VALKENBURG, Netherlands - "I did it because they asked for help." Those are the words of Hendrick Menzel, a 94-year-old Dutchman who volunteered to help the 91st Evacuation Hospital during World War II.
Menzel was recognized by the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, and presented with the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service medal by the Defense Attaché, U.S. Navy Capt. Mark A. Imblum, at a ceremony in Valkenburg, Netherlands Sept. 16, 2019.
"Mr. Menzel received this award because he was a member of the 91st Evacuation Hospital and that hospital saved American lives during WWII," said David Loozen, a curator with the Valkenburg Museum and one of the people who discovered and researched Menzel's story to allow it to be featured in an exhibition.
"When we started this exhibition a couple of years ago, we did some research," said Loozen. "In the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation we found a diary, the diary of Mr. Menzel, and in that diary was the story of the 91st Evacuation Hospital, his time with them, and very interesting stories of Valkenburg, the town we are in today."
The diary mentions that Menzel, then a 19-year-old boy from Rotterdam, ended up in Valkenburg during the city's liberation and reported himself to American Forces directly after the battle to work at the 91st Evacuation Hospital. For the next eight months, Menzel traveled with the 91st through Germany and assisted surgeons and nurses who treated over 12,000 Soldiers during the war.
Even though the events mentioned in Menzel's diary were nearly 75 years ago, Loozen thought there might be a chance Menzel was living in the area and willing to tell his story first hand. The diary was submitted to the institute in 2006 along with a phone number. They called the number hoping to reach a relative or friend who could tell them more about the diary's author.
"We were shocked at who picked up the phone," Loozen said. "It was Mr. Menzel himself. We explained our situation to him, and in February 2019 we visited his apartment and conducted an interview there."
The meeting, only planned to be a couple of hours, turned into an all-day interview that lasted into the evening.
"In our research, we have read hundreds of books, but this is the real deal," said Loozen. "The real story of the history of Valkenburg."
Of the memories shared, the one that stood out the most to Loozen was the reason why.
"When the Americans requested civilians to help out, he just did it," said Loozen. "We asked him why he did it and he just said they asked for help. It was very simple, but he did it from his heart. He wanted to help American Soldiers in the hospital."
The story of Valkenburg and Menzel made its way to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague.
"We were thrilled when we found out the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands was going to show up to this small town to view our exhibition and hand out this medal to Mr. Menzel," Loozen said.
At the ceremony, the ambassador made remarks on how humble Menzel is and the selflessness it takes to help others.
"Thanks to people like [Menzel], many Soldiers did have the opportunity to go home," said Hoekstra. "At Market Garden we commemorate those who did not get to go home. Through this field hospital we commemorate all those that did get to go home."
After receiving the award, Menzel gave remarks on his time with the 91st.
"We were very busy as little boys, taking casualties from the ambulances to be received, to the wards, and to the operating rooms," said Menzel. "Because there were such heavy wounded, including amputations, it was such a traumatic experience that the only way to cope with that was just doing what we had to do. We had a job to do. We worked from early in the morning to late in the night and we didn't think about it."
At the end of his speech, Menzel paid tribute to those that he worked with and that helped fight for the liberation of his country.
"We here in Holland are still very grateful for the efforts and the sacrifices the American Forces and their allies made for the liberation of our country in [WWII]."
Loozen said it's important Menzel receives this award because he is an example to the youth. He did the right thing in rough times. He said he did it because they asked for help. "For us he is a hero," he added, "and you have to honor heroes."