DEVENS -- Christmas, 1941.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The United States was at war.
Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States. The USA officially entered the global conflict.
The immediate effects on an American family living in Belgium were painful. The father, an employee at the Hammond Organ Company based in Chicago, who was assigned to the office in Brussels, Belgium, was taken away by the Germans.
"We were lucky, we were living in the woods," Christian de Marcken said.
The U.S. born youth was 12 at the time, the oldest of nine children, when the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940.
Rents of very large buildings were cheap. The family lived in a castle in the woods at the end of a long driveway.
"Father was pleasantly plump when he was captured," de Marcken said, but he did not remain that way. "The Germans did not torture American civilians. They were left to die of hunger," de Marcken said.
When things began to go badly for the Germans, they sent their dying prisoners home. "They were afraid of reprisal," he said.
An American doctor, also a prisoner, came up with a way to make it seem as though the elder de Marcken was dying. The latter had only one kidney and by dehydrating himself, the test would show that the last kidney was failing so the Germans would send him home to die. The ploy worked and de Marcken made his way home to his family.
He weighed only 109 pounds. The skinny, scruffy and bearded hunchbacked man showed up during a church service and slipped into his chair. It had become a custom in Belgium to leave unoccupied any chair used by a person taken prisoner by the Germans in their absence.
The children kept looking at the man, a bum who dared to sit in their father's seat. It took only 30 seconds for the bearded man to shove his elbow into their mother's ribs and say, "Are you going to kiss me?" and only then did the family recognize him.
"Father would be arrested yet again and condemned to death for helping American airmen escape back to England," said de Marcken. After one month on death row, he was placed with 91 other prisoners in an overcrowded cattle box car. He escaped, thanks to the "heroic" action of the Belgian underground, said de Marcken, which diverted the train to a cul de sac and the American army, which was liberating Belgium in early September 1944. The German guards ran away.
He walked back home as the road passing by the house was strafed by the U.S. 9th Air Force P-47 fighter-bombers. Anti-tank barricades blocked the road, encampments of soldiers left weapons, ammunition and other treasures behind, all for the children to discover. The children had learned to play among the detritus of war.
A Signal Corps Battalion spent three or four days on the property as they were heading for the battle front. "As fast as they came, they were gone," de Marcken said.
In mid 1943, the teenage de Marcken developed blood poisoning from years of poor nutrition. Later, after the bilingual de Marcken trained as an infantry soldier with the 9th Infantry Division, he became a military policeman in Orleans, France.
He returned to attend high school in Boston when he was 28. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Tufts University and then worked for different companies in Massachusetts.
Christian de Marcken and his wife, Jeanne, who grew up in Belgium during the war, now dedicate their time raising awareness of the battles in that country and the soldiers who fought in them.
They work with the National Museum of the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, VA, the Remember 39-45 Museum in Belgium, and the Fort Devens Museum in Devens.
They have also helped families of black soldiers, de Marcken said, who were tortured and massacred by the German SS during the Battle of the Bulge, to visit the site where their ancestors were assassinated and are now buried. The Belgian Museum provides the families of these soldiers a place to stay. They will provide free lodging, free food and transportation. All they need to purchase are the plane tickets.
Closer to home, de Marcken has given part of his collection to the Fort Devens Museum, including a tent the Signal Corps left behind, a pair of snowshoes lost by another unit, one of his "fatigue shirts" and his leather MP gear.
He can be found regularly at the Fort Devens Museum sharing his story of World War II. " I am asked to come if a class or a slew of children are scheduled to visit the museum," he said.
One special item remains at home. During the long years her husband was in prison camps in Germany, de Marcken's mother sewed an American Flag, with 13 stripes and 48 stars. (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states.) When the German who was assigned to guard the American family was asleep, working from memory, the Belgian-born woman sewed the flag. She got the proportions wrong, her son says, and the stars are pointed the wrong way, but even with an enemy soldier in the house, she worked on the flag, hiding it beneath the floorboards in her bedroom to keep it safe.
"Mother was very proud of her American husband and her nine children," de Marcken wrote in an e-mail.
The family hid allied airmen and anti-German underground members in special chutes made between the rafters of the attic, keeping them safe from the resident German soldier and the middle of the night inspections by the Nazi storm troopers.
The family hid a small Jewish boy, Eddy Greymeyer, who was two years younger than Christian. He had his own bed and simply blended in with the nine children. The Germans never counted to see how many children were around, said de Marcken.
Both Eddy and the flag were saved.
Christian de Marcken is a veteran of the Korean era, secretary and historian of the Central Massachusetts Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, Major Lamar J. Souter M.D. Chapter XXII Worcester.
Editor's note: This story is being reprinted due to errors in a previously published version.