Staff Sgt. Martin Hensen of the Maintenance Squadron at McChord Field didn't know his grandfather was an unsung World War II (WWII) hero until he came to visit last summer. A simple evening of reminiscing for Jan Hensen, 93, unknowingly sparked a series of events no one could have foreshadowed. What began at McChord Field has now reached Berkel en Rodenrijs, the Netherlands - Jan and SSgt. Hensen's hometown.
It began the night of February 22, 1945, when Jan - a member of the Berkel en Rodenrijs Dutch Resistance group, saw a B24 Liberator crash land after receiving heavy damage from a bombing mission over Germany. Tail 42-95241 landed near the town of Zoeterwoude, but Jan rescued two Army Air Force pilots and took them to his home in Berkel en Rodenrijs. For three months, 1st Lt. Joseph R. Walker and 2nd Lt. Ralph C. Casstevens evaded enemy capture as they hide in Jan's home.
"My grandfather risked his life on multiple occasions," Hensen said, "to seize airdrops containing food, equipment and weapons dropped by Allied Forces to help the pilots. He hid it in the greenhouse and barns."
On May 5, 1945 (Liberation Day) Jan and other resistance members engaged the enemy alongside Walker and Casstevens in a firefight that saw 15 Germans killed. After the war, Casstevens sent Jan 600 Camel cigarettes as a gesture of thanks.
"My grandfather played a big part in assisting Allied Forces," Hensen said, "he provided food, shelter and safe passage back to England for those he could help."
So moved was the Airman that he told his command about Jan's heroic actions, and at the McChord Field Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) ceremony on Sept. 21, Jan was presented with a POW/MIA medallion.
"There was dead silence as his story was read," Hensen said, "and when the room burst into applause at the end, my grandfather was in tears. So many veterans (present that day) showed their appreciation for his actions. (Jan) is a big supporter of the military and U.S. and he was very emotional."
Unbeknownst to Henson, the story of Jan's heroism reached the Mayor of Berkel en Rodenrijs and he requested the story be retold in writing and with more details - he wanted to submit a nomination package for Jan to be recognized with a medal of recognition - an award that is presented in person by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
"We wouldn't know the outcome of the nomination until April," Hensen said, "and we haven't told my grandfather yet, either. It'll be a surprise. I'm proud that he's nominated for an award that represents the spirit of the Netherlands, that he's someone who made an impact on the nation."
Though Queen Beatrix recently abdicated the throne to her eldest son Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander, there's a chance presenting Jan with the medal will be her last act as Queen.
"Either way, it'll be her or the new king bestowing the honors," Hensen said, "and what a treat that would be for grandpa."