Their friendship survives war and distance

May 21, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

American G.I. Richard "Dick" Keely was on a break after the Battle of the Bulge when he met a Dutch boy named George Coumans.

On the good days, Keely, 18, and Coumans, 17, played soccer together in the narrow streets of Beek, Holland.

When the ravages of World War II blocked the Coumans family from getting such basic necessities as food and clothing, Keely's family sent them care packages from the United States.

Fifty-eight years later, the two men got together at Keely's home near Leitersburg.

It was an emotional meeting for Keely, who said he is forever indebted to the Coumans family.

"I owe him much more than he owes me," he said.

Coumans' mother, German native Rosa Coumans, taught Keely his first German words. He learned how to say "Kapitulieren," which means surrender. He also learned how to say, "We'll get you food. We'll get you to the hospital."


Not long afterward, Keely's squad was making a push into Germany when it was ambushed from two directions by German soldiers.

Using the rudimentary German he had learned, Keely convinced the Germans to surrender.

"It probably saved my life. George's mother was a hero," Keely said.

"You were the hero. You fought for the freedom," Coumans said.

Keely was thankful he survived the war. His mother had already lost one son in the fighting just three months before Keely was drafted.

As part of the 35th Infantry Division, Keely was probably one of the first Americans to learn that Adolph Hitler had committed suicide. His squad was stationed near Berlin and Hitler's death bunker.

Keely said he saw some horrible things during his service.

He helped to liberate two concentration camps. At Gardelegan, German troops who knew the Americans were on their way herded 1,500 of their prisoners into a barn and set it afire.

"We didn't get there fast enough to save them," Keely said.

After the war, Keely went to college and learned to speak German. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he worked as a high school history teacher in northern Virginia.

He and his wife, Dene, bought a farm near Leitersburg on Millers Church Road, where they have lived since 1972.

Coumans grew up with soldiers, first the Americans and then the British, occupying his small town.

Because the town was close to the German border, it got hit by an occasional stray bomb.

The war damaged the economy so much that George Coumans wanted to leave Beek after the war and come to America to seek his fortune, he said.

But his father fell ill and he decided to stay. He ended up taking over the family business, a garage that converted Army dump trucks for civilian use after the war.

Coumans didn't see Keely again until 1997, when his old American friend made the trip.

Keely invited Coumans to come to the United States and Coumans took him up on it this month. Their two-week visit ends today.

"It really is a wonderful relationship," Keely said.

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