Read an Excerpt
Like silent hungry sharks that swim in the darkness of the sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night.
I was asleep on the second floor of our narrow, gabled green house in Willemstad, on the island of Curacao, the largest of the Dutch islands just off the coast of Venezuela. I remember that on that moonless night in February 1942, they attacked the big Lago oil refinery on Aruba, the sister island west of us. Then they blew up six of our small lake tankers, the tubby ones that still bring crude oil from Lake Maracaibo to the refinery, Curacaosche Petroleum Maatschappij, to be made into gasoline, kerosene, and diesel oil. One German sub was even sighted off Willemstad at dawn.
So when I woke up there was much excitement in the city, which looks like a part of old Holland, except that all the houses are painted in soft colors, pinks and greens and blues, and there are no dikes.
It was very hard to finish my breakfast because I wanted to go to Punda, the business district, the oldest part of town, and then to Fort Amsterdam where I could look out to sea. If there was an enemy U-boat out there, I' -wanted to see it and join the people in shaking a fist at it.
I was not frightened, just terribly excited. War was something I'd heard a lot about, but bad never seen. The whole world was at war, and now it had come to us in the warm, blue Caribbean.
The first thing that my mother said was, "Phillip, the enemy has finally attacked the island, and there will be no school today. But you must stay near home. Do you understand?"
I nodded, but I couldn't imagine that a shell from an enemy submarine would pickme out from all the buildings, or bit me if I was standing on the famous pontoon bridge or among the ships way back in the Schottegat or along St. Anna Bay.
So later in the morning, when she was busy making sure that all our blackout curtains were in place, and filling extra pots with fresh water, and checking our food supply, I stole away down to the old fort with Henrik van Boven, my Dutch friend who was also eleven.
I had played there many times with Henrik and other boys when we were a few years younger, imagining we were defending Willemstad against pirates or even the British. They once stormed the island, I knew, long ago. Or sometimes we'd pretend we were the Dutch going out on raids against Spanish galleons. That had happened too. It was all so real that sometimes we could see the tall masted ships coming over thehorizon.
Of course, they were only the tattered-sailed native schooners from Venezuela, Aruba, or Bonaire coming in with bananas, oranges, papayas, melons, and vegetables. But to us, they were always pirates, and we'd shout to the noisy black men aboard them. They'd laugh back and go, "Pow, pow, pow!"
The fort looks as though it came out of a storybook, with gun ports along the high wall that faces the sea. For years, it guarded Willemstad. But this one morning, it did not look like a storybook fort at all. There were real soldiers with rifles and we saw machine guns. Men with binoculars bad them trained toward the whitecaps, and everyone was tense. They chased us away, telling us to go home.
Instead, we went down to the Koningin Emma Brug, the famous Queen Emma pontoon bridge, which spans the channel that leads to the huge harbor, the Schottegat. The bridge is built on floats so that it can swing open as ships pass in or out, and it connects Punda, with Otrabanda, which mean's "other side,," the other part of the city.
The view from there wasn't as good as from the fort, but curious people were there, too, just looking. Strangely, no ships were moving in the channel. The veerboots, the ferry boats that shuttled cars and people back and forth when the bridge was swung open, were tied up and empty. Even the native schooners were quiet against the, docks inside the channel. And the black men were not laughing and shouting the -way they usually did.
Henrik said, "My father told me there is nothing left of Aruba. They hit Sint Nicolaas, you know."
"Every lake tanker was sunk," I said.
I didn't know if that were true or not, but Henrik had an irritating way of sounding official since his father was connected with the government.
His face was round and he was chubby. His hair was straw-colored and his cheeks were always red. Henrik was very serious about everything he said or did. He looked toward Fort Amsterdam.
He said, "I bet they put big guns up there now."
That was a safe bet.
And I said, "It won't be long until the Navy is here."'
Henrik looked at me. "Our Navy?" He meant the Netherlands Navy.
"No," I said. "Ours." Meaning the American Navy, of course. His little Navy was scattered all over after the Germans took Holland.
Henrik said quietly, "Our Navy will come too," and I didn't want to argue with him. Everyone felt bad that Holland had been conquered by the Nazis.
Then an army officer climbed out of a truck and told us all to leave the Queen Emma bridge. He was very stem. He growled, "Don't you know they could shoot a torpedo up here and kill you all?"
I looked out toward the sea again. It was blue and peaceful, and a good breeze churned it up, making lines of whitecaps. White clouds drifted slowly over it. But I couldn't see the usual parade of ships coming toward the harbor; the stubby ones or the massive ones with flags of many nations that steamed slowly up the bay to the Schottegat to load gas and oil.