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War friendship leads man back to Europe

August 09, 1997

By VANDANA SINHA

Staff Writer

Five boys thrown together by chance as their countries fought each other in history's deadliest war were reunited by choice 52 years later.

Richard K. Keely was only 18 when he was drafted as a combat infantryman in the U.S. Army's 35th Division, and then shipped to Europe to fight in World War II.

During his unit's invasion of Holland in February 1945, and occupation of Germany after Adolf Hitler surrendered in May 1945, Keely befriended two Dutch and two German teens, all of whom he finally visited this year in Europe for the first time since the war.

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"Fifty-two years is a long time to get back with old friends," said Keely, now 71 and a retired real estate agent and history teacher who lives on Millers Church Road in Leitersburg.

The most emotional part of his journey this year, he said, was leaving his two German friends, Kurt Degen, 69, and Bert Laux, 68, and two Dutch friends, Billy Govaerts, 67, and George Coumans, 70, all now retired professionals in Holland and Germany, at the Cologne-Bonn Airport in Germany.

"They all looked the same as they did back then, in their eyes, but they were all old men just like me," he said.

During the war, the four seemed too young and innocent to be involved in a conflict that devastated nations and slaughtered millions, Keely said.

"Here's a 16-year-old boy and other young kids - they had no control over Hitler. I felt sorry for the people even though they were my enemies," he said.

Keely had acquainted himself with Degen and Laux after he led his 18-man squad into a German village, occupying the territory for six weeks and forcing families out of their homes to shelter his soldiers.

Tense, hostile circumstances changed to friendship by the second week, Keely said, especially after he borrowed a U.S. Army jeep to rush Degen's 11-year-old sister to a nearby hospital for a serious ear infection.

"When I brought her back, I knew the mother and brother were on my side because they were so glad to see her alive," he recalled.

"We came from killing them to almost loving them," he said.

With Govaerts and Coumans, it was instant friendship sparked by a mutual love of sports.

"I played soccer in the streets with the Dutch boys during the war with a rifle on my back," Keely said.

When he returned to the United States in late 1945 after the Japanese surrender, Keely's frequent letters and care packages, regularly shipped overseas for almost six years, kept their friendship alive - until June, when they were reunited at the same places in Germany and Holland where they had met.

Photo albums and four large manila envelopes carry yellowed pictures, newspaper clippings, mid-century letters and other mementos that today remind Keely and his wife Dene, 63, of his encounter, separation and reunion with four young men across enemy lines.

"I felt like I knew them already," said Dene Keely, a retired FBI fingerprint analyst who accompanied her husband on the trip.

"When I met them, it was the saddest time in my life. But the trip was the happiest time in my life," Richard Keely said.

"This kind of puts a topping on an unfinished story," he added. "It's something I needed to wrap up. It's so satisfying for me to have this - not that this is the end of the story, because each man plans to visit us here. I hope they do."

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