Table of Contents
- 1 Escape to England
- 2 Royal Netherlands Air Force in Jackson, Mississippi, USA
- 3 Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Section 41
- 4 After World War Two
- 5 Memorial Service
- 6 Jan Eduard Helfrich (3 sept 1921 – † 21 aug 1966)
- 7 Cedar Lawn Cemetery Section 41, a memorial in decay
- 8 Special Thanks!
- 9 A big thank you to the author: Cliff Leverette
During World War 2 there was a peaceful invasion of Jackson, Mississippi, for two years by nearly a thousand Dutch military flyers and many of their civilian family members. The war necessitated their going to Jackson to train additional Dutch pilots to take the war in the skies to Germany and Japan. The presence of a Dutch military war-time cemetery in Jackson, belongs to the Netherlands, is a reminder that pilots and navigators from Holland and the former Dutch East Indies came to Jackson to live and train for war. Those who were killed while training, along with a few who were killed in other accidents were war casualties just as those who died while conducting actual military missions against the enemy.
Documents and photographs housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History tell the story of the times, not just the military training, but also of the social mixing of Dutch airmen and exiled civilians with their Mississippi hosts and friends. They were working against the unconditional defeat of the common enemy while at the same time enjoying each other as their different cultures mixed and in some cases, even married.
Escape to England
By early 1942 the Netherlands had lost both their native soil and the Dutch East Indies to the Axis powers. The Dutch royal family led by her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina and the vital government and military officials had managed to escape to England and set up a continuing legitimate government in exile which refused to surrender to Nazi Germany when the nation was overrun in May, 1940. Along with the government, thousands of Dutch soldiers, sailors and airmen had managed to escape the continent, many evacuating to England with the British army at Dunkirk while others, both civilians and military troops, continued to escape the nation and then continental Europe during the war in order to fight for the freedom of their home (a.k.a. Engelandvaarders). Some joined the British military. Others went to the East Indies where the armed forces continued to build a fighting force until the Japanese invaded, forcing an evacuation of thousands, both military and civilians, to Australia.
The threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia caused the Dutch military to consider the near future. Rather than wait to see if the expected invasion would take place thereby forcing the Dutch aviators, comprised of the air forces of the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Netherlands East Indies Army, to once again relocate to another nation in yet another emergency situation, Dutch diplomats petitioned the United States to allow the airmen to go to America where they could train without the threat faced in Australia. The lack of available airfields and equipment in Australia also factored into the Dutch request.
Royal Netherlands Air Force in Jackson, Mississippi, USA
The United States (an ally after the attack on Pearl Harbor) agreed. Because Dutch bomber and transport air crewmen (as well as fighter pilots) would be using American Lend-Lease equipment, air crews would be taught how to use radios, machine guns, engines, bombs and entire airplanes, and to maintain and repair all of this equipment. These men, who could speak English, would train along side American Army Air personnel at strictly American bases. But Dutch commanders wanted to maintain their own organization and systems of training for pilots and navigators.
The Dutch had requested a move to the southern United States where mild winter weather would prevail all year long. As the request was being considered, three United States Army Air Corps bomber groups had just finished training at the Jackson Army Air Corps Base and had left for overseas operations. This opened up the space needed by the Dutch and in May, 1942, hundreds of administrators, instructors, ground crews, students and many of their family members, arrived in Jackson, surprising most of Jackson’s residents with a military parade down Capitol Street the next day.
Primary training was provided at a satellite base at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Because the first two types of basic trainer aircraft types were open cockpit planes, it became apparent when cold weather came to Kansas that the cadets would have to wear so much winter clothing that it made it nearly impossible to safely fly the small planes. After completing their training the cadets moved to Jackson.
Jackson had only 60,000 residents in 1942 so the arrival of nearly a thousand Dutch caused a pleasant upheaval in the city. The effects of this “invasion” are well detailed in the video, “Dutch Wings over Jackson“, produced by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and in a paper, “Patriots without a Country, Dutch Wings over Jackson,” written by Amanda Lyons and Will Morgan.
Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Section 41
The Dutch airbase in Jackson became the main headquarters for all Dutch aviation training throughout the United States and Canada. While the situation was generally quite good for the mission of training, one recurring situation was never pleasant. Accidents killed students and instructors, with the majority of deaths taking place among the pilot and flying instructors stationed in Jackson. Just across the road from the air base and directly beneath the flight path to and away from it was Cedar Lawn Cemetery. In an act of friendship the Jackson city government ceded a section of the cemetery to the Netherlands so that Dutch casualties could be buried in Dutch soil. A cadet designed a large monolithic stone monument and each fallen airman would have a grave marker made of the same type stone that the guardian stone was made of. All writing on the markers and the main stone were written in Dutch. This was all paid for by contributions given by the Dutch at the Jackson Air Base.
As the time passed, the remains of Dutch airmen killed anywhere in the United States were sent to the Jackson Air Base morgue where everything pertaining to the airman’s death was processed and then the remains were buried in this cemetery. Long after the war, one of the former cadets said in an interview that when there was a funeral, the casket was placed on a horse drawn wagon and the airmen at the base would line up behind the wagon and walk behind it to the cemetery. Then there was a full military funeral. Less than a year after the cemetery was dedicated, Crown Princess Juliana who remained in Canadian exile visited the Dutch troops in Jackson and paid a visit to the cemetery where she placed a wreath.
During the time the Dutch were in Jackson, a few civilians who were family members of the cadets died and were buried in the cemetery, just off to the side of the airmen’s graves. One grave, that of a newborn infant, is marked:
Ons lief klein engeltje
11-16 Mei 1943
(Eng: “Our sweet little angel Oda Maria, East Indies, 11 – 16 may 1943”)
In February, 1944, the Royal Netherlands Air Force ended its presence in Jackson after graduating nearly 1,000 pilots and navigators. These men were sent to fight in the Pacific and the European theaters of war. Just as the war in the Pacific came to a close, a war of independance began in the Dutch East Indies when native people sought to overthrow Dutch colonial authority. Fighting was particularly barbaric and the Japanese army, which had run numerous prison camps to incarcerate Dutch civilians was suddenly cast in the role of being protectors of the same people whom they had held captive for nearly five years. The war ended with Dutch defeat and many airmen who had been residents of the colony lost their homes and were forced to find other homes outside the former Dutch East Indies.
After World War Two
The Dutch cemetery in Jackson saw continued use after World War Two. A separate section, connected, but offset, was used as the Netherlands participated in United Nations peacekeeping actions, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Over time more than a dozen additional burials were added to the empty section. The markers are identical to those from the World War Two markers.
And there were others. Veterans who had trained in Jackson in 1942 and 1943 who wished to be buried in Jackson were given the option of having a space large enough that a spouse could be buried beside them. The last burial took place in 2009. While the air base buildings were demolished after the war, the runways and Old Terminal building still exist, The main physical reminder of the Dutch presence in Jackson is the cemetery which is remembered by the families of many of the men buried there.
Each year a memorial service is held in early spring, usually in May. The Dutch cemetery is meticulously manicured, markers are cleaned and each grave receives a small flag of the Netherlands with a round, orange finial to top it off. Representatives of the Netherlands diplomatic mission and armed forces come to pay respects and honor the men buried there. Because the United States Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the United States Air Force) trained at the air base at the same time, there is an American Army representative who attends the service. Officials from the city of Jackson which ceded the property for the military cemetery attend. Staff from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, both of which are dedicated to keeping past events from being forgotten are there as well. And then there are those for whom the ceremony has the greatest emotional significance, families and friends of the Dutchmen who are buried there.
Among these families several have played a large part in making sure that the ceremony takes place each year. The family of the late Jan Helfrich and his wife Marjorie are among those. While doing research for this article I learned that one of the children of that marriage, Raymond, was one of my friends whom I had not seen since early 1972 when we worked together at a gasoline filling station. Ray was unique in his friendliness and his somewhat comical approach to working, keeping the owner of the station laughing along with several of us who worked with him. Therefore, I asked my contact at the Mississippi Archives and History to put me in touch with him.
After several emails going back and forth between us, Ray and I met for lunch and a trip to the cemetery to visit his father’s grave. He told stories about his dad’s war experience, his parent’s courtship while Jan was learning to fly fighter planes at the Jackson Army Air Base, and, since Jan had grown up in the Dutch East Indies, of how his parents fared living under Japanese occupation which was harsh and cruel.
Jan Eduard Helfrich (3 sept 1921 – † 21 aug 1966)
Jan had evacuated the East Indies with the Dutch air forces, leaving his parents behind. While the Japanese sent many civilians to live in prison camps, the Helfrich family remained in their home. Near their home was an orphanage which was home to a great many children. Something happened which caused the people who ran the orphanage to abandon it, leaving the children alone. When the Helfrich family learned that the children had no one to care for them they took it upon themselves to do what they could to feed and clothe the children. Although the Japanese considered the orphanage closed, when they learned that the children were being cared for by Dutch civilians, they did nothing to stop what was being done for them. Without finances coming in from other sources, the Helfrichs began selling their belongings in order to raise the needed money to keep the children alive. Over the years that they kept the orphanage running, approximately 400 children came through and were cared for as the Helfrichs continued to sell their own personal property.
When Jan was training in Jackson, he met Marjorie Brooks who was a civilian worker at the air base. Over time a romance began which became serious enough that Jan proposed to Marjorie. Her answer was to wait to see what the war brought and if they remained serious after the end of the war, at that point they would seriously consider marriage. Jan finished training and went to England where he participated with the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm flying the American made Hellcat, a carrier-based fighter plane.
Among his many missions he participated in Operation Goodwood, when 48 British bombers and 29 carrier based fighter escorts attacked the massive German battleship Tirpitz which threatened Allied shipping in the North Sea. The attack did not sink or seriously damage the battleship, but kept the German navy on constant guard against other air attacks, one of which finally sank the massive ship.
Months later, during an attack against Axis positions in Greece, Jan’s Hellcat developed problems while flying over Mount Olympus. Because he had already flown over the apex of Olympus, he was able to crash land his fighter on a downward slope. The controlled crash broke the back of the fighter but the airplane remained in one piece while Jan was unhurt. He was rescued by local Greek civilans who hid him for a couple of weeks until he was able to safely return to Allied positions. While his Greek protectors were hiding him, the family held a wedding in which he was invited.
After the war, Jan and his family moved to Holland. He wrote to Marjorie who was living in Mississippi, and asked her to come to Holland to marry him. She accepted his proposal and while living in Holland the couple had two children, a boy and girl. A few years later the couple moved to the United States and had four more children, Ray was the oldest of the American-born children, two boys and two girls.
Jan Helfrich died in 1966 and the family honored his wish to be buried in Jackson in the Dutch cemetery.
Cedar Lawn Cemetery Section 41, a memorial in decay
During the war years, Jackson had a thriving middle class area which was located just across the street from Cedar Lawn Cemetery. Among the prosperous homes were stores and brick and stone churches which were quite large. But in the years after the war, the area began a slow decline as growth and economic vitality moved in a different direction, away from that part of town. The people who had known the Dutch airmen first had moved away. Eventually crime became rampant in the area as fine old houses fell into vacancy, inviting homeless squatters and chronic illegal drug use and trafficking.
It appears that criminal activity on a large scale eventually made the area unsustainable. Streets which not long ago were dangerous have now become nearly deserted and yet foreboding. Much of the area is in ruins. The large church buildings across the street from the cemetery are abandoned. Driving to visit the cemetery affects some people as overtly depressing. You have to be purposeful in coming here to look for the Dutch cemetery. Cedar Lawn is a large cemetery and is woefully lacking in the care it receives. Finding Section 41 where the Dutch property is located is difficult due to the confusing system of winding and crossing drives. If you were simply there to explore the cemetery as a whole rather than being there for the express purpose of finding the Dutch section, you might not even notice that it is there. Even though there is the large stone standing over the individual grave markers, and an inches-tall concrete border wall bounding that piece of Dutch property, there is nothing written in English to indicate that the bordered section is a Netherlands war cemetery.
Something should be done to preserve and call to attention the memory of the Dutch airmen. It would be a step in the right direction if the Netherlands would give the military cemetery a fitting name so that it would not be known simply as “the Dutch cemetery”. A sign, one that would survive being unattended, with the new, fitting name of the cemetery and a description of why the airmen were in the United States during the war and how that small section of the cemetery became a piece of the Netherlands should be included, keeping with the same spirit of Ereveld Loenen cemetery in the Netherlands.
I hope this would happen and that it would be designed and paid for by the Netherlands as a show of friendship in return for the friendship that existed in 1942-1944. And Mississippi, in return, should reciprocate by placing the cemetery on a list of historic sites in all of the tourism publications it produces.
Thank you to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Amanda Lyons for providing assistance and materials for this article and to Raymond Helfrich for providing an oral account of his family during the war.
Photos of Princess Juliana of the Netherlands are from the Betty Barber Photograph Collection housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Additional photos come from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and from the wartime book, “Prepare for Combat, Jackson Army Air Base,” part of the “Wings over America” series of photographic year books given to trainees to commemorate their time in training in the United States Army Air Forces of which the author’s father was a member.
LandmarkScout would like to thank the author of this post Cliff Leverette for his efforts and persistance and everyone that supported him for bringing this piece of Dutch-American ww2 history to our website. It has taken about a year of researching, talking, silence and joking around to produce this article, but we are mighty proud of the result.
In the process Cliff made some new friends and found an old one.
We could not agree more on Cliff’s wish that Cedar Lawn cemetery Section 41 in Jackson Mississippi deserves the care and attention of the Dutch Government to help preserve an important piece of history and a sign of friendship between two nations. To be continued?