DEVENS — Christmas, 1941.
The United States was at war. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. Four days later, Italy and Germany declared war on America. America had officially entered the global conflict.
The immediate effects on an American family living in Belgium were painful. The father, an employee at the Hammond Organ Company based in Chicago, was taken away by the Germans two days after Pearl Harbor.
“We were lucky. We were in the woods,” Christian de Marcken said. The U.S. born youth was 12 years old, the oldest child in the family when the Germans invaded Belgium the previous year.
Rents were cheap in war-torn Europe, and the family was living in a castle at the end of a long road.
They survived by growing crops the Germans would not eat, corn and goats and hiding the more desirable food like the pig.
“Father” was “pleasantly plump” when he was captured, de Marcken said, but would not remain that way.
“The Germans did not torture American civilians. They were left to die of hunger,” he said.
When things began to go badly for the Germans, they sent their dying prisoners back home.
“They were afraid of reprisal,” he said.
A doctor in the camp came up with a way to make it seem as though the elder de Marcken was dying. He had only one kidney and by dehydrating himself, the tests would show the other kidney had failed so the Germans would send him home to die.
The ploy worked and de Marcken made his way home to his family.
A skinny, scruffy hunchback showed up during a church service and slipped into the chair the congregation had reserved for the missing businessman’s use, even in his absence.
The children kept looking at the man, a bum, who dared to sit in their father’s seat.
“Are you going to kiss me?” he asked his wife and only then did the family know him.
“Father” would be arrested yet again and placed in an overcrowded cattle car for transport. He escaped hanging and bombing and turned up back at home while the dwelling was being strafed.
The children had learned to play among the detritus of war. Anti-tank barricades blocked the road, encampments of soldiers left tents and other treasures behind all for the children to discover.
It was the Signal Corps who spent three or four days, on their way to another location.
“As fast as they came, they were gone,” de Marcken said.
The family returned to the U.S. but war-related difficulties followed.
By the end of the war, the teenaged de Marcken developed blood poisoning from years of poor nutrition. After the bi-lingual soldier served as a Military Policeman in the 9th Infantry Division, he returned to attend high school in Boston when he was 28. He completed a mechanical engineering degree at Tufts and then worked for companies in the Worcester area.
De Marcken and his wife Jeanne, who grew up in Belgium during the war, dedicate time to raising awareness of the battles in that country and the soldiers who fought in them.
They work with the Remember Museum in Belgium and have helped the families of black soldiers killed in the Battle of the Bulge to visit the country where their lost ancestors are buried.
The U.S. government never brought the bodies of those black soldiers back and only told the families they were missing in action, de Marcken said.
The museum provides the families a place to stay and food; all they need to purchase are the plane tickets.
Closer to home, de Marcken has given part of his collection to the Fort Devens Museum, including that tent the Signal Corps left behind.
He can be found regularly at the museum sharing his unusual story of World War II.
“I’m asked to come if there is a class, a slew of children,” he said.
One special item remains at home.
During the long years her husband was away, “Mother” sewed an American flag, with 13 stripes and 48 stars. Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states.
Working from memory, the European woman got the proportions wrong and the stars are pointed the wrong way, her son said.
But, even with an enemy soldier living in the house, she worked on the flag, hiding it beneath the floorboards to keep it safe.
“Mother was very proud of her American husband and her nine American children,” de Marcken wrote in an email.
The family also hid people under those floorboards, keeping them safe from the resident soldier and the middle of the night inspections by the Nazi’s.
Eddy Graymeyer, a Jewish boy two years younger than de Marcken had his bed under the house.
Eddy and the flag were both saved.