basic training, but I got it there through a lot of sweat and toil and muscle building, walking through the south woods of Indiana.”
Kooistra trained in Indiana until November of 1944, when the 422nd Regiment headed overseas via the RMS Aquitania, a ship that required constant maneuvering in order to outsmart the German Navy.
“We spent seven days going across to England, and every seven minutes this ship would change its course so U-boats couldn’t wait,” Kooistra said.
Upon arrival, Kooistra’s unit received additional training in England before facing the front lines in Germany.
“We left England the first day of December, 1944, and went up into the Schnee Eifel part of Germany where they dumped us off on the front lines with not much protection,” he said. “We were left there with only rifles and needed escorts, and the weather was so bad and snowy ... we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
After nearly three weeks in the German woods, things took a turn for the worse for Kooistra’s platoon as the more heavily-armed German army advanced toward them.
“We crawled 200 yards on our stomachs at night in the snow so the Germans couldn’t see us,” he said. “Then, about the 16th or 17th day of December of ’44, the Germans broke out into where we were, and they had firepower.
“It wasn’t long after I left England that I was a prisoner,” Kooistra said. “The night before we were captured, they had rockets going overhead all night, you couldn’t tell day from night. They went over all the time, about 500 feet above us and then they’d land and explode, but we were fortunate.
“In the morning, they came in with big tanks and we didn’t have anything to fight them with, so we surrendered,” he added. “The next day they marched us to Koblenz, Germany, and we were on the road about five days and walked 100 miles with no food, nothing to eat.”
Koblenz, like many other cities across Europe, had been hit hard by air raids and bombings — something Kooistra witnessed firsthand.
“It was a disaster area because the Allies had shelled it,” he explained. “There were three buildings in Koblenz they put us in, and bombs would come over and hit every building around us except the ones we were in. We kept thinking, ‘well, this might be it,’ but after three days we finally got out.”
This was no break for Kooistra, however, as he was soon ordered to pack into cattle cars with the rest of the regiment en route to a German prison camp.
“They put 70 of us in a boxcar and then nailed the door shut. We were inside there for a week, so you can imagine how things get,” he explained. “It’s cold and you’re freezing and they put us in towns at night hoping we’d get bombed or something until they unloaded us into Stalag (prison camp).”
At this point, Kooistra’s unit had been reported as Missing in Action — a designation that left those on the homefront with little security as to where their soldiers might be.
“There was this little gentleman that used to deliver telegrams, and you knew when he was at somebody’s door that it wasn’t good news,” said Helen Kooistra, Verle’s wife of 69 years.
“You didn’t know anything unless the government wrote you a letter or you got a telegram, and periodically I’d get one that would say he’s still missing,” she added. “You knew he was missing, but we didn’t know if he was alive or dead or what was going on.”
The vague nature of these telegrams is evident in a message Helen received Jan. 12, 1945. It reads: “It is with deep regret that your husband PI First Class Verle Kooistra has been reported MIA since 16 December.”
It was during this time of uncertainty that Kooistra’s unit was offered work in the German Stalags, something that was also common in American prison camps, he said.
“It wasn’t too long after the first of January that they asked us if we wanted to go on work detail, and most of us decided we wanted to go do something,” he said. “So we went to a rock quarry ... there were 48 that went to the quarry and after the war I found out that only eight out of the 48 came back. Lots of them died from not getting much to eat.”
The diet — or general lack thereof — within the German prison camps had similar effects on Kooistra’s health.
“We’d go to work at six in the morning and come back at six at night, and we thought we’d probably get something to eat, but what we got to eat wasn’t very much,” he said. “A spoonful of sugar to eat every week and no salt, and you see what that does to you — it don’t take long for you to get down to nothing.”
“I got out of the prison camp on the first of May and I’d lost 70 pounds already,” he added. “I had combat boots on and I had to cut the tops off of them because my feet were in pretty good shape, but they’d swollen so much I just had to cut the tops off. Of course, you have the same clothes on for five months with no bath, and it’s not much fun. I’d been in hospitals in Germany that you wouldn’t let a dog inside — dirty, just plain dirty with mites and things … it’s not a fun way to live.”
After months of toil and grueling work at the quarry, however, the Allied victory sealed Kooistra’s freedom and ensured his return to the U.S.
“We had people guarding us, and towards the end of the war they got scared,” he recalled. “They didn’t want to go to the Russian lines, so they took off toward the American lines and just left us. I was well enough on the last day that we walked to freedom, they didn’t pick us up. It was around the fourth of May, and it was almost mid-June by the time I got home. I think we were probably some of the last ones to get home.”
In the meantime, Kooistra made sure to send word home that he was safe and would soon be returning to the states. Following a previous telegram from April 25, 1945, that officially listed him as a prisoner of war, Kooistra sent a short, sweet note to Helen on June 2, informing her that he’d soon be home: “Darling, all my love. Hope to see you soon.”
“When I got back to the states I tried to get ahold of her, and I couldn’t reach her so I called my parents,” he recalled. “They lived in Kellogg, and that’s when central (phone switchboard) was in Kellogg, and the operator says, ‘would you like to have me get ahold of your wife in Newton?’ so all three of us were on the phone at the same time. By the time I got to Newton, she was coming down the street to meet me ... they were some good days,” he added, smiling to Helen.
In the years since the war, Kooistra kept plenty busy with family and fighting a few battles of his own.
“I’ve enjoyed life,” he said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we raised three kids, two foreign students and we didn’t sit on our duffs.” Kooistra’s determined spirit would later help him overcome two bouts of cancer as well.
This of course, didn’t slow him down — in 1993 he became chairman of the committee in charge of replacing the Veteran’s Memorial on the south side of the Jasper County Courthouse.
“When we built the memorial south of the courthouse, a man from the Newton Daily News and a man from southwest Newton came to me and said, ‘would you want to be chairman of this committee?’ and I said yes, but only if I can pick all my own people,” he added with a laugh.
Kooistra, along with the committee, sold engraved bricks with names of veterans and donors and raised money for the statue that features two soldiers cast in bronze, designed by Newton artist Nick Klepinger.
“It depicts all of the wars, that’s what we did it for,” Kooistra explained. “We took all the wars, anybody that was in the Vietnam war and the Korean war too. We had one before, but took it down — it was getting pretty dilapidated.”
By the summer of 1994, more than $96,000 had been raised in support of the memorial, which was dedicated on July 4, of the same year — 49 years after WWII had officially ended for the U.S.
“There were so many people involved. It was just a beautiful day and we had a flyover,” Kooistra said, pointing to photos showing the courthouse square packed with people present for the statue’s dedication ceremony — part of a scrapbook Helen has compiled over the years, full of newspaper clippings and old photos.
“The funny thing is that when you go through these things, you’re not frightened,” Kooistra said, flipping from page to page. “I was just never frightened, but I had plenty reason to be, getting shot at. When things start blowing at you within five days of being on the front lines, things start moving pretty fast ... I think most vets will tell you, it’s tough.”