By Sgt. Audrey HayesOctober 16, 2018
MANASQUAN, N.J. -- "I remember the night and the trip to Carentan. You'll remember that no one was on the road, except for the five of us in the horse drawn carriage. There is one thing that has stayed with me over the forty years, it was the fact that we never knew each other's names, nor did we ever see one another's faces."
That is an excerpt from a letter that Walter "Rookie" Pruiksma wrote about an event that took place a few nights after the mighty invasion of Normandy, France, during World War II.
He dubbed it his "Mission of Mercy," when he volunteered to escort an injured French woman and her two children to a hospital, 12 miles through war-torn land, by horse and buggy.
Seventy-four years later, Pruiksma, now 95 years old, and a resident of Brick, New Jersey, was recognized -- not only for his heroic acts that night, but also for his contribution as a Military Police Soldier during World War II.
On Oct. 13 at the Manasquan First Presbyterian Church in Manasquan, New Jersey, Pruiksma received the Order of the Marechaussee medallion in Silver. Maj. Gen. Phillip M. Churn, the assistant to the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reserve Matters, presented him with the medallion, which is awarded by Military Police Regimental Association.
The Marechausse was established in 2000 and is the highest honor an MP can receive. It recognizes exceptional dedication and contribution to the MP Corps over an extended period of time.
Pruiksma was drafted into the Army in September 1943. The following February, he boarded a ship and sailed to Great Britain with his unit, D Company, 783rd Military Police Battalion.
Four days after D-Day, D Company, along with C Company from the 783rd, arrived on Utah Beach, Normandy, France. They were the first MPs on the battle-ridden shore. Their mission was to set up traffic control points, process prisoners of war and establish the Red Ball Express -- a highway that was used to move an endless supply of cargo to Gen. Patton's Army.
Pruiksma's company set up its headquarters in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy, and established a traffic control point. But it was two days later, June 12, 1944, when his most memorable event -- the Mission of Mercy -- occurred.
A local French boy came to his post late at night and asked an officer if someone could help him transport his mother to a hospital.
She was injured on D-Day, when a German Soldier threw a grenade into their home.
Pruiksma recalls the officer saying, "I'm not going to assign anyone for this mission. But, I will take volunteers."
Pruiksma said he thought of his mother and how he would want someone to help her, so he volunteered. Then, Cecil Morris, another MP from his company, said he would go too, to help pull security during the trip.
At 1:00 a.m., Pruiksma, Morris and the French boy, along with his sister and injured mother, boarded a small two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage and began their mission to the hospital in Carentan -- 12 miles away and in no man's land. Pruiksma knew which direction Carentan was because he watched the glow of the city burning the night before.
"The only thing I could hear was the sound of the horse's hooves and iron wheels hitting the cobblestone," said Pruiksma. "The streets were completely empty."
When they reached the scorched town, Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were watching from windows and doorways as the carriage rolled by, not stopping them to investigate where they were going.
When they reached the hospital, Pruiksma saw a church across the street. In front of the church building were two piles of dead German and American soldiers that reached five feet high.
They quickly jumped out of the carriage and rang a bell at the hospital. A pegged-leg French man hobbled to them and opened the gate.
Nurses, or perhaps nuns, Pruiksma said, received the injured French woman and were so thankful for his and Morris' service. After a couple of minutes, they got back on the carriage and headed back to their headquarters.
Just like that, it was over.
Although it was a sliver of time compared to the rest of his duration in the war, that mission remained his most memorable.
"You know, I never talked about any of this for nearly 40 years," said Pruiksma. "I left all that stuff on the boat."
Until one day, when he had an urge to know with whom he shared the lonely, dangerous road to Carentan.
"It was like a book, but without the last chapter," said Pruiksma.
He started to write letters inquiring about the injured French woman and the pegged-leg man. He sent one to a church in Saint-Marie-du-Mont and another to the town's mayor.
The newspaper of Saint-Marie-du-Mont published an advertisement with Pruiksma's inquiry about the family he helped, but no one responded.
A couple of years later, Pruiksma tried again. This time, he sent a letter to the mayor of Carentan. And, this time, the mayor replied. The letter included the names of the people he escorted to Carentan, 40 years prior.
Pruiksma and the daughter of the injured French woman -- whose name he now knew as Madame Andree Tourraine -- wrote letters to each other explaining what they remembered of the events that night.
"Upon learning your name, I finally feel like I began to read the last chapter and the story is coming to a completion," Pruiksma said in a letter to her.
Pruiksma wasn't officially recognized for his selfless service during the war until 2016. The French government awarded Pruiksma with the Legion of Honor, the country's highest recognition.
And now, two years later, the Military Police Regimental Association is bestowing their highest honor upon him as well.
"I'm proud to have served as an MP," said Pruiksma. "When I was in France and Belgium and Holland, it didn't matter what other [national] army I was working with. They knew I was authority when I had my MP brassard on."