Movie Brings Past to Dutch War Hero
CHARLOTTESVILLE - Sixty years old, his blonde hair has turned gray. But there is still a trace of red in the moustache he grew in spring of 1941 when he fled his German-occupied Dutch homeland and then returned to become one of the country's most decorated veterans.
The red moustache would easily identify the tall, muscular, Dutchman as Arie D. Bestebreurtje, the much-talked-about captain in the Dutch Intelligence Forces and a Special Forces agent.
Partly because he spent he spent much of his time behind German lines and partly because his last name was nearly unpronounceable for his Allied comrades, Bestebreurtje was known to most people as Captain Harry.
After the war, in Lake Placid, N.Y., Bestebreurtje, would again find it convenient to assume semi- anonymity.
A lawyer then in prestigious New York firm but who desired to perform in an ice show with Dick Button, Bestebreurtje, who had twice qualified for the Olympics in speed skating, feared that word of his performance would jeopardize his standing with the firm.
"So I just called myself, Mr. X," he said.
NOW THE pastor of First Presbyterian Church here, the Rev. Dr. Arie D. Bestebreurtje is known simply as Dr. B. "Don't even try to pronounce the last name," he told a recent visitor, "It's impossible."
Unknown to most residents here are Dr. Bestebreurtje's experiences during World War II. Instead, they know him as a not-at-all anonymous, quick-witted, devout man of inexhaustible vigor with a commanding knowledge of the Scriptures.
"It's something I don't talk about very much anymore," Dr. Bestebreurtje said of the war years. "It was a very long time ago."
Dr. Bestebreurtje's public disassociation from those years, however, will end Thursday at the Virginia premiere showing of Joseph E. Levine's production of "A Bridge Too Far."
He and a handful of other Virginians who fought in the battle which the firm depicts will attend the showing for the benefit of the Virginia Home for Boys..
AN ACTOR who looks very much like him - "right down to the red moustache" - portrays Dr. Bestebreurtje in several scenes.
"I haven't seen the movie yet." Dr. Bestebreurtje said. "But I'm very curious to se how it is done." The pastor said he receives letters almost daily from friends in the Netherlands, where most of the movie was filmed.
The subject of the movie, which is based on Cornelius Ryan's best-selling novel of the same name, is Operation Market Garden, which in Ryan's words, was "one of the most daring and imaginative operation in the war."
The operation involved a three-pronged, airborne and ground attack using 5,000 fighter planes, bombers, and transports and more than 2,500 gliders. The objective was to secure three Nazi-occupied areas in Holland (near Eindhoven to the south, at Nijmegen, and finally at Arnhem) and then move into Germany.
THE ATTACK "was the lightening stroke needed to topple the Third Reich and effect the end of the war in 1944," Ryan wrote.
The plan fell apart at Arnham. In nine days, more than 17,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing.
The tragedy was that it could have worked, Dr. Bestebreurtje recalled, sitting in the study room at his home here.
The room is a reflection of the pastor's varied life. One wall is covered with pictures of him with Allied leaders he personally worked with, most notably Winston Churchill and General James M. Gavin. The Dutch equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor hangs unobtrusively in a corner along with a series of color battle ribbons.
ON THE opposite wall are pictures of the theologians Dr. Bestebreurtje studied under, the churches he built in Louisville and the choirs he helped form.
The room is filled with bookcases, half with histories of the war, half with Christian writings and philosophies.
On the door to the study is a scrap of metal from a German Messerschmitt fighter that was recovered from the Battle of Britain. In many ways, Dr. Bestebreurtje said, the scrap symbolizes the meaning of the war to him.
"The crossing of the Red Sea was no more miraculous than the Battle of Britain," he said. "I recall that voice [of Churchill] saying how a handful of people would fight from the rooftops and on beaches and in the cities.
"It's incredible, the spirit of mankind. To think that we all came so close... that there was nothing standing between total annihilation and that one, bombed-to-smithereens island called Great Britain.
"This room is sort of my retreat," he said, shifting a pipe in his mouth between searches through his voluminous files. "Not many people see this place. In this half of the room is my past," he said, indicating the war mementoes, "and in this half is my future."
DR. BESTEBREURTJE was involved in three operations behind enemy lines, among them the capture of the German concentration camp where the Anne Frank family had been held prisoners, a short time, some 8 months prior to the camp's liberation. [Correction made. ED]
In the Market Garden operation, Dr. Bestebreurtje said, "I jumped from the first plane with Gavin and the 82nd Airborne Division. It was my responsibility to organize all contact with the underground.
"When we jumped, it was right into the middle of the enemy on a bright, sunny afternoon" near Nijmegen.
"The general decides he wanted to take a close look at the main target and we found ourselves pinned down by machine-gun fire which I proceeded to eliminate in a short time.
"I have a letter here from Gavin saying that scene is in the movie. I was wounded in both arms and they wanted to amputate my finger but I wouldn't let them. I can still play the piano with it. They had me in a tent ready to ship me out, but I just rolled under the flap and took off.
THERE IS a picture in the pastor's office showing him with both arms bandaged and a machine gun slung over his shoulder. "I pulled the trigger with my middle finger," he said. "In all, I was shot eight or nine times and got a bayonet wound in the knee."
"The war is still very much with me somehow." Dr. Bestebreurtje said. "It's something you can never quite forget."
That his associations in the war provided ample opportunity for employment following it evidenced by the fact that the he underwent intelligence training with William E. Colby, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and with Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who recently was transferred from his high post in South Korea by President Carter.
But the military, Dr. Bestebreurtje said, can offer a false and limiting sense of security. It is, he said, not unlike the students he ministers to who are unwilling to extricate themselves from the academic community.
IN DECEMBER 1946 he rejoined his parents, wife and daughter in New York. Using a law degree he had earned in Switzerland and his broad command of several European languages, he was in a position to acquire a fortune by coordinating European business agreements through the law firm he joined.
"There was lots of work at that time for consultants in European law," Dr. Bestebreurtje said, "But after seven years, I felt like I was betraying the cause. I was fast becoming what you would call a country club bum."
In much the same way that he abandoned papers during the war that would have set him up on a plantation in the Dutch East Indies, far from the battles, Dr. Bestebreurtje abandoned "everything I had to join the ministry."
"It seemed to me that ultimately all questions boil down to religious questions. Soon after the end of the war, I saw so many people go back to the same old petty self-interests and factions. It seemed all the great ideals that had been fought for in the war had been lost.
"I increasingly began to see that the basic question facing man is that by what we do only are we able to determine right from wrong."
HE SPENT nine years in Louisville and in 1966 came to Charlottesville at the First Presbyterian Church.
Once there, members of his congregation say, Dr. Bestebreurtje has been largely responsible for doubling the membership. He is known as a tireless worker who seems driven by his strong religious beliefs and a desire to live by the word of God.
"This is a very challenging church here," Dr. Bestebreurtje said. "We have hundreds of students and the retired top executives of nearly every major industry in the country. Charlottesville is a small town qua size, but a very sophisticated town qua intellectualism.
"There are so many contradictions in our world now, so many ambiguities."
In many ways, he suggested, his current battles are more difficult than the ones in Europe, when "if you lost a Jeep they gave you a new Jeep, and when you lost a rifle they gave you a new rifle and you keep fighting. You kept fighting, simply, for a good cause and against evil."
His misgivings about the movie, he said, will be if, in dealing with the battles he confronted 35 years ago, it does not help resolve the ones he is dealing with today.